Design in Action was a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explored games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. And now, wrapping it all up: One last look at Shovel Knight, perhaps the finest example of a developer drawing on classic influences to create a game that meets the expectations of contemporary players.
Much of Shovel Knight's success hinges on the way it so thoughtfully introduces the player to the protagonist's familiar-yet-unique skill set. The entire opening stage unfolds as meticulous obstacle course that builds on itself with a brilliant push-pull flow, ramping up a specific play mechanic, then rolling it back a step in order to allow a different skill to breathe and develop.
Beyond the introduction, however, Shovel Knight's capabilities grow only marginally. Unlike, say, a metroidvania game in which you constantly unlock new capabilities that expand both the player's tool set and the physical spaces you can access, Shovel Knight centers its action entirely around the three fundamental skills you master in the adventure's opening moments: The jump, the slash, and the diving strike. While you can acquire new powers, these are entirely optional; many are hidden.
As such, your expanded palette of skills exists to supplement your fundamental abilities. The designers couldn't count on players having access to, say, the ability to phase safely through hazards or fling an anchor in a high arc. Mastering those powers certainly makes the game easier, but Shovel Knight is designed in a way that ensures players can complete the adventure without them — provided they possess the requisite skill level, of course.
Rather than build its dozen stages around an ever-expanding set of player capabilities, Shovel Knight instead creates external challenges. That is, the focus rests not on coming to terms with new abilities for the protagonist, but rather on grappling with level arrangements and enemy tactics that force players to use that initial set of powers in ever more complex ways. Nowhere does this approach to design come into clearer focus than in the game's bosses — the eight enemy knights, the handful of roaming warriors who appear on the world map to challenge the player, and the hero's own nemesis, the Black Knight.
The Black Knight perfectly exemplifies Yacht Club Games's fundamental approach to creating challenge for the player in Shovel Knight. You face the Black Knight three times throughout the game, and each iteration presents the same fundamental problem wrapped in additional layers of complexity. The Black Knight mirrors Shovel Knight, both figuratively and literally. The shadowy warrior grows more powerful as the player increases the hero's own power and durability, always remaining one step ahead of the player.
In your first encounter with Black Knight, at the end of the introductory stage, they essentially wields the same default tool set that Shovel Knight does there at the outset: The ability to jump, a melee attack, ad a diving strike. However, the Black Knight also has one advantage in their arsenal in the form of a ranged attack — something the player can't acquire until after completing that battle and moving along to the main game. In the Black Knight's second appearance, they possess the same bag of tricks as before but also add the ability to fling an energy wave along the ground. This is something the player can also do, assuming they purchase the proper upgrade... but Shovel Knight's energy wave will always be more limited than the Black Knight's. The player's wave works like Link's sword beam in The Legend of Zelda: It only triggers if you have full health. The Black Knight suffers no such limitations and can use their wave power with impunity throughout the battle.
And, finally, you face your mirror rival one last time at the end of the quest: The Black Knight stands as a barrier preventing you from entering the Sorceress's (or Sorceror's, depending on how you play) tower. As such, your rival becomes a sort of metric by which to judge how far you've advanced in the course of your journey. Where the initial Black Knight battle takes place with the player possessing only the hero's default skills, the final encounter happens after you've conquered each of the main stages and is therefore built around the assumption that you've taken the time to hunt down every available secondary power and purchased every possible upgrade. And so in the final Black Knight faceoff, they retain all their previous capabilities while increasing their strength, frequency, and versatility. On top of that, the Black Knight also gains the ability to send meteors crashing to the ground... and, in a recurring nod to the fact that the game is built around a hero who wields a shovel, the meteors remain on-screen and can be dug and flung as projectiles.
The Black Knight's recurring relationship with Shovel Knight makes them unique. The game's eight primary bosses demonstrate less dynamism, since you only face them twice, and the second time simply amounts to a boss rush reprise. However, because you fight them somewhat sequentially — you unlock two or three bosses at a time and have to conquer the current set in order to advance to the next group — the game affords them a greater sense of design progression and complexity than you see in the Mega Man games that helped inspire Shovel Knight.
For example, the first two bosses you have to take on are King Knight and Spectre Knight, and they pose the most modest threat of all eight of the knights scattered throughout the kingdom. In a sense, King Knight feels more like an extension of the tutorial stage than even that level's own boss, the Black Knight. His duel involves only a handful of attack patterns, and each one leaves King Knight vulnerable to retaliation. The more powerful the attack, the more vulnerable it leaves him. That is to say, his melee attack (in which he swings a scepter at Shovel Knight twice in succession) has two opportunities to hit the protagonist, but it's followed by a brief window in which King Knight is rendered immobile. On the other hand, the screen-filling confetti attack leaves King Knight completely motionless for several seconds; if you can move in close as he initiates that action, you can work in numerous retaliatory strikes during that time.
Where King Knight is largely about dodging and countering in-close attacks, Spectre Knight revolves around managing space. Shovel Knight's skill are inherently up-close in nature, and Spectre Knight prefers to stay well out of reach, using his own ranged attacks while hovering safely at a distance. King Knight teaches players to evade attacks and look for openings as the enemy moves to strike, while Spectre Knight forces players to play more aggressively, dodging projectiles while moving in close to land a hit or two before Spectre Knight switches to the other side of the screen.
The middle set of game bosses — both knights and roaming foes — pose a different sort of challenge: A test of mobility. This is especially true of Plague Knight, who feels for all the world like an amped-up take on Mega Man 2's Quick Man. He's far more agile than Shovel Knight, dashing quickly across the screen, leaping high, and tossing projectiles at our poor, ground-based protagonist, who has to contend with rough, uneven terrain that impedes his movement and forces him to leap to get about, leaving him vulnerable in mid-air. Unlike Quick Man's boomerangs, though, Plague Knight's weapons have an explosive quality to them that not only increase their effective damage range but also shatter the floor. This turns an already complex battleground into a shifting, unpredictable arena.
Likewise, some of the game's later world map encounters — notably Baz and the Phantom Striker — focus heavily on highly mobile enemies, but they also integrate a new trick that most of the bosses in the latter half introduce to the sandbox: The ability to predict and counter the player's tactics. While the bosses of Shovel Knight's first half largely behave according to their own rules and priorities, the more advanced bosses wield special skills specifically designed to nullify or reverse the player's basic attacks. It feels like every major foe you encounter in the game's second half possess a skyward strike that they'll activate if Shovel Knight leaps in for a diving attack. Some bosses, such as Polar Knight, can simply shield themselves from a downthrust. Others, however, actually use Shovel Knight's ability against the player, skewering the hero when he dives in for the kill.
The one major exception to this rule is Tinker Knight, who lacks a direct counter and instead forces you to rely entirely on the dive attack for mobility. Tinker Knight — or at least, Tinker Knight's second form — hearkens all the way back to the introductory stage and the giant sleeping dragons. In order to reach the knight's vulnerable point, you have to bounce of the projectiles it fills the screen with... a sort of high-intensity, steroidal version of rebounding off the dragons' bubbles. This makes for an interesting curveball in terms of boss design. Where the knights and roaming bad guys that flank Tinker Knight all advance the game's encounter structure, the missile-flinging mech forces you to walk back your tactics and expectations to much earlier in the game. Rather than feeling like a rehash or dilution, this instead demands players make use of their full range of experiences.
And perhaps no boss puts the player's full range of experience to the test like Polar Knight, who does a little bit of everything. While he's not mobile, he uses both ranged and melee attacks, can counter all of Shovel Knight's standard attacks, and breaks up the arena by turning chunks of the flooring into a spiky deathtrap. And of course, all these encounters lead up to the final showdown with the Sorceress/Sorceror (not to mention the true final boss)....
Despite the exhaustive depth I've gone into regarding Shovel Knight, I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what makes it a true modern classic. I didn't mention the surprise bonus stage full of ghosts that can only be defeated with dynamic lighting, the fact that shattering checkpoints will result in rich monetary rewards at the cost of destroying that checkpoint's utility as a mid-level save point, the insanely difficult optional platforming trial, the fun little extras you can discover by attempting to interact with seemingly innocuous details within the game world.... Honestly, Shovel Knight deserves a full book; I'm afraid you'll have to settle for a four-part column for now, though.
And with that, my Design in Action column comes to an end. Thanks for reading my thoughts on the design of several great games over the past few months — I've enjoyed reading your feedback in kind. But it's on to bigger and better things for both me and USgamer now. I'm sure you'll see my name here from time to time, but it won't be on a regular basis anymore. Don't despair! I still post every day to Retronauts... along with publishing at least one podcast per week... and regular live streams... and weekly video retrospectives. I'll probably even write more stuff along the lines of Design in Action, if that's your jam. See you there. And finally, thank you to USgamer for giving me the opportunity to muse about the minutiae of the classics here.