Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. Currently: A 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.
Last week, I broke down the first half of Shovel Knight's introductory stage screen-by-screen. This week, we look at the back nine.
Does that seem like too much time and energy to invest in the first super-breezy stage of a single game? On the contrary, Shovel Knight's intro level is a master class in explanatory game design. Anyone who ever aspires to create a video game of their own, or simply to understand why Shovel Knight shines where countless similar games feel lifeless and dull, owe it to themselves to understand the care and consideration invested into every single screen of this stage.
The first half of the level introduces you to Shovel Knight's basic skill set. The second half builds on these techniques by presenting situations that combines them or forces you to put them to use in more complex or challenging ways. And at every step, the level design includes small reminders or subtle visual prompts to nudge you along in the right direction.
You enter the screen following the skeleton encounter by dropping down the ladder, and the game serves up a reward: A pile of dirt and treasure. But this also serves as a reminder of your ability to dig rather than simply down-thrust, a tiny nudge to reiterate a skill you haven't used since facing new challenges. This might seem excessive, but many people suffer from "goldfish memory" while learning the ropes of a new game, with everything you did prior to facing the most recent new game factor evaporating like morning dew in the face of, say, a massive sleeping dragon that belches bubbles at you.
You need to use your digging ability to advance here, as there's a destructible block next to the dirt mound that can only be destroyed by digging. But because you haven't had to dig for several screens, a conspicuous remind greets you as you enter this scene.
The wall presents you with a dead end, but it bears an obvious, out-of-place marking that begs to be attacked. Doing so causes the entire thing to fall away. There's a second destructible all above that does NOT have the obvious marking, but since you've already struck through the lower tunnel it's easy to intuit what to do above.
The upper wall contains hidden monsters. They're not particularly deadly foes, but they do teach caution — destructible walls sometimes hide hazards as well as rewards.
You enter this screen from the upper right and get your first object lesson in controlling the arc of a fall. You have to drop down to the lower level without landing in the spikes below. If you simply run forward, your momentum will carry you directly into the spikes, which kill you instantly. If you drop off the ledge and stop pressing forward, though, you'll fall short of the spikes.
The path ahead is to the lower right, directly beneath your entry point. It's an open passage guarded by a (not at all dangerous) beetle. However, there's a risk-reward element at play here: You can see an obvious hidden passage denoted by the obvious cracked stone you saw in scene 8 to the left... but it's on the other side of the spikes. And it's defended by a skeleton, a much more dangerous enemy than the beetle to the right. Do you go after the hidden secret and risk your well-being or take the easy path forward?
If you do take the more dangerous route, you'll find a bonus room containing gems. It also houses the game's premium collectible, sheet music. Unlike later bonus rooms, this one contains only the most modest of hazards: A pair of small pits.
This sequence reintroduces screen-scrolling after many single-screen situations. First, the game reiterates your basic block-breaking techniques: You need to break through destructible barriers to advance downward (with a down-thrust) and then again to the right (by digging) while avoiding or fighting a slime monster.
Once you reach the more open area, you're faced with a few things to consider.
- A new enemy type, a tiny dragon, appears here. It hovers in a contained space well outside the path you need to use to clear the screen and as such poses little threat. But above the dragon you can see a large gem that Shovel Knight can't reach with his standard jump. Instead, you need to bounce off the dragon to get it with a down-thrust attack. This is the first time you've had to use an enemy as a springboard, and it's more difficult than the bubbles you've used until now; it moves around pattern rather than hovering stationary.
- Whether or not you take on the dragon and gem, you have to deal with the large matrix of destructible blocks. This structure contains an obvious treasure in the form of a platter of food for health recovery. But if you're not careful in breaking through the blocks to reach it, you can render yourself unable to reach the obvious cracked-block secret on the upper level — if you break away all the blocks, the secret will be too high to jump up to.
The way forward is actually very simple, but taking your time here and contending with all the different interactive elements yields ample rewards: Health recovery and at a bevy of gems.
Another checkpoint appears immediately before a more dangerous iteration of an earlier challenge. This screen looks totally unassuming, but it's a perfect example of the subtle brilliance of Shovel Knight's design.
In this case, you have to use the bubble-jump technique to cross a gap. This combines two previous scenarios — leaping a gap and using a bubble to reach an inaccessible area — into a single action. You get to fall back on a safety net, the checkpoint, in recognition of the increased complexity that these combined actions represent. But it's also worth noting that in one sense the bubble-jump represents a de-escalation of difficulty: This appears immediately after an optional thrust-jump from the back of a baby dragon. The bubble sits motionless, unlike the wandering dragon; so, even though you face the prospect of falling to your death if you miss the bubble, it's a less intimidating jump-thrust to attempt than the one immediately preceding it. This is an incredible act of balancing, and it's done so simply and subtly that you'd never even notice if you weren't deliberately watching for it.
Another reprise here, this time of the moving platforms. Now there are two platforms, though you only have to make use of the vertical elevator to reach the ladder at the upper left. The horizontal rail allows you to reach another obvious cracked-stone secret... but the game really draws your eye to that secret with hovering gems above the rail and a large jewel sitting on a ledge directly in front of the "hidden" secret. The only deterrent to going after the treasure is a second hovering dragon, which is easily avoided or destroyed.
The secret hidden by that destructible wall is not a simple boxout or single room. Rather, it's a series of large pits that have to be crossed with multiple consecutive bubble-jumps. There's more treasure here and another piece of sheet music, but this the single most difficult sequence of actions you've yet faced in the game. On top of that, you have to complete it in both directions: Coming and going. From here on out, bonus rooms will almost always present the game's most daunting platforming tasks.
Another obvious secret that reveals treasure... and a skeleton.
Here it looks like you need to use the hovering dragon to reach the ladder above, but that's not so. You can simply hop up to the ledge and reach the ladder from there. It's really more of a distraction to keep you from noticing the truly hidden secret here, which doesn't become evident until you climb to the next screen.
Another checkpoint appears here, but wait: Embedded in the ground beneath it, you can see a small alcove with a treasure chest, just sitting there plain as day. But the only way to reach the alcove is with a ladder that appears to lead back to the previous screen. How vexing!
If you backtrack to Scene 13, you can reveal a second hidden passage by striking the wall next to the ledge that you used to jump up to the ladder. There's no clue to its presence initially, but it's not too hard to figure out: You've already seen the placement of an untelegraphed hidden passage directly above a more obvious hidden passage betrayed by a cracked stone wall, back in Scene 8. Once the inaccessible treasure chest clues you in to the need to find another hidden area, you simply need to think back on how that arrangement worked the first time. Still, that was half the level ago, so you're forced to think back to several tasks ago.
Several different elements come together at once here. You need to scroll forward across the first genuine platforming of the game, leaping over pits and across uneven ground. The baby dragons appear again, but this time they move straight ahead in steady lines rather than hovering in place as before. The dragons never appear at the same vertical level as Shovel Knight. Instead, they enter the screen slightly above or below ground level, forcing you to consider the timing of your leaps. At the end of the scene, you find another vertical lift that carries you up to the path forward — but when you scroll forward to leap onto it, a dragon appears at an altitude that will cause it to collide with you at the lift's lowest point if you don't jump to avoid it.
A pair of destructible blocks leading downward appears here to force players to pause and take stock of the situation ahead: Another sleeping dragon that guards a cavern. Unlike the first big dragon, this one lurks in front of a pair of pits. It uses the same attacks as before — spitting bubbles and moving back and forth — but there's now the possibility that taking damage will cause you to recoil into a hole. There's also a low ceiling directly ahead of the dragon, forcing you to consider your jump attacks so you can avoid bumping your head. If you smack your head while rebounding off bubbles, your bounce will be cut sharply short and you'll drop into a hole.
You can, of course, skip past this fight, too. And it's much easier to do so than in the first dragon encounter: The passage behind the dragon is wide open, so all you need to do is bounce over it and dash to the next screen.
This screen is the pits. Literally, there's practically more pit here than ground. An expanse of flat ground in the middle of the screen is following by a yawning chasm that you have to overcome in order to reach the exit ladder at the other side of the screen. Before you leap, you have to take stock of a few hazards:
- The wide platform is occupied by a skeleton. Initially, the monster stands motionless at the back edge of the platform, but once you leap over the first gap, it moves into action and will stride forward in such a way that it can very easily collide with Shovel Knight and knock him into the pit. You have to bring your jump short to avoid a painful collision, forcing you to place Shovel Knight's landing just right between the pit and the skeleton.
- The ladder to the next room sits against the far wall. There's a wide chasm in front of it, with the perch leading to the ladder consisting of a tiny, one-block platform. It takes a steady hand to make this precarious landing.
- That said, your leap toward the skeleton has prepared you for this. Again, in order to avoid hitting the skeleton, you have to land perfectly between it and the platform edge — a space that isn't much wider than the single-block platform ahead. Psychologically, it doesn't feel nearly as difficult as the single-block perch, but in practice your safe space is only slightly wider thanks to the marauding skeleton. If you can master avoiding the skeleton, you can just as easily master leaping onto the tiny block.
- To encourage you to make the leap onto the narrow platform, the developers have generously placed a 10x gem on its crown. It's dangerous, yes, but... shiny. Treasure.
You get to take a breather here with a series of small destructible blocks and no major hazards. The floor of blocks is easy enough to pass through as you dig down, but here the game teaches you the ability to curb your downward thrust enthusiasm by placing a large gem in the wall. If you just smash up the small blocks comprising the floor, you'll sail right past the gem and won't be able to break the wall blocking it away. You need to dig down two rows and then stop digging in order to crack the block, rather than simply smashing indiscriminately.
This screen isn't entirely hazard-free, though. Several slimes lurk among the grass below the blocks. They're very difficult to see — green slimes in green grass. A mound of gem-dirt creates a distraction on the left side of the screen; it's easy to be so taken in by that prominently placed treasure that you completely miss the cracked block below (which contains additional treasure).
Here, the path forward consists of a gentle downward slope to the right, patrolled by dumb beetles. It's an obvious and painless way to advance. But if you're really feeling your oats, you can use a next-level skill combo — bouncing off the dragon to the left with a down-thrust over an open put — to reach the ledge opposite. This leads to another bonus area.
And, again, the bonus screens tend to be the most intimidating scenarios in the game. Here, a series of pits dotted with tiny footholds are connected by bubbles to be bounced off of. There's considerable treasure on the far side, however, but it's all optional... and given how fa this appears from the last checkpoint, you have to ask yourself if it's worth the danger.
After all of this, you're rewarded with a moment's respite: A hazard-free screen featuring nothing but a checkpoint marker. There's a reason for this uncharacteristically generous breather, of course. The next screen contains the game's first boss — a subject for another time.
For now, let's recap. Shovel Knight uses its mandatory introductory stage as a proving ground for players. First it forces you to learn the basics, then it ratchets up the difficulty level by combining those techniques through several different permutations. But it never dumps those advanced skills onto you all at once; instead, it eases you in by introducing a new, challenging version of a familiar concept, then winding back that element to a more simplistic form as it builds on a different technique.
Throughout this process, the only vocabulary Shovel Knight uses is the language of its own design. It makes itself accessible to genre newcomers without talking down to seasoned pros. I genuinely believe Shovel Knight's first stages belongs in the top one-percent of all-time greatest game introductions — not in terms of Final Fantasy VII-style spectacle, but rather in terms of setting you up for the white-knuckle adventure ahead.
Next time: Lessons taken from the masters.