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.
Yacht Club Games has never made a secret of the fact that Shovel Knight draws on the greatest 8-bit games of all time for inspiration. Still, that alone doesn't mean much.
Anyone can make a game that references their childhood favorites, and plenty have. Most of the time, these allusions and callbacks demonstrate all the creativity and emotional resonance of a Family Guy episode: The joke begins and ends with, "Hey, remember this thing?" Doing something meaningful with that material on the other hand — that's another matter altogether. Few developers do it, and even few do it well.
That's a huge part of what makes Shovel Knight so extraordinary. Yacht Club didn't simply treat the history of platform action games as a sort of grab bag from which to pilfer other people's ideas. Rather, they carefully considered the concepts they borrowed, used them in a meaningful way, and wove them together into a work that succeeds on its own merits. The entire thing is a rare example of a retro-baiting work whose point is not to coast on your familiarity with classics but rather to transform those earlier works into something new and inventive.
For starters, Shovel Knight meticulously avoids overt references to older games. There are no winking mentions of classic games or characters, no forced jokes about "wall meat" or other 8-bit conventions, no cameos of familiar-looking sprites hidden out of sight or baked into background graphics. Yacht Club trusts the player to grasp the themes and purpose of the game and brilliantly sidesteps the compulsion so many other developers have to wave a flag and say, "Look! That thing you love!"
As such, Shovel Knight has, for lack of a better word, integrity. It never feels pandering or derivative. The designers were never ashamed of the inspiration they drew from bygone classics, but neither were they precious about it. In a lot of ways, this helps Shovel Knight feel like a game that actually hails from vintage hardware; NES designers constantly looked to their peers' work to build their own projects upon, but you almost never saw jokey allusions to those competing creations outside of a handful of novelty games specifically marketed as parody — and even then, those games usually riffed on their own developers' works (as in Konami's Parodius, a Gradius satire, or Namco's Wanpaku Graffiti, a jokey take on Splatterhouse).
Of course, equally essential to the game's authentic vintage feel is its mindfulness of vintage hardware limitations. Yacht Club didn't create a true NES game in Shovel Knight; they added a handful of color selections not originally available on the NES hardware and deliberately chose not to incorporate sprite flicker. And there was no such thing as a widescreen NES game that spanned an entire 16:9 high-definition screen.
Nevertheless, they hit just the right grace notes to keep it feeling faithful. The presentation simulates the vertical resolution of the NES, with sprites proportioned relative to the overall height of the world as they'd have been on NES (and the graphics never zoom or scale as they would on 16-bit consoles). The color palette is close, and while the sprites may not flicker you'll also never seen an unrealistic onslaught of them on-screen. The music actually does play on original NES hardware, if you have the means to get it there, and the sound effects are spot-on. The visual artists even degraded the graphics at times, removing superfluous animations and stripping down sprite detail to feel more authentically NES-like. The illusion only slips if you pay extremely close attention—certain effects like forward scrolling and venetian-blind transitions render by actual screen pixels rather than by the visible pixels, if that makes sense. Still, it's pretty clear that Yacht Club took care to avoid throwing effects or embellishments that would shatter the illusion of Shovel Knight being a modern-day NES game, except where it unobtrusively made for a better game experience.
Ultimately, though, Shovel Knight most impresses in the way it demonstrates such creative discipline in its use and reinvention of beloved classic mechanics. The game never simply co-opts an older work's workings wholesale; instead, it revamps them, in both small and significant ways. In doing so, Shovel Knight claims its own distinct character.
As Yacht Club has acknowledged, their hero's central mechanic owes its existence to the down-thrust attack from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In that RPG, Link didn't learn the plunging aerial sword strike until about a third of the way through his quest; here, the protagonist has to master it within the game's first few screens. That in itself marks a critical change from the source work; in Zelda II, the downward attack serves in a secondary role. Here, it's the player's primary means of attack.
Much of this change comes down not only to how quickly you gain access to Shovel Knight's down-strike, but also to the layout of stages and the nature of enemies. Much of the game is designed in such a way as to encourage you to use that particular skill; it has greater utility than the more common forward melee attack. The hero certainly does have the ability to attack enemies directly ahead of himself, but swinging the shovel offers poor range for your attack and forces you to move in closer to foes, rendering Shovel Knight more vulnerable to counterattack. Unlike Link, Shovel Knight doesn't carry a shield with which to repel attacks (that's Shield Knight's gimmick, after all). So melee strikes, which force Shovel Knight to pause momentarily and leave him open to attack, have less appeal than more dynamic and versatile dive attacks.
Shovel Knight's aerial strike also gives him considerably more lift than Link's similar attack; the rebound effect is more reminiscent of DuckTales. Meanwhile, the little hero's size, jump physics, and even appearance bring to mind Mega Man. Unlike Mega Man, however, you don't have a free ranged attack; the handful of long-range actions available to you, including fireballs and bouncing orbs, cost mana. So while you move as in Mega Man, you don't attack the same way.
And even secondary weapons draw upon the Mega Man series' design without being taken directly from those games. Yes, you can choose somewhat freely between stages controlled by different bosses; and yes, much like Mega Man's robot masters, they echo a theme from their home levels, they tend to be about the same size as Shovel Knight, and have similar maneuverability to the hero as well. But you don't earn a weapon or skill from defeating bosses; instead, you have to find the roaming merchant Chester's hiding place in each stage and pony up cash for the tool he offers.
The secondary weapons may call to mind Castlevania: Not only do they demonstrate effects reminiscent of the sub-weapons wielded by Simon Belmont and his allies through the centuries, they complement Shovel Knight's short-range melee strikes in the same way as well. You also activate them in the same way: Press attack while holding up on the d-pad.
Stylistic nods to classic games abound throughout Shovel Knight in smaller ways, too. For example, the Enchantress's castle lurks in the background of practically every stage in the game, reminiscent of the way Dracula's tower frequently looms in the background midway through many Castlevania games. On a similar note, one of the common mid-bosses that appears in several Shovel Knight stages—a massive skeleton night — is clearly patterned after Dracula's final form in the original Castlevania. It demonstrates the same hunched posture, attacks with the same leaping bounds, and even raises its arms in a similar fashion as it jumps at you. Many of the game's mid-bosses resemble foes from Mega Man or other games, but the giant skull knights are particularly transparent in their inspiration.
Likewise, the Ironknuckle battles that could be so vexing throughout Zelda II are echoed throughout Shovel Knight in the form of minor skirmishes with small, armored knights. Like Ironknuckles, these armored warriors wield a shield which they can and do use to cannily block Shovel Knight's attacks. Here we have a great example of Yacht Club borrowing a concept from the past and adapting it to fit the new world they've created: The knight warriors here serve the same role within the combat hierarchy as Zelda II's Ironknuckles, but their movements and capabilities reflect the nature of Shovel Knight's skills.
And this fluidity of design, this adaptability, means that when you come across more contemporary conventions, they don't feel out of place. Just as the game's scrupulous imitation of NES visual rules means you're more willing to forgive its lawbreaking use of widescreen graphics, so too does its mix-and-match approach to classic mechanics mean that Shovel Knight's abandonment of lives and 1UPs in favor of a penalty system inspired by Dark Souls (and, in turn, MMORPGs) feels perfectly reasonable. Walking the line between homage and originality is one of gaming's trickiest balance acts; Shovel Knight pulls it off without a hitch, and without compromise.
Next time: The battle of the bosses.