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' Shovel Knight debuted three years ago (has it really been that long!?) and instantly won the world's collective heart. The company has done a remarkable job of maintaining that hold since then with a steady drip of expansions that remix the game to brilliant effect.
We see many, many games these days that attempt to capture the spirit of the influential greats of the 8-bit era; Shovel Knight, however, stands as one of the very few works to have actually pulled it off. The entire game plays as a thick stew of the best ideas of NES and arcade games from the ’80s, yet it doesn't feel derivative or hacky. Much of the game's success is down to the excellence of its design, both in terms of its moment-to-moment play and the way its hero moves and interacts with the game world.
Over the next few weeks, I intend to examine a few critical components of Shovel Knight and explore how the game manages to become more than a mere collection of neat references and borrowed mechanics.
I can think no better place to begin than, well, at the beginning. After a brief cut scene to set the stage for the story, Shovel Knight kicks immediately into high gear with a great introductory stage. This may remind you of, say, Mega Man X or Super Mario Bros. 3, and rightly so. Shovel Knight borrows its structure from Mario 3 and the Mega Man games, and it's wholly fitting for the adventure to open with a compulsory stage that players have to complete in order to advance to the world map and begin properly exploring the game.
What makes this initial stage so remarkable is how well Yacht Club Games managed to capture the elegance of the best classic games' introductory stages. Without a single word beyond the starting prompt, Shovel Knight manages to coax players into exploring the protagonist's full repertoire of skills and discover how that limited palette of capabilities translates into both combat tactics and interactions with the environment. By presenting a gently iterative collection of standalone hazards—the tutorial contains 20 "scenes", by which I mean areas divided by hard transitions between self-contained play spaces ranging in size from one to four screens in length—you learn the basics of Shovel Knight's battle powers, learn the rules of exploration and fighting, and use these fundamentals in increasingly complex combinations. Shovel Knight demonstrates a design discipline here that puts it in the upper one-percent of video games, along with the very best ever created by Nintendo or SEGA.
For now, let's break down the first half of the stage, scene by scene.
Shovel Knight begins, as so many games do, with a simple stretch of flat earth and nothing dangerous in sight. There's just the hero and a conspicuous mound of earth, whose presence is meant to urge players to explore Shovel Knight's primary form of interaction: His shovel. By digging into the mound, you'll expose gems, the game's primary collectible and an essential currency for beefing up the hero's stats and skills.
Scroll forward a short distance and you encounter a beetle, the game's least threatening enemy. Beetles walk aimlessly back and forth and possess no active attacks. This guy works very much as that famous first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. did: It's obviously something dangerous to the hero, and it forces you to react. Unlike Mario, of course, Shovel Knight can do something besides leaping over the bug. You can also attack it with the same shovel you used to clear away the treasure mound. So already the game has demonstrated both a possible environmental interaction and a potential combat use for your shovel.
Beyond the beetle, the ground rises. If you attacked the beetle rather than leaping over it, this is where you have to make use of your second action button and jump.
The level then presents you with a dual path. You can go the upper route, which contains a simple destructible block to leap or destroy. Or you can go the lower path. The lower path possesses danger—it's patrolled by two of those same beetles — but it also promises a treasure in the form of a second mound of earth. Since you've already encountered both beetles and treasure piles, you already understand the risk/reward inherent in the lower path. The upper path is safe but useless; the lower path offers riches, but also danger.
And finally, you end this scene with a tiny hole in the ground—deadly to fall into—followed by a wall of destructible block wall. Do you go down the hole? No, but if think you should try, you'll die and return to the beginning of the scene. The answer, then, is to break through the wall of blocks. You've already seen a destructible block, of course, but you could easily have leapt it or passed beneath it. Now you have no choice but to break these.
So, to recap, here's what the very first scene of Shovel Knight teaches you:
- How to use your shovel to reveal secrets;
- How to use your shovel to attack enemies;
- How to use your shovel to break barriers and walls;
- How to jump;
- Bottomless pits kill.
All without a single text or icon prompt. That's a lot of information to pack into about four screens of play space, but it provides you with about 75% of the fundamental knowledge you need in order to survive and prosper in the game. Everything else builds on these basics, as well as a key ability the next scene teaches you.
The destructible blocks you were forced to break through appear again, but this time the block the way forward by serving as flooring. You need to break through them with a downward action... and the game leaves no ambiguity about this. On the other side of the blocks, you can see both a beetle and another treasure mound. Clearly, you want that treasure. But how to reach it?
Here, you have to figure out how to use Shovel Knight's downward attack—his final basic technique. Again, you've seen these destructible blocks, so you know the way forward is through them. And there's a reward for figuring it out: In addition to being able to move forward, you will also gain access to the treasure below.
Interestingly, once you master the downward thrust, the screen doesn't scroll forward as it did in the first scene, despite scenes 2 and 3 being connected by a flat expanse of ground. The game creates hard divisions between spaces from time to time to create a sense of a self-contained challenge or puzzle. The need to come to terms with the downward dig ability is presented as a standalone scenario, and now this is its own scenario: A new use case for the downward shovel thrust.
You've already used the down-thrust to descend; now you have to use it to ascend. The high wall to the right leads to a ladder to the next area, but the wall can't be crested simply by jumping from the lower level. Furthermore, the lower level is slightly too wide for Shovel Knight to leap, even with a head of steam. The solution: Use the downward thrust to spring off the bubble that rises and hovers in the shallow depression. This scene contains no hazards at all, so you are allowed to experiment with the bubble (the only interactive element on the screen besides the ladder) until you figure it out.
In scene 4, you reach your first checkpoint. And with that safety net in place, you must now contend with a far more complex screen of action. You begin at the bottom right and need to climb up to the level above-right where a beetle patrols, which is far too high to simply jump. The beetle serves less as a threat here and more as a way to draw your eye to the way ahead. However, there's no bubble to bounce off of here, so instead you have to climb the ladder to the left of the screen and use a new game element to ride across the screen: Moving platforms.
A line of gems across the top encourages you to jump onto the platform and then off again; the two gems on either end of the trio are placed in such a way that the arc of your jump will cause you to collect them as you hop onto the moving block from the platform attached to the ladder. There's also a gem in the center, which poses an optional and very slightly risky enticement: Jumping in the center of the platform's path could cause you to miss and fall off the platform if you don't move Shovel Knight to match the platform's motion. However, there's no damage penalty for falling here, and the gem is low in value, meaning little is lost if you simply pass it by.
Scenes 4 and 5 comprise another side-by-side setup without scrolling, meaning both exist as separate spaces. Here you need to ride across another platform, this time to bypass spikes. Unlike the green grass of the previous screen, the spikes will kill you instantly if you screw up. However, the platform here is low to the ground, making it easier to jump onto. And the single gem in the top middle of the previous screen is echoed here in a more valuable gem (worth 20 points) that hovers in the middle of this platform's path. It's the same risk/reward setup as on scene 4's platform, except with higher stakes: More money if you succeed, death if you fail. Even so, if you do screw up, you'll simply be sent back one screen. So it's no big loss.
Scene 5 connects to scene 6 with another non-scrolling link between screen, because this once again presents a self-contained challenge. This time, it's a mini-boss. The sleeping dragon appears a far more intimidating foe than the beetles in terms of size and scale, and it actually does take initiative against Shovel Knight. But despite its enormous size, the dragon is dozing and it barely moves. As its attack, it spits out bubbles, which differ in only one respect from the bubbles you've already seen: They can inflict a small amount of damage on Shovel Knight. However, your learnings from you prior encounters with the bubbles taught you that you need to use a downward thrust to burst them.
Your down-thrust is also the key to defeating the dragon, whose one vulnerable point is its head. Its head spits the bubbles. With the projectiles and the mini-boss' weak point in such close proximity, the design of this encounter means you're likely to accidentally hit the weakness simply by working from your previous experiences and thrusting off the bubbles.
Also notable: This is an optional battle. The mini-boss obstructs the way forward, but you can simply bounce off the bad guy's back and skip the fight altogether once it shuffles forward. Shovel Knight offers multiple strategies whenever possible — even in such a simple scenario.
And finally, we wrap this first part with something like a real challenge. The skeleton on this screen is the game's first counter with a foe that actually responds to the player's actions. The skeleton moves forward and backward and attempts to strike you when you come close, and you need to get past it in order to break through the blocks to the lower passage. You can potentially skip the skeleton as with the mini-boss, but the tiny destructible blocks have to be destroyed one by one, which takes several seconds. The rebound from each tiny block can leave you vulnerable to the skeleton's attacks, so it's best to defeat it first rather than trying to skip ahead.
The skulls littering the ground here hint at the fact that its head is vulnerable. The skulls also double as weapons: By digging with your shovel, you can fling it forward and inflict damage on the skeleton. You can also use your standard forward strike, or you can use the down-thrust attack. This appears to be a very simple setup, but it allows players four different avenues for dealing with their foe. This is the point at which you can truly begin to define your play style in Shovel Knight: Evader, blunt attacker, tool user, or aerial striker. That's a lot to pack into a single screen with a single foe, but it really gets to the heart of how much consideration Yacht Club put into its play mechanics and presentation. Seven scenes into the game and you've not only learned all the basics, you've begun to formulate a preference for dealing with threats.
Next time: How Shovel Knight builds complexity through layered simplicity.