USgamer Club: Shovel Knight, Part 1

USgamer Club: Shovel Knight, Part 1

June's hottest game is now July's hottest community playthrough discussion. Join us and talk about this modern retro masterpiece!

After spending a month grappling with the intricacies of Final Fantasy Tactics, we thought you might appreciate something a little lighter and more current this week. (We could certainly use it.)

So, we've shifted our attention to June's game of the month, Yacht Club's extraordinary Shovel Knight for Nintendo Wii U, 3DS, and Steam. We've spilled plenty of ink already on the game's greatness as well as the creative team behind it — even the classics that inspired it. But now we'd like to share the experience of playing it with you. Because it's cool, and so are you.

Since it's a short game, it'll be a short, two-week USgamer Club project. This week, we'll be looking at the first portion of the game: The introductory level, and the King Knight and Spectre Knight stages. Next week, we'll look at the rest. So dig in and let's talk about this mini masterpiece.

Jeremy: I really can't believe how good this game is. The idea of looking back to 8-bit classics for inspiration has long since ceased to be novel or interesting, but Shovel Knight isn't simply one of those cases where the developers said, "Hey, I'm nostalgic for old games. Let's use pixel art." There's a keen understanding of the art form here, and Yacht Club clearly grasps not only the superficial appeal of the classics but also the fine details that made the best of them tick.

I have a dumb little side project where I sit down and, to the best of my limited abilities, dissect the design of classic games and try to understand why they worked and how they communicated the rules of play without needing tutorials or overt in-game instructions... or, in some cases, how they failed to do so. What I do as an amateur hobby Yacht Club clearly does as seasoned professionals, not only contemplating the greats but improving on them, too. Shovel Knight is as intuitive and subtly explanatory a game as I've ever played. Everyone like to debate over whether or not the protagonist's pogo attack is more like Zelda II or DuckTales, but less attention has been given to the fact that its introductory level is a master class in tutorial-by-design as good as any Super Mario game. Maybe even better.

Shovel Knight unfolds by giving you tiny little goals to complete — dig, attack by digging, bounce on an enemy, bounce on a bit of scenery in order to pogo past a gap. The controls feel absolutely spot-on, pixel-crisp, and even the advanced mechanics were immediately intuitive for me, a weary veteran of the classic console wars. But that first level makes everything obvious even for platforming neophytes. It's so good. So thoughtful.

And then you finish that level and reach the world map, which feels like a hybrid of Super Mario Bros. 3's world map and Mega Man's level select screen. With a hub town! And secrets!

Kat: That world map is great, isn't it? What I really love is that random enemies will pop up on the screen like the Hammer Bros. from Super Bros. 3, but they are actually fully-fledged duels. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here, but my favorite of them comes in the latter game, when Shovel Knight battles what is essentially Bloody Malth from from Ninja Gaiden. You can even see the field where Malth cut down Ryu's father in the background.

I mention the duels in part because they are one of my favorite parts of the game. You mentioned how good the level design is, Jeremy, and the boss fights are equally great. Each one is an entertaining one-on-one match free of any gimmicks. The battle against the King Knight does a really great job of setting the tone for the boss fights to come, as he first jumps around, then does a samurai-style dash attack, and finally unleashes killer horns loaded with confetti. It's a comparatively simply battle, but it's a great demonstration of Yacht Club's knack for building boss fights up to a climax. That they have several optional sub-bosses wandering the map, all of them as thoughtfully designed as the Order of No Quarter, is even more impressive. This is not a game that cuts corners.

Mike: Playing Shovel Knight for the first time actually made me dig back through old interviews to see how Yacht Club Games pulled it off. For me, it was amazing how much effort they put into making a game that theoretically run on an old NES. There's just an obvious dedication to a specific craft that resulting in something like Shovel Knight being made.

And you're right, Jeremy, the level design is a work of art, slowly leading your through the use of all your abilities or new level mechanics. The first stage and Pridemoor Keep are all about hammering the basic shovel mechanics into your body. The best part is - as I said in the review - the penalties for death are horribly punitive. Sure you can lose a lot of treasure in a particularly tough section of the later game, but while you're still learning the ropes early on that's less of a problem. Sure, games like Mega Man had similarly-great level design that taught players the ropes, but they also forced players to work with limited lives. That puts a capper on experimentation, unless you're a veteran player.

Jaz: Shovel Knight passed me by — and that's despite everyone raving about it. Part of it is that I've bought quite a few games recently, and I just didn't want to keep spending money, and the other reason is because it looked just a bit too much like other retro games I've been playing of late. Of course, that makes sense, because 8-bit retro games are all going to look somewhat similar. But what makes Shovel Knight so special can only be appreciated by playing it. Now I have, I get it.

Many retro games reply on their aesthetics to give them a retro feel, but when you get under the skin, what's beneath is often a good approximation of an old-school game, but something that doesn't necessarily add anything new. It's essentially a new approximation of an old experience. Shovel Knight is also an approximation of an old experience, but one that has been articulated with a deep understanding of the fundamental design of the finest classic platformers, with some modern-day conveniences thrown in for good measure. Ones that are cleverly integrated so you don't even think about them being a modern invention. They just feel a fundamental part of the game. The end result is a platformer that looks old, looks like it plays old, but actually plays refreshing and new.

This is not retro gaming. It's retro modding.

I think we need to start highlighting these kinds of games as such to differentiate them from retro games. Shovel Knight is a perfect example, because it's so well crafted that you barely feel any modern trappings, yet despite being tricky to play, and despite packing many disparate mechanics from classic platformers, if it had modern-day graphics, it would feel every inch a platformer of the moment. It doesn't ape the classics — it pays homage to them while being a modern one.

Anyway, it's been a lot of fun playing it. Mostly because everything else I've been playing recently has been some kind of massive, complex, multi-player "experience" that requires hours of getting into. Downloading this to my 3DS and jumping straight in was about as refreshing as it gets. Oh right. Games really can be this simple, and this fun. Brilliant.

Mike: I agree the time constraints on something like Shovel Knight are crazy low compared to some other experiences we've been playing like Destiny or The Crew. No hours of installation, no additional Yacht Club Games account, just you and the game. Put it in and go. You can probably be done with the game in an average day's worth of playtime.

And the variable difficulty helps. Outside of the New Game+ mode, which rejiggers everything to make it much harder, there's also the option of forgoing the use of relics. Some relics, like the Phase Locket, can be used to trivialize certain sections of the game. Without it, levels like Tinker Knight's Clockwork Tower become much more painful. Finding the challenge becomes all about moderating yourself.

Bob: I was a little wary of Shovel Knight before its release — as Jeremy pointed out, you can’t swing a dead e-cat in the Steam store without hitting an indie game that has "8-bit" visuals. But Shovel Knight is classic gaming down to its very core. In fact, calling it just a "throwback" seems more than a little patronizing, since the game's mechanics — as old as they might be — are still remarkable, and Shovel Knight would work just as well if divorced from its Nintendo-era novelty.

And it's about more than slavish recreation. Shovel Knight is basically the 8-bit game we always wanted, and since Yacht Club is working with decades of hindsight, they have the luxury of fixing problems that always nagged at us in the old days. The replacement of lives with a Dark Souls-like penalty (that you can recover if you're savvy) stands as one of Shovel Knight smartest ideas -- I've spent a lot of time with DuckTales Remastered, and unfortunately most of that time has been wasted replaying areas over and over again just to get them right. Shovel Knight does let you ignore checkpoints entirely if you're more interested in cracking them open for gold, but if you'd rather make progress, you can use them as you would in any modern game.

Another thing that separates Shovel Knight from its various inspirations? How fair it is. Even the best 8-bit games have some rough patches, but all of my deaths in Shovel Knight have been entirely my fault. This extends to the bosses as well, which serve as a master class in pattern memorization. But once you learn said patterns, you can usually get through a fight with only a few scratches. Again, even the best NES games would often pit you against bosses where it was seemingly impossible to block or dodge everything they threw at you. In Shovel Knight, it's totally possible -- and you look so good doing it.

Also, I'd like to let you guys know that I just did a Ctrl+F search for "music," "soundtrack," and "song" on this document and got zero results. For shame! Please listen to the Pridemoor Keep track until you've all learned your respective lessons.

Jeremy: I think what I may love most about Shovel Knight (and believe me, there are plenty of things jockeying for that honor) is the fact that it casts off the idiotic shackles of limited lives. The checkpoint system, derived so clearly from Dark Souls, works far better here than a Mario-like stock of extra lives. The game penalizes you for failure, but not in a way that forces you to slog back through ground you've already covered. Instead, you lose money, reducing your ability to upgrade your capabilities back in town.

By abandoning the concept of limited lives, Shovel Knight allows its design to breathe and expand. The stages, even in the early going, are much lengthier than the ones you'd have seen in a true 8-bit platformer like Mega Man or Castlevania. Because those games punished you for failure by sending you back to the beginning of a stage, they necessarily needed to maintain brevity in their level designs. Here, you need never fear being thrown back dozens of screens, so the stages comprise the content of several Mega Man stages in one. This in turn has the side effect of allowing the level designers to properly explore each idea that appears in a stage, something that older, shorter games didn't really get to do. That thoroughness of iteration is a discipline you only really see in the better variety of Mario games, and even then some of the bonus stages hint at how much further the designers could take a mechanic. Here, though, I feel like I've seen each mechanic of gimmick explored to its full extent.

And of course I should mention that you can optionally choose to risk massive setbacks as a penalty for failure: Shovel Knight allows you to smash up checkpoints for cash, creating a completely user-determined extra form of difficulty. Brilliant!

Kat: Since we're talking about Shovel Knight's fantastically well-balanced difficulty, I'd like to take a moment to cop to the fact that I completely missed the Troupple King and the majority of the relics on my first playthrough, which made my run substantially harder. Without potions and the Phase Locket to help me get through some of the tougher obstacles, I really had no room for error. Still, I really enjoyed myself, and a quick look around the internet shows that people are already in the midst of no-relic, no-potion runs. I might even try it myself at some point.

By the way, can I just say that I love the Troupple King? As an ode to Mambo from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, he's just the best. This is where Shovel Knight betrays its more modern sensibilities: There's just no way that anything like the Troupple King could be animated in a classic NES game. For that reason, I sometimes refer to Shovel Knight being "12 and a half" bit. I see that approach as a strength rather than a weakness though. Characters like the Troupple King make Shovel Knight better.

I really have to tip my hat to artists Erin Pellon and Nick Wozniak, who created some really fabulous art for this game. All of the bosses and characters are so distinctive and well-animated that Shovel Knight is really a pleasure to behold. I'm glad they stretched the definition of "8-bit." Otherwise we never could had a character like the Spectre Knight, who is cooler and better-animated than Death ever was.

Jaz: It's things like this that make me raise the whole retro modding nomenclature. It's improving what was with something new, but without breaking the "what was" part of it. Shovel Knight does that so well, and in a way that's very subtle. Take a look at it, and it appears like an authentic 8-bit game. Take a closer look, and there's a lot more going on under the surface than meets they eye: stuff that you just take for granted because it's so well integrated into the game, but when you really think about it, there's nothing old about it whatsoever.

For me, playing Shovel Knight has been a bit of a revelation in terms of the fun aspect of things. I mentioned earlier that I've been playing all these big and complex games, and while they have been "fun," they also require a lot of effort getting into, and have a high degree of stress about them. Critical missions, high-stakes death, fighting other people. These games feel so serious and tightly-wound. I play Shovel Knight, and it's just pure, simple, unadulterated fun. Sure, sometimes when I die I want to punch the wall, but when I immediately go back to the game because I know it's my fault — as it always is — that's actually a good thing.

Next week: Gird your shovel loins and conquer the rest of the adventure! We'll be talking about the remaining levels as well as the white-knuckle final showdown. See you in seven!

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