Retro Done Right With Shovel Knight
If you’ve paid attention to the gaming community lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard of it. Gamers and reviewers have been singing its praises and if you’ve played it, you’re probably in agreement. If there was ever a game that captured the heart of the old school, it’s Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight. So what’s the big deal? There are many titles that have worked at utilizing the spirit of old school technique to enhance the experience of a good game. What is it that makes Shovel Knight stand out from other attempts at retro charm? The answer is it carefully employs the techniques that made many of us love games in the first place. Even further, it does very well to avoid annoying tropes.
Let’s start by talking about good technique. To better examine it, take a look at what Shovel Knight utilizes. Shovel Knight operates on a basic two button directional pad format. One button jumps and the other attacks. It’s a simple set-up that harkens back to the control style of NES platformers. You’ll soon find that you can press down during a jump for a bouncing pogo attack, the direct comparison being Duck Tales from the NES. A three year-old could pick this up and play, but the nuances of guiding Shovel Knight through an entire level are where simple things get complex. With nods to Castlevania and Mega Man, there is a sub-weapon system in the form of purchasable relics. There are power-ups that allow for new deployable-at-any-time skills a la Metroid or the Dr. Light capsules in Mega Man X. However, here’s the beauty of this control system: You don’t need any of that to beat the game. It aids in completion; you must have all equipment to get 100 percent, but if the achievement awarded for not spending a single gold in the game is any proof, there is faith in simplicity here.
You can beat this game just using the two button directional pad format without ever touching a relic, and that’s an important concept. It means you have the tools you need from the moment you start. The employment of a simple-to-learn, eternity-to-master system is something that made games like Mega Man, Metroid, and the original Bionic Commando so accessible to players young and old. It’s the kind of thing that make finding new ways to beat the game and creating unique speed runs possible. What items make the fastest run possible and what can be skipped? You can bet money that’s the kind of question people are already answering now.
Let’s next turn attention towards the presentation of this game. The player gets a quick briefing of the quest, and then they’re thrown into the first level. When Shovel Knight jumps onto the scene for the first time and control is given, the track, ‘Strike the Earth!’, does a perfect job of letting the player know the hero has arrived and he’s about to flip some foes and split some skulls. The game gives you a low risk playground to learn how this machine works and the lush colorful backdrop gives you a sense of the artistry you can expect from the rest of the game. It’s even got a huge mid-boss-esque enemy in the large bubble breathing dragon. In every way, the player is actively reading a love letter to Mega Man X with this first level.
Shovel Knight’s levels, like Mega Man, are themed to the bosses at the end of each one. This allows for three fantastic facets of old school gaming. First, there is a lush variation of visuals from the aurora borealis lit tundra of Polar Knight’s Stranded Ship, to the golden-bricked walls of King Knight’s Pridemoor Keep, which allows the designers to really flex their muscles on visual appeal. The themed approach also allows for unique obstacles that challenge and highlight what the rudimentary control system can do. Finally, it allows for amazing music. Jake Kaufman does a wonderful job of taking each level and extending its atmosphere with memorable tracks that accentuate what the player is supposed to feel while experiencing it. The bit of help from legendary Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae rounds it off nicely. All these things combined make sure that there’s almost nothing wasted. It nods to a time when constraint was a real thing and making full use of everything available while artfully testing the boundaries of the medium was the mark of a true masterpiece. It’s this formula that allowed the Mega Man series to flourish sequel after sequel.
One last thing that Shovel Knight can be commended for is its ability to avoid bad retro technique. Remember how funny it was playing that water level from the 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game? No you don’t, because that level sucked, and if you liked it, you’re a masochist, or lying. Either way, Retro City Rampage felt the need to include something like it. Retro City Rampage is a fairly decent game, but even if its version is easier, TMNT’s level was notorious because it was awful. It’s like asking, “Hey! Remember how freaking annoying this was?! Pretty funny right?!” The answer is, only for a second. And even then, it should raise a twitch in your eye if it goes beyond that.
Nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia should be a crime nowadays. Grinding, backtracking, artificial padding; these are dirty words. Yet for some reason, game developers sometimes feel the need to nod to these awful tactics for nostalgia sake. The fact is that these are tropes that were used to give poorly designed or short games more playtime and justify the price charged for the product. Shovel Knight almost entirely avoids that. You won’t grind, save to get gold for items. However, thoroughly running a level will net you plenty of gold easily enough. Add to that bonus levels and side areas littered throughout the land and you’ll never be poor. You can replay any level you’ve beaten in this game anytime, but you’re never forced to do so. If you backtrack, it’s most likely because you want to, not because you have to in order to beat the game. Similarly, the closest the game comes to artificial padding is New Game+ which has you taking on the game again with all of your equipment and the difficulty upped, but again, it’s optional.
When the day is done, Yacht Club Games deserves the applause it’s been given for what it has accomplished. This is an offering to which anyone who ever wanted to design a retro-styled game should pay attention. It’s like a truly great movie or a tournament level Magic-deck. Every piece must be considered. The full strength of each aspect must be stretched and applied thoughtfully. Shovel Knight isn’t just a good game because it reminds us of good games. It’s a good game because its creators literally took the best of the best from their (and our) favorite things and carefully married them into a damn-near perfect singular piece. If you love video games and haven’t played this one yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and if you’re a game designer, take a good look. Shovel Knight is retro done right.