I just took two weeks off for the Christmas holidays. While the first week was spent with access to only a laptop with a basic integrated graphics chip — and thus ruled out playing any game less than six years old — my avowed goal for the second week was to finally make inroads into two games that had been on my to-do list for a while: Alien Isolation and Elite Dangerous. I installed them both. Played them both. The idea was that I’d at least finish Alien in that week and have a review of it ready to kick off 2015; that the spot ended up being taken by Shovel Knight says a lot about both games, I think, but principally what it says is that Shovel Knight is really a pretty great game indeed.
It’s not perfect, mind. Shovel Knight is a conscious attempt to recapture the spirit of 8- and 16-bit era platformers such as Castlevania and Megaman, and while it does artfully avoid most of the pitfalls modern developers fall into when making nostalgia-fuelled updates of older genres the very nature of the thing was always going to get my back up slightly. It’s built around a whole different philosophy to something like Spelunky, since at times it seems like it revels in watching you fail by placing enemies in just the right spot to suddenly appear and send you careening down one of the game’s plentiful bottomless pits1. Historically I haven’t gotten on well with platformers that took this approach (I hated Super Meat Boy, for example) but Shovel Knight is intelligent enough to realise that while some of these bullshit segments might be necessary to maintain its credentials with the hardcore crowd that backed its Kickstarter, if it wants to broaden its appeal to people such as myself who didn’t play Megaman and Castlevania — and who consequently won’t be looking at the game through a particularly thick set of rose-tinted glasses — then it needs to offer a little more than simple trial-and-error platforming.
In Shovel Knight’s case the “more” can be a little hard to narrow down to any one thing, so I suppose I’d better start with how well-made Shovel Knight is. Your game being a heartfelt labour of love for times past isn’t going to mean a damn thing if you don’t have the technical skills to communicate that to a player who didn’t experience it firsthand, but Shovel Knight is one of the rare cases where that love for the subject matter comes across clearly in a hundred little nuances of the game’s look and feel. The pixel art is deceptively basic yet expressive, the sound effects are never less than adequate while being precisely what you’d expect from a sound chip wedged into a thirty-year old console, and the soundtrack is nothing short of superb. The visual design of the levels and the bosses — even little details like the way a certain adversary of Shovel Knight’s struts as he walks — is impressive when you consider they’re working in VGA, and this detail extends to little things like the sound text makes as it appears in the game’s dialogue boxes. Forget its deliberately retro styling; Shovel Knight is a genuine pleasure to look at and to listen to.
But what is it like to actually play? The core mechanics are as simple as you’d expect considering the game’s origins; the titular character can run, jump, swipe with his shovel and point it downwards during a jump for an aerial attack, and that’s it. Considering there’s just four basic interactions with the world it’s impressive how many ways of using those moves Shovel Knight comes up with to keep things fresh throughout its 5-6 hour length. As you’d expect, the simplest example is digging; Shovel Knight constantly comes across obvious (and not so obvious) blocks he can destroy with his shovel either to progress further into the level or to liberate precious gold and gems from their earthy prison, but the way each level uses these blocks is pretty imaginative. Each level has a cliched theme (The snow level! The lava level! The undead level!) that the level design plays to. One level has exploding blocks that you have to be careful around or else they’ll start a chain reaction that drops you into a lava pit. Another level has blocks of snow that have to be knocked down to provide a path over instadeath spikes.The levels will also have their own special gimmicks that have to be dealt with, like the dark areas in the undead level where you can only see things in silhouette and so have to be bloody careful you don’t fall down a hole, or the gusts of wind in the airship level that can easily drive you onto ceiling-mounted spikes. Shovel Knight is constantly changing things up and displays just enough imagination to keep you engaged all the way through to the end boss.
Ah yes, the bosses. Each level in Shovel Knight takes…. oh, call it twenty to twenty-five minutes unless you’re unnaturally good at platformers, but only half of that will be spent on the actual platforming part. The other half will be spent trying to figure out the level’s boss, who is invariably a rival Knight with a theme matching the level (so the boss of the undead level is Specter Knight, who fights by throwing a bloody great scythe at you). Thanks to the level design I enjoyed the platforming bits in a qualified way (more on that in a second) but for me the high points of Shovel Knight were the bossfights, since they were very well thought out and 100% reliant on skill rather than learning the level. Each successive boss has a very different look and a very different fighting style, and their complexity increases along a learning curve that’s admirably well-pitched. What I thought was particularly impressive about this was that the boss design never falls back on the crutches of gigantic health bars or unavoidable/unblockable attacks to make a boss difficult — I had to work to defeat them, but I never felt like any of them were particularly unfair. So what if most of them can ultimately be defeated by bouncing on their head again and again? Just getting into that position and avoiding being hit while you’re doing it is hard enough, and I felt pretty pleased with myself whenever I managed to put a boss down after several attempts.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the platforming difficulty. You remember at the start of the review I mentioned that Shovel Knight does sometimes seem to take pleasure in watching you fail again and again? Unlike some games it usually manages to keep its sadistic streak under control, but once every couple of levels I encountered a difficulty spike that would have made me ragequit the game if it wouldn’t have meant losing all of my level progress up until that point. (Shovel Knight has relatively frequent checkpoints within each level that you’ll be sent back to if you die, but if you quit out of the game without finishing a level you’ll be bounced back to the world map and have to start the level all over the again.) Without fail these difficulty spikes involved an extended jumping puzzle over bottomless pits, which instantly kill you if you fall down them; they also involved enemies who would only come on-screen once I’d started the jump and couldn’t reasonably stop thanks to collapsing/disappearing blocks, and who were unerringly placed to hit me and send me careening down the nearest pit if I didn’t respond within about half a second. There’s a variety of powerups in Shovel Knight that you can can use to bypass some of the trickier bits in the game and save yourself some frustration, but they do absolutely nothing for bottomless pits; those puzzles you just have to learn through repetitive trial and error until the stars align and you manage to bludgeon your way through. I know Shovel Knight is based on difficult games and is supposed to be a difficult game itself, but what annoys me about these difficulty spikes is that they are, well, spikes. They’re noticeable by how out of keeping they are with the rest of the level design, like they’ve been shoveled in (ha) just to maintain the game’s reputation with the hardcore platforming crowd, and I think they do spoil Shovel Knight somewhat.
Still, they weren’t enough to spoil it outright, and aside from these blips Shovel Knight is pretty good at letting you choose your own difficulty — you can try to do things cleanly, or you can abuse powerups and relics to give yourself every possible extra edge, and the game makes no judgements one way or the other. Shovel Knight isn’t a particularly large game but there’s still a fair chunk of optional content present that justifies the conceit of the world map — apart from the twelve story levels there’s four challenge levels, four wandering bosses, and two villages where you can spend your gold on extra stats, new abilities and powerups. You lose money every time you die (you can recover it if you get back to the point where you died, but if that point is over a bottomless pit this may be easier said than done) and so it’s possible you might get into a position where you have to grind up money to buy these powerups, but a) the game does let you do this by repeating earlier levels and b) I’m terrible at platformers and I never had to do this. Throw in a simple story that’s nevertheless told in a fairly minimalist fashion — aside from the intro the game never exposits at you, instead preferring to let you infer what’s going on from the conversations Shovel Knight has with his rival knights — and a pretty good sense of humour when it’s not repeatedly killing you, and Shovel Knight emerges as an extremely competent and mostly-enjoyable platformer that’s crafted with a surprising degree of skill in almost every respect.
- Yes, Spelunky will also occasionally do this, but since its levels are assembled by an algorithm rather than a person I find it hard to ascribe this to any particularly malicious intent on the game’s part. ↩