Digging Past the Hype

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: I played this game on the 2DS.

Much has been said about Shovel Knight resembling an updated NES game. Whether parts of the game could have worked on the old system amounts to tech trivia and marketing. But that’s far from the silliest commentary: IGN asks, “Is Shovel Knight an early game of the year candidate?” Shovel Knight might have the polished shell of an NES game and the ardent support of critics, but it lacks the soul of a classic.

References to an NES “aesthetic” don’t explain why Shovel Knight is a marvel to watch. Those who compare Kojima’s Ground Zeroes to their favorite tracking shots might instead write books about Shovel Knight’s superior use of motion, framing, lighting, and setting. As you extinguish ghosts in one level, scores of unique portraits come into light (a shift that comments on the life-restoring effect of art). In one short sequence across a bridge, Shovel Knight upstages Limbo’s morbid, trendy use of silhouettes through unexpected color and grander purpose. Shovel Knight’s campfire sequences don’t merely recall Golden Axe’s bonus stage — they graphically evoke healing and, with occasional dreaming, anxiety. The game even manages to inspire joy through the gestures of individual townspeople. The heroism and struggles in Shovel Knight are simply exquisite, with an attention to detail that rivals Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Unfortunately, the profound emotional core of the visual storytelling cannot save the game’s lack of suspense and adventure. Shovel Knight has received a lot of good press for borrowing a little, as opposed to a lot, from Dark Souls. Instead of having a lives system, Shovel Knight has checkpoints in main stages that sort of work like the campfires in Dark Souls. If you die, you lose some of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint you reached, and you recover the treasure by getting back to where you died on the first try. However, this idea fails to make the game interesting or challenging for a few reasons:

1. You don’t even lose half your treasure when you die, so the stakes aren’t remotely as high as they are in Dark Souls, which takes all of your currency away when you die.

2. Stages in Shovel Knight tend to have four or five checkpoints, so death rarely puts you in a tough spot. Furthermore, you can exit any stage, regardless of whether you’ve beaten it, through a menu.

3. Despite dying several times on a couple of stages, I was never in need of treasure. I always had enough treasure for the upgrades I wanted/needed, which renders another feature of the game rather pointless: you can destroy a checkpoint for treasure with the trade-off of the checkpoint no longer working, but what difference does it make if you never need treasure?

In fact, Shovel Knight is at times insultingly obvious when it comes to finding treasure, items, and “secrets.” As in Castlevania, you can break certain walls with your primary weapon to find things, but in many cases Shovel Knight marks the exact part of a wall that you can break, robbing the player of discovery.

Similar to A Link Between Worlds, Shovel Knight plays like a dream and thus suffers from coasting. The Mega Man boss fights in Shovel Knight are great concepts that typically can’t withstand how souped up you are: near the beginning of the game, you get an item that renders you temporarily invincible. Of course, you need points to use special items (as in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but I rarely ran out of those points, which can be increased with upgrades via the easily located treasure. Shovel Knight is full of easygoing systems that undermine its potential as a satisfying experience — just another game that you play, not a quest that you conquer.

People should reconsider the absurd comparisons of Shovel Knight to Zelda II, a difficult (for most people) action game that never let you forget that you’re in a rough, vague world. A title can have elements from other games without resembling the essence of those games in practice. As such, all the beautiful visuals and music in Shovel Knight shouldn’t make us ignore its dubious distinction of being the most forgiving game influenced by both NES classics and Dark Souls. It’s almost as if Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight with the hope that we would forget some of the reasons why we cherish and remember certain games in the first place.

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9 comments

  1. Pretty well written, but I have no idea what your conclusion is. Needs numerical score. This just reads like a preview otherwise.

    1. Hey clownbaby, I typically don’t provide scores in Game Bias reviews. Honestly, I’m not that crazy about the idea of review scores, but I do see your point about being unsure about my conclusion. I do love the visual storytelling of Shovel Knight, and I certainly think it’s playable, but I have serious reservations about its staying power. Perhaps that’s worthy of an at least an average or slightly above average “score” (whatever that might mean to you numerically).

  2. Hmm, I found the game to be nearly-flawless with all of its parts considered. Then again, I do things in that ‘pop music’ review style, so I guess you’ll have to forgive me when I end my own review with saying it’s ‘one of the most memorable, most engaging retro platformers to grace a modern console’ Try not to wince in reading that. 🙂 Maybe too saccharine, that line, but I did honestly enjoy most everything in Shovel Knight.

    That said, I do agree that ‘game of the year’ would be a tad premature. Even as I write this, I wonder if I didn’t enjoy Super Time Force a little bit more than Shovel Knight. Transistor would have to be in the argument as well. I’d have to give it more thought and revisit the games later on.

    There’s no denying Shovel Knight does an excellent job at the visual style. I played on the 3DS, and the backgrounds have a nice ‘pop’ to them there. The lighting as well, in some scenes, as you mentioned. The rain coming down and hitting the steeples in the final levels was gorgeous.

    I can also see where you (and others) are coming from with the checkpoints / challenge, but that’s a matter of taste / perception. I’ve always considered myself to be ‘middle of the road’, as far as player skill, and personally, I think the way they implemented the continue system is probably the best you’re going to get… if you want a compromise. Sure, a certain group will breeze through the game without much incident (there’s even a ‘feat’ for smashing all the checkpoint gates), but I think the majority of gamers will thank Yacht Club for the ease of play, in that regard. I ran into plenty of platforming bits near the end of the game where I was grateful to have a checkpoint nearby, so I think it’s a good balance when you’re accounting for all skillsets.

    Treasure isn’t hard to come by (the ‘secret’ rooms are more like a ‘secret to everybody’ than a legitimate find), but some penalty for dying is better than no penalty, I guess. Even if it is erased by collecting it on a subsequent run. I never tested it out, but I’m not sure if it’s even possible to deplete your funds to the point that you will ‘die’, as the game takes away even less money if you’re already low on cash.

    Even with the abundant treasure and checkpoints, though, people still have to traverse the difficult parts and beat all the bosses. I avoided using some of the easier tricks like the temporary invincibility (actually, I forgot I had the option, more than anything), but even that won’t help on certain fights. So in the end, I still got that nostalgic NES ‘feel’, and not nearly as much of the frustration that some of those old games brought on. And that, to me, is a win. 🙂

    1. Hey Tim, I haven’t read your review yet, but I certainly respect your take on the game. You’re definitely right that the game can be more appealing to those who don’t want to feel as much frustration. However, I think there’s a difference between frustration that makes you want to quit playing and frustration that can inspire you to keep trying.

      As it stands, I think Shovel Knight is well designed enough to offer more resistance. Shovel Knight’s allusions to Mega Man, Castlevania, and company are not merely design-related; they also play into this narrative that you’re going on a big quest to take down some cunning bad guys. That’s part of why I expect more resistance from Shovel Knight. The way I breezed through many parts of the game reminded me of Kirby’s Adventure or, for a more modern example, Mario 3D Land, but that breezy feel doesn’t really complement the narrative of Shovel Knight, and it doesn’t live up to the games it borrows from.

      Also, as far as retro-inspired indie games go, a comparison of Shovel Knight to Magicians & Looters would be super interesting.

    2. Ha, that Red Wizard battle from M & L is forever etched in my mind, although that could be the perfect example of the point you’re making. By most accounts, it’s a terrific game that’s had many fine things said about it, yet for some (points finger at self), all that praise came despite not having completed the game. That boss fight frustrated the hell out of me, but I was still 100% certain the game was something special. Even though they eventually patched it, the ‘resistance’ it offered was tough, but ‘fair’, in the final grading.

      That said, all ‘frustration’ is frustration to me. Maybe not enough to quit, but the only thing it inspires is colorful vocabulary. 🙂 I could just be getting cranky in my older age, too. I agree it’s a fine line to tow. You don’t want to make your game a cakewalk to appease a handful of complaints, but you don’t want to shut out the ‘mainstream’ audience, either. I don’t envy the folks that have to balance the difficulty in games. Not an easy task, especially in longer games like Shovel Knight. When you’ve got to keep things fresh AND challenging over six, seven hours, with a bunch of upgrades and gameplay systems in place that could cheapen that challenge… yikes.

      Another point I’d put forward is that If some are ‘let down’ by the difficulty, it might be a byproduct of the reviews that have been written. I don’t think Yacht Club ever put their game in that Dark Souls category (to my knowledge), and even though games like Mega Man and Castlevania are clearly an influence, I don’t know if the developer ever meant to imply the game would be similarly ‘hard’ to beat.

  3. Just finished this last week, and while I agree that it isn’t as difficult as first made out to be, it still offers some challenge. Hidden locations are easily marked, but often you need to think of how to reach them. The sections with the two-headed statue that spits out a rainbow bridge were very tricky for me, especially when I had to try to navigate them trough narrow areas. And there’s always the option to make it through a world without any checkpoints.

    Then again, I wasn’t really interested in it for the hyped difficulty. I enjoyed the story, but wish there was more to learn about the strange world Shovel Knight inhabits. And the gameplay is tight, surpassing several of the titles it drew inspiration from.

  4. Hey Tim,
    thank you for this review, finally one I mostly agree with. And by the way I also think it is rubbish to rate a game in numbers. Anyway it all depends on one’s taste.
    I bought this game because a friend told me about it, cleared it in one day and I dont’t want to hate this game but I can’t like it either.
    I am a big fan of Japanese retro games but this one is not much like what I love the originals for. One reason I like classic games is they are challenging. But talking in general, Shovel Knight is simply way too easy. I don’t want to show off my skill by saying that (I’m not even good) but even compared to the easiest Megaman title this one is a cakewalk. It felt like watching a boring, shallow movie – you go through why thinking about something else. It is because the itmes/weapons are overpowered, why are there even spikes if you can become invincible. Even without the item/ special weapons you just go through, rarely watching at your health bar, you don’t care about the enemies’ attack patterns and so on. You easily find any secret but even if you don’t it will be hard to fail at this game. Nothing is like in Megaman, Castlevania, Ducktales, Dark Souls or any game this one wants to be like. I was told this level and gameplay design was just a modern: you can react to anything that is happening and don’t have to practice a stage many times until you finally reach the stage boss. Whatever, I call it boring. Nothing gets punished, you can die as many times as you want and don’t even havw to start at the beginning of the stage. The boss fights are frustratingly easy, there is nothing like in actual old games where you have to get a feeling for the the boss’ pattern and weakness. You really don’t care and just hit him, casually dodge stuff and take damage, you can maje yourself invincible many times and even refill your health and magic bar twice!!! So there is no feeling of success after beating a stage like in Megaman (or any challenging game) because it was so easy.
    I really don’t enjoy putting games down but this one – it is so overhyped by stupid IGN-like journalists. To be honest I didn’t even enjoy the games graphics much. Call me a weeaboo but composition of the colours and the whole character design is kind of ugly compared to real Japanese retro games.
    My disabilty that makes me unable to enjoy any video game which was not made by people with a pure Japanese bloodline may be part of the reason I can’t like this game. But it is way too easy and therefore stupid to be much fun anyway.
    You can see that the creators of the game were big fans of megaman, castlevania and similar games and there are good ideas in this game but it is worthless if it doesn’t have the tension of its idols because it super easy.
    The only reason I enjoyed it a little bit was that it is still a platformer where you have to move pixels to reach your goal. And the soundtrack is very good! Because Manami Matsumae did it.

    1. This sums up how I feel about the game in a lot of ways.

      I don’t even really like the aesthetic, because while the graphics are great, what the graphics portray is extremely uninteresting. Why have a guy named Shovel Knight when his shovel is used more as a spear than anything? Is Shovel Knight supposed to feel emasculated or like a character who lives in a world where weapons don’t exist?

      The game lacks basic pieces of context that its predecessors handle very elegantly. Who is Mega Man? A blue robot with a gun. He has a gun because he needs to shoot enemies that try to kill him. Who is Simon Belment? A Vampire Hunter with a magical whip. He uses this whip because it’s imbued with a special power that allows him to hunt vampires, and the player benefits from the fact that it’s a whip because it lets him attack from slightly further away. Who is Link? A guy with a sword and shield which he uses to cut enemies and block projectiles.

      Then you have Shovel Knight: a knight who fights with a shovel because… there’s the occasional rock to flip at an enemy? The occasional block that explodes when tapped with a shovel for no apparent reason (even Kirby, which is abstract as fuck at times, flavors these blocks as bombs)? I realize that it’s cynical of me to say it’s to make him feel quirky and distinguishable, but the onus is on the developers to earn those quirks with the mechanics and storytelling. The concept of Shovel Knight ends up being so boring that even one of his enemies can barely stay awake to fight him.

      At the end of the day, Shovel Knight feels like a love letter to a woman the developers had a passionate tryst with many years ago and hadn’t contacted since: the references to some remembered facts are there, but the actual substantive appreciation is replaced by a facade of presuppositions based on memory alone (“Mega Man was pretty goofy, right?” sounds like the design doc in a nutshell). Shovel Knight has little of its own to contribute; it hides a lack of commitment to a concept behind jokes about how silly the games it pays tribute to ostensibly were.

      Mega Man may have looked like a middle aged man wearing a blue and yellow neon garbage bag on his original American cover, and Simon Belmont may be fighting mummies while wearing a skirt and a whip, but at the end of the day those characters and their games were created to express something sincere, to evoke feelings the developers cared about and stood behind. Shovel Knight, in comparison, is a miserable little pile of irony.

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