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.