I love the gaming industry’s indie revolution. The technology reached a point that small teams (that grew up on games made by small teams) could make retro-feeling experiences. Relying on gameplay and story instead of cutting edge graphics, while a strong art style could still make please the eye regardless of tech.
Shovel Knight quickly dug its way to the top of the heap. It cherry picked the best features of the 8/16-bit eras while using modern lessons to prune away the frustrating relics of old.
2D platforming action honed to perfection. A small selection of moves simple to learn and fun to master. The pogo ability from Ducktales without the cheap obstacles and enemies. A world map from Super Mario 3 just because (and to allow replay value for secret hunting). Shovel Knight shovels it into the furnace and burns brighter than the sum of its parts.
The challenge of yesteryear is present, but presented in a slightly more forgiving manner. NES and SNES era games were built with the ideals of the arcade, where the player purchased lives by the quarter. This philosophy resulted in lives and continues for home video games. This also prolonged the experience. A skilled player can complete Contra in less than an hour, but developing the strategies and skills could take years. If the player were able to continue infinitely from a later level, they could unravel the mystery much quicker, perhaps de-valuing the game in their eyes.
Checkpoints reduce the amount of re-treading players must do after each death which can become incredibly tedious. Shovel Knight allows you to continue infinitely from checkpoints within the level, but punishes you for each death using the Demon Souls method. Resources are dropped at the spot of failure and the player has just one chance to recover them. This adds tension to what could feel like endlessly banging your head against a wall until you eventually fluke through. The resources are used to purchase upgrades and once bought, those cannot be lost. You can also exit from a level to reverse any negative consequences.
The developers went one step further with risk/reward by paying players to smash the checkpoints. Once destroyed, the checkpoint cannot be used. For many players, the quest to win without checkpoints or special abilities adds to the replay value.
This is the most notable example of how Shovel Knight expands on what we loved about the classics, while evolving the design to a more pleasing experience.
I remember epic boss fights in side-scrollers, but they were often un-penetrable fortresses of difficulty. The limited amount of attempts made it difficult to learn the patterns and progress. Shovel Knight’s boss battles are inventive and challenging, but I was never halted by a steep difficulty spike. The ability to continue right from the roadblock means you can increase your success much faster than slogging through an entire level before getting to try again.
Many retro indie titles attempt a faux-8-bit look, but Shovel Knight strove to appear as close to the original as possible. They did cheat however, but explained every instance and the reasoning behind doing so here. The easiest example is the expanded color palette. The extra tones helped bridge the gap between colors and provided a cozier look compared to the harsher NES landscape. The bones of NES development are here, with a few added allowances that I’m sure every original NES dev wished they had (except for LJN, they probably didn’t care as they pumped out horrible movie-licensed cash-ins that ruined many Christmases).
Shovel Knight is retro gaming done right. Even when not making an obvious 8-bit inspired game, modern devs shouldn’t neglect the past when searching for the best gameplay concepts to reinvigorate.
Have you still not played Shovel Knight?