Shovel Knight was a beautiful love letter to challenging platformers of the 8 and 16-bit era. When games were almost exclusively two ‘D’s and side-scrolling, differentiated by their feel and rules.
This love letter is more of a love quilt, sewing together well-loved patches from different, but always classic game design. Just when you think you’ve figured out the Ducktales pogo Shovel Knight throws a beautiful Mario 3 world map at you.
What Shovel Knight succeeds at is (mostly) not letting the influences smother the experience. The extremely talented developers have learned from retro titles and distilled some of the best qualities while putting their own perspective on the whole thing. This love quilt has a great sense of humour, which is a trait I’m always glad to see in gaming. They’re supposed to be fun after all, and even the most intense films/novels/lives all have their lighter moments to maintain balance.
Shovel Knight left me with wonderful memories of Bosses that were as hilarious as they were challenging. Even a certain gauntlet that required a few attempts never felt cheap. The toughest battles walked the line of difficulty with grace. But could they have left out the instant death spikes?
Spikes hurt IRL but Shovel Knight is not a bubble to be popped. He’s wearing a friggin’ suit of armor and deals with enemies much scarier than some pointy pieces of pit filler. With the amount of spikes in this world you’d think Knight school would have a ‘how to fall on spikes’ class that teaches them to lay as flat as possible and avoid impalement. But nope, Mega Man had insta-kill spikes and Shovel Knight will too. It’s a shame because failing multiple times to pits and spikes was the only time I was frustrated enough to end a session.
Insta-death is something developers should take very seriously. Unless you’re a game like Super Meat Boy or Limbo that is built expecting multiple deaths and instant retries, it can halt momentum, and that’s a very bad thing. Shovel Knight combines this insta-death with the Souls mechanic of losing your resources with the one chance to regain them. This was an added stress that seriously eroded my will to continue several times. I understand that games of the 8-bit era were much less forgiving, but Darth Vader was also more forgiving than the Emperor and that didn’t make Imperial Officers feel any better.
Perhaps an endless ability to retry from a checkpoint with zero consequence would have cheapened the challenge of the game, making it an eventuality, rather than a test of skill. But I for one dreaded the trudge back to the original point of death, often rushing and dying even earlier. Taking away resources also punishes the player for failure but neglects to reward the amount of time spent with the game. That sounds very entitled as I type it, but Blizzard has made millions of dollars by patting gamers on the back while simultaneously dangling a delicious carrot in front of them.
This blend of old and new isn’t easy, and Yacht Club Games have proved themselves incredibly talented developers. Shovel Knight is a new classic, spikes and all.