Digging up the past
While it undeniably pieces together components from its varied 8-bit inspirations to form a cohesive, very enjoyable whole, Shovel Knight remains, inescapably, little more than another 2D platformer that’s a vehicle for nostalgia.
Considering its mechanics are so plainly lifted from very well-known, beloved sources, it seems pointless to analyze almost any aspects to Yacht Club Games’ Kickstarter success story. Ask me to photocopy a page from A Farewell to Arms on blue paper, and you can rest assured that you’ll be getting some quality Hemingway but with slightly different dressing. The same could be said of Shovel Knight’s levels, which bear more than a striking resemblance to NES-era Mega Man stages. As do the eight themed bosses. The game’s structure is a near mirror image of Super Mario Bros. 3, while its two enemy-free towns are plucked from the pages of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s design documents.
There is, of course, a certain amount of creativity required to fit these pieces together seamlessly. It’s a bit more like asking me to photocopy a single page from five different works of literature and combine them on blue and pink and purple pages in way that still makes sense when reading the end result, but without altering the content much at all. But if you choose the right moments, a few clever name changes might be all that’s required.
Unfortunately, this is what most gamers want, if not clamor for—the warm fuzzies that nostalgia affords. Ours is an adolescent industry that thinks itself already geriatric, and we spend a great deal of our time sitting on the porch reminiscing about the Good Old Days. Shovel Knight is the sugar-laden pitcher of reminiscence we sip from on the down beats of our incessant rocking. It is an opiate of the masses, safe and familiar and not at all challenging.
Except for the checkpoint system. That’s one scrap of Shovel Knight that’s very much its own. Peppered throughout stages are four or five bulb-encased lamps that ignite when passed by, saving your progress. But they’re physical objects in the world, and if attacked, they break and shatter, spilling forth (for whatever reason) a few jewels and gems that make up the game’s economy. By amassing great wealth—digging it up, at times, like treasure long buried—Shovel Knight can buy upgrades to his armor and spade, his health, his magic, and his arsenal.
The checkpoint system represents one of two forms of risk/reward that comprise Shovel Knight’s original ideas. With checkpoints, choosing to reap one’s treasures renders its primary function inert. Death hurls you back to the last intact checkpoint. Or, if you left no checkpoints standing, the start of the stage. Death also comes at a cost—though not the usual one ascribed to mortality. Instead of losing extra lives, Shovel Knight loses extra loot. Two or three bags of scratch get left behind, kept aloft by Icarian wings. They can be reclaimed, of course, but they can possibly land in hard, if not impossible-to-reach, places. And if you die twice, the first batch vanishes. As the difficulty ramps up, the game tests against greed versus pragmatism with each checkpoint crossing. Failure represents the possibility of an exhausting, repetitive grind through territory previously tackled. Skillful play (or chance, or luck), however, might see you on the other side of any given stage richer and able to upgrade more quickly.
Ultimately, there’s enough money lying around that no amount of deaths as a result of ever-growing impatience won’t see most purchasables and necessary items acquired before the Wily-esque last gauntlet. That’s not to say there isn’t any value to setting personal challenges and all that, but those will largely only ever exist outside the sphere of the game itself. Six or so pretty straightforward hours don’t really offer much in the way of Spelunky-style Eggplant intrigue, so while it’s not at all threadbare, Shovel Knight isn’t quite equipped with much more than its digital genetic inheritance allows.
And that’s the rub, when you get down to brass tacks. In the right light—one in which you know exactly what you’re looking at and what you want and get what you expect—it’s glorious. But to step back and really think on it is to pull the curtains down and see all the stagehands at work. And that’s a bummer, because like any facsimile, a ride on coattails is only ever appreciable, never venerated.
|Developer: Yacht Club Games • Publisher: Yacht Club Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 06.26.14|
Shovel Knight is a pretty stellar homage to simpler times, but it’s so unabashedly an homage that it never steps out of the shadows cast by the components it’s built from—DuckTales, Mega Man, Simon’s Quest. And while derivative doesn’t necessarily mean bad—far from it in Shovel Knight’s case—it certainly doesn’t make it any less pandering in a lot of ways.
|The Good||The risk/reward nature of the checkpoint system.|
|The Bad||Seeing a bag of scrilla after dying that you just can’t reach.|
|The Ugly||The Order of No Quarter’s attitudes. So rude.|
|Shovel Knight is available on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Wii U using review code provided by Yacht Club Games.|