Take a look at this picture. LOOK AT IT.
That. Is the face of a brilliant game.
So! Thought it may not look it, Shovel Knight came out about a week ago, and I have been playing it non-stop. Recently I have found myself frustrated with modern gaming’s obsession with impressive graphics, and returned to my roots in platform gaming, hoping that I could find those game design elements I miss so much. Shovel Knight does just that. The story is pretty straight forward, and adorably silly. You play as the main character, Shovel Knight. SK together with his once fearsome partner Shield Knight were a great duo of knights, and fought evil together. They were also in love with each other, your usual relationship shtick there. He fails to save her or something like that, and she dies in action. I’m not much for the wishy washy stuff, but this fascinated me, as it was combining a serious motif with what appeared to be a completely ridiculous game. But as it turns out, they actually make fantastic use of this element. And not in your traditional dialogue driven sense. Just to offer up one example, in between levels, Shovel Knight goes to a bonfire to rest and sleep. While he dreams, you, the player, experience the bonus stage. The bonus stage consists of Shovel Knight dreaming. And in this dream, you are fighting a non stop onslaught of bad guys while Shield Knight falls from the sky, and you are supposed to try and catch her. You get more points for killing more baddies, and a whole bunch of bonus points if you catch her. But dear god, the first time you play that bonus level, it is unbelievably heart wrenching for what seems to be such a silly game. The constant spawning of bad guys makes it incredibly difficult to catch Shield Knight as she falls, and you really experience what Shovel must’ve gone through when he failed to save her. I found this to be very impressive.
But enough ranting, let me move onto the gameplay! Shovel Knight features your standard platform gameplay. You start on the left, and move on to the right, reaching new screens and new screens until you reach the end of a level. Throughout the level there are 6 check points, and if you die during the level, you will go back to the most recent checkpoint you have passed. You can move with the directional buttons, you can jump, and you can press a button to attack with a shovel. You can also press up+attack button to use whatever magical item you have selected. So, we only have 4 buttons here to be pushed. In the beginning of the game, you are NOT told what button does what. You hold the controller, and figure it out. Within 30 seconds of starting the game, I knew how it worked. However, there is one more thing you can do that isn’t as simple as pressing a button. If you jump in the air and press down, Shovel Knight points his shovel down while he is jumping. If you hit into an enemy with this “shovel jump” as I am calling it, you will bounce off the enemy, and bounce much higher than you would if it were a regular jump. You know what that means? Yes! Your combat is being actively combined with your movement!
So, this is a big deal in platform games, because it adds depth to your combat as well as your exploration. You can even bounce off an enemy and keep landing on other ones, using one jump to kill several baddies. This is surprisingly addictive because it always leaves a question for you when you clear a screen. Did I do that right? Did I just waste a whole bunch of magic? Oh man, I totally could have bounced across all of them and not gotten hit! I’ll just go back and try again. As the player, you are left always questioning your methods, and always looking for ways to improve your own approach towards a given scenario.
Moving on, the level design in shovel knight has really blown me away so far. There is generally two paths you can take on a given screen. Sort of like the high road and the low road. You can go straight forward, fight a couple of enemies, and get to the next screen– or you can take the more difficult route, which often means trying to bounce off an enemy to reach a ledge, and then jump up the ledge to collect a bonus treasure.
The bonus treasure isn’t so important. Yes, it helps to have more money that you can use to purchase extra health, magic weapons, and such. But that isn’t why the player chooses the high road. The player chooses the high road because it is a challenge! This entire game uses its simplistic control scheme and brilliant level design to intrigue the player and challenge them at every turn. Another example of this is the system of checkpoints I mentioned earlier. When you reach and activate a checkpoint, you have two options. You can pass it and use the checkpoint as intended, or you can BREAK the checkpoint and risk losing your progress through the level if you die! Of course, you are rewarded with a nice sum of money, and if you break every checkpoint in the game you get a fancy achievement. But this is another case in which the player is being challenged, and then he has to decide whether or not he will step up.
Now, on my first run through (still working on it) I have chosen to take the challenge at every point that it is offered, but what if I didn’t? If I were to progress through the game taking the easy road every time, I would still have a blast. But I would also be left with extra value at the end of the game. After having beaten it, if I wanted to go through again with a new challenge, I could then choose to not use any checkpoints. This ability to set your own pace as a player is invaluable, and unavailable in most games outside of your typical “easy, normal, or hard” selection at the beginning.
Shovel Knight is a fantastic game that doesn’t need to rely on fancy graphics or technology. Do not be deceived by big gaming companies. Go indie. Play some kick ass games that are actually well developed.
Shovel Knight is available for PC and Wii U. Go buy it!