I don’t have the nostalgia that a lot of people have for NES or SNES-era platformers: I was a late starter when it came to video games in my own home, with my first console being a PlayStation and my first game being Actua Soccer. Owing to this apparently “unfortunate” conflagration of events, I find myself unable to comprehend the degree to which certain segments of the games community appreciate the Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man titles of the eight- and sixteen-bit eras: these games do not feature my personal games chronology during my formative, taste-shaping years and while I can appreciate the adulation that people heap on these titles, I find it difficult to feel that excitement myself. Every time I hear someone say that the jump physics and feelings of inertia in Mario titles are perfect, I can’t help but think to myself that they have merely been conditioned to feel this way through their youths of exposure to them. I too would say that these mechanics feel satisfying, but to state that they are how games should feel? That is little more than years of conditioning coming home to roost.
With all of that said, I think Shovel Knight might well be the game that leads to be finally be able to relate to how these people can feel about “simple” games that are a handful of mechanics done exceedingly well; how a single game can come to shift what one expects from a game of a given genre.
The thing that is most striking about Shovel Knight at first glance is its visual identity: as beleaguered a point as this is when the game is discussed, the game makes no secret of being an homage to the sorts of 2D platformers mentioned above, but with a visual style modern enough to be akin to how one’s mind’s eye would have seen those games twenty to thirty years ago – the old once again made new through the refractive properties offered to creatives by the power of nostalgia. Though my personal nostalgia is premised around incredibly low-polycount 3D models, this appeal of a video game “return to nature” was not lost on me: there is no heed paid here to the industry rote insistence on the pursuit of hyper-reality, only the idea of the creation of a consistent visual language that serves to communicate in the most wonderfully implicit ways how elements of the levels work.
Shovel Knight‘s ludic vocabulary is a fairly limited one: the titular protagonist is able to do what you’d expect of a player-controlled character in a 2D platformer, with a jump, a basic attack and a selection of subweapons (in the game’s “relics”) available to the player, with an additional modification to the jump being possible through the use of the shovel as a makeshift pogo-stick. These four verbs, when combined with the multiplicity of mechanically significant obstacles placed throughout the game’s levels, ranging from fans to conveyor belts to bubbles to the enemies themselves, provide the player with a sandbox within the linear levels to decide what the best way to proceed is, and allow for the creation of incredibly satisfying combinations of player action that will look effortless on-screen, the intricacies of which could only be understood by someone with even the most modest of experience with the game.
At a surface level, it may seem that Shovel Knight is little more than an incredibly competent reimplementation of mechanics that are known quantities within the context of 2D platformers: we know how players feel comfortable with a character jumping; we know what satisfying weapon within a game feels like; we know both of the above through the decades of the evolution of games of this genre. Shovel Knight is so much more than this: Shovel Knight takes these traditional mechanics and injects a sense of behavioural conditioning premised around modern game mechanics that B.F. Skinner would be in awe of.
The game constructs a risk-reward scheme that is lifted straight from the Souls series of games: gems are collected within levels, and converted to a gold equivalent value. Upon death, the player loses a percentage of the amount of gold they have on-hand, with the lost gold being placed in bags in the stage to be collected once again by the player if they are willing to take the risk of confronting the situation that lead to their first death. Even where that lost coin is just out of reach, one cannot help but feel compelled to attempt to reclaim previously hard-won gold, even where this is likely to lead one to one’s death once again. Eventually, the player will give up in the toughest of spots, but the spectre of that lost finance will never have its imprint removed from the forefront of the player’s psyche throughout the run of that level. It is the way in which Shovel Knight makes even the most minor of losses seem significant. While the real amount of loss decreases with each loss, knowing that that x% of gold is lost forever (save for the inevitable re-run of the level to pick up that upgrade that you just can’t be doing without).
Claims that Shovel Knight is derivative of both old and new games are undoubtably with basis: the game takes its influences unabashedly from artefacts across the temporal spectrum of the medium, making no attempts to hide this at all. Shovel Knight is like a good documentary or well composed essay: reference material is taken, but then the creator’s authorial stamp pressed upon the tapestry of the work so explicitly that one can at first sight say “this is Shovel Knight” rather than a non-committal comment that describes the work in its constituent parts. Combine this with a narrative that ends on an inconceivably touching and heart-rending note and it’s difficult to do anything but love Shovel Knight as a cohesive package.