Wednesday
Jun252014

QCF: Shovel Knight

ot that it's a bad thing, but retro styled games are practically everywhere now. Both visually and gameplay wise tons of products on the indie scene are embracing gaming's origins to varying degrees. Some are parodies like Super Meat Boy or Retro City Rampage, while a smaller batch are genuine attempts at capturing the actual feel these classics gave us in the very beginning. Shovel Knight is the latter.

While many games fall short of replicating the mediums glory days, Shovel Knight does the near impossible and surpasses it. If you've been looking for a new benchmark in retro gaming then the day has finally arrived. Shovel Knight is the real (old school) deal.

You probably already know the deal. Shovel Knight is a retro side-scroller that embraces what made older titles so popular. However, it must be argued that this game is an exception to what people call an overused cliché in independent gaming.

For example while one of its main mechanics takes itself from an older title, a mechanic that hasn't been explored as much as it deserves to be. I am of course referring to the pogo-stick physics of Ducktales, and while you may already know that classic inside-out, Shovel Knight manages to explore this concept in a lot more interesting ways. For instance, there's a lot more you can do with your shovel than with Scrooges walking stick. You can not only bounce on your opponents, but you can dig up jewels, find secret areas, plus buy extra upgrades to find new uses for this weapon. It's a fun system that lends itself well to the expertly crafted levels, which seem to challenge your bouncing ideas in different tactical ways. 

It does this by borrowing the level design ideals from the old Megaman series. Nevertheless, even though I should warn you that Megaman is indeed a word you'll be reading through a lot of this review, it shouldn't be confused with laziness—If anything the opposite is true. The Megaman design of short obstacle course based rooms is used not out of regression, but to compliment the pogo-stick abilities detailed above. However, in saying this, the level design isn't flawless. For all the good Shovel Knight does in its obstacle course type design, it uses the gimmick of obscuring the screen way more than is necessary. More than a couple stages have sections in which you simply can't see where you're going, and while short gimmicks like these are fine for brief portions of time, there's no reason for the game to do this as much as it does- even if it does only encompass a very small part of the entire game. Though this is one simple gripe usually, the general platforming works without a hitch. Otherwise he rest of the game contains difficult and briliant takes on how platforming works. These all work because it's applied to the traditional structure of older titles. Where it differs however is because Shovel Knight transgresses these retro platformers; and this quirk becomes more apparent when you die.

The lives system has become increasingly outdated recently, and due to a slew of games that ditch the ideas of a 'game over' completely it could almost be seen as a severely outdated concept. It should be noted then that while Shovel Knight does not induce a loss state, it does manage to display effective penalties for poor playing

Treasure is a integral part of the experience. There's a lot of extra stuff to buy, and since you do not earn power ups through the levels, you'll find yourself having to buy new items or amour instead. These do however cost a pretty penny, which will require you to gain as much money as you can inside the stages. However when you die you'll be sent back to one of the generously placed checkpoints with a rather large portion of your wallet deducted. While this is a great annoyance, it avoids frustration with the chance to earn your money back. Bags of your loot are dropped around where you last died, and depending on if you die again on the way there you can regain your precious jewels, subverting your previous punishment. This is an expertly crafted system, which avoids frustration through huge progress loss, yet demands you play better to regain your money. Considering that, these extra items are extremely fun to mess around with, and lead to extra challenges; it will make you want to play better without dying. If this were not the case it simply would not work, but the system is implemented so well that I will be severely surprised and disappointed if this doesn't become the standard alternative to the outdated 'lives' ideal. 

But before praise can be trusted upon this title it's important to take a look at what Shovel Knight's graphical style stems from. The game itself shares its genre with the most popular titles of the retro era, but more specifically its core takes inspiration from the old character centric mascot games of yore. Like Megaman before it, Shovel Knight creates not only a style of gameplay—it creates one filled with colorful and memorable characters. With only a few pixels to spare these early NES titles had to rely on character design alone to construct a world that players would care to explore, and Shovel Knight manages this superbly

Like the robot masters of the past, Shovel Knight has its own naming scheme creating a sense of consistency between the bosses. The enemies themselves each hold a couple lines of dialogue too managing to capture a distinct personality in very little time. This personality is heightened with the gorgeous pixel art, creating a world that seems familiar yet fresh. As mentioned before this world shares visual cues with the Megaman universe, but manages to set it apart by showcasing a diverse range of colors and environments. Shovel Knight not only looks like a retro game, but it looks like its own retro game. Where any lesser title would use pixels as an excuse for derivative graphics, this game uses pixels to craft its own unique look from an old method. 

This is also showcased by its music, which manages to compliment the stages nicely. Each tune fits their respective stage and creates a fun ambiance- again adding to the universe being crafted. From every angle the presentation sparkles, and While the retro aesthetic has been critiqued as of late, it's almost impossible to demean the world of Shovel Knight to the same crimes lazier titles embrace. While it may be a shame that such a caveat has to be made in relation to retro throwbacks, it's one that I feel must be applied for the cynical gamer to consider in relation to this game. 

Shovel Knight deceptively holds a lot more content than first looks would imply. While the core gameplay sees Megaman mixed with Ducktales, the map system is very reminiscent of Super Mario Bros 3. There are a few extra encounters on this map, and a few special stages to access as well. Dream sequences are also sprinkled throughout the game giving you a chance to earn some extra treasure in the process. Therefore, while the bulk of the game contains multiple platforming sections, there are extra challenges like these, which switch things up slightly. Also worth mentioning is a new game + mode, which unfortunately comes off a little subpar, since all it really does is remove all health and most checkpoints. It's not a huge problem in any sense, but it just doesn't feel justified in its difficulty as the normal game is- due to messing with the otherwise perfect placement of the checkpoints. However like my other gripes, this is a very small an almost trivial problem.

If you're still cynical on Shovel Knight then it's very possible it is just not the game for you. Many I suspect may avoid this because the retro throwbacks have become ten a penny. Shovel Knight subverts this however, by not only being a great retro throwback, but by possibly being better than many of the games it takes its history from. 

In short, if Shovel Knight were released in 1992 we'd still be talking about it today. But I suspect in the same amount of time, that may be the case anyway.

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