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Idiotic Indie Impressions #8 – Shovel Knight Review

by on December 27, 2014
Details
 
Synopsis

A NES-style game made in 2014. Need I say more.

# of Players

1

Positives

- Fantastic tribute to the golden age of 2D platforming
- Catchy music
- Appropriately difficult
- Brief but impactful storyline

Negatives

- Difficulty and aesthetic style may alienate younger gamers

Editor Rating
 
Gameplay
A

 
Graphics
B

 
Sound Effects and Music
A-

 
Story
B+

Writer's Score
A-


Bottom Line
 

If you're looking for an oldschool 2D platformer, look no further. This is platforming perfection.

 

Intro:

Every now and then, there’s a game that comes along that ticks so many of your proverbial boxes that you just have to sit back on your chair, grab a drink and just appreciate that there are certain games in this world that were practically made for you.

For me, this is most of the games in the Mega Man series.

You see, if there was one character that I was more obsessed with growing up than the spiky blue hedgehog Sonic, it would be the blue bomber himself. I may have drawn pictures of Sonic a lot as a kid, but I would wear blue clothes and wrap a jumper around my forearm and pretend it was a mega buster. It was silly, but I was just a kid, and isn’t that just what kids do?

… I have no excuse for doing it last Tuesday though. My girlfriend could watch in horror, face in palm, as I pretend to blast her with my jumper-turned-Mega-buster when she wouldn’t let me have KFC for lunch. Think about this the next time you decide to trust your local doctor.

Re-enactment of said Tuesday by me, the not-so-blue bomber (Left) and my mean girlfriend that denied me the right to fried chicken (Right).

Re-enactment of said Tuesday by me, the not-so-blue bomber (Left) and my mean girlfriend that denied me the right to fried chicken (Right).

It seems that once again I’ve started a review off with a short (ha) anecdote about something that seemingly has no relation to the game I’m reviewing. Only, this time you know exactly where I’m going with this.

Mark my words. Shovel Knight is the best Mega Man game we’ve had in decades.

It might also be the best 2D Mario game we’ve had in decades. And the best Ducktales game we’ve had in … ever, really.

Shovel Knight is a high-quality tribute to the games were popular during the late 80’s/early 90’s. There is no subtlety in its emulation of its influences. The character itself, the level design, boss fights, graphical style and music are very reminiscent of the early Mega Man games. The level selection pays tribute to the slightly-less-than-linear level select screen of Super Mario Bros. 3, where there is a general direction of progression, but you may be given the opportunity to stray from the path at times. The shovel jump mechanics are a less-than-subtle throwback to the pogo stick in Ducktales. It stole the “Register your name” portion of the game straight out of the original Legend of Zelda. It took the upgrade system from… God knows which game was famous for that first. The fact of the matter is that there’s almost nothing that Shovel Knight does that’s new and original, but there’s never been a game that’s taken the best parts of all of these games and combined them into one small package. In other words, it’s fucking perfect.

zeldashovel

Name registration – Shovel Knight (left), Legend of Zelda (right)

 The conception:

Like various other games nowadays, Shovel Knight was a product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, reaching a whopping $311,502 from their goal of $75,000. If nothing else, it showed that there really was a market for this kind of thing. Whilst there have been plenty of indie retro-influenced platformers, none of the major ones have emulated both the aesthetic and play style and aesthetic of its predecessors as well as Shovel Knight planned to.

It also showed just how angry people were over Capcom’s decision to shit all over the Mega Man franchise. The blue bomber, who was once the unofficial mascot for the company, hasn’t exactly had the best run as of late. In 2010, series creator Keiji Inafune announced his depature from the company. One year later, development of Mega Man Legends 3 was ceased and the game cancelled, which put the final nail in the coffin for a series that was so well-liked for so long. Since then, Mega man has appeared as a weak, low-tier, fat joke character in Street Fighter vs. Tekken and has more recently earned a spot on the Super Smash Brothers 4 roster. Aside from these appearances, the franchise has been as good as dead.

As they say though, when one door closes, often a window opens. It’s unclear whether Shovel Knight would have been nearly as successful as it was if the void that it filled never existed. Regardless, it’s here, and it’s awesome, and I’m here to tell you all about it.

 The setting:

Upon starting the game, Shovel Knight introduces you to the blue titular character and his red-plated, genderless BFF (with benefits?) Shield Knight. During their travels, the dynamic duo ran into trouble at the Tower of Fate. Upon waking, Shovel Knight realised that Shield Knight went missing and grieved for many years. Due to a lack of opposition, the evil Enchantress took over the land, with the help of the Knights of the Order of No Quarter (If I ever become a musician, this is inevitably going to be my band name). Thus begins your journey as Shovel Knight, where your goal is to defeat the Enchantress and aim to find your long lost not-sure-if-romantic partner.

The bulk of the storyline is told in a short collection of still images at the beginning of the game.

The bulk of the storyline is told in a short collection of still images at the beginning of the game.

In true Mega man-esque fashion, you’ll encounter numerous ex-friends-turned-enemies along your journey, all of which have their own motives for taking you out.

Needless to say, having a hero battle an evil [whatever] to save a friend/lover isn’t exactly the most original, creative or fleshed-out storyline that we’ve seen, but neither were the games that Shovel Knight pays tribute to. The developers were clearly gunning for a very specific audience, and made the (correct, in my opinion) assumption the audience that Shovel Knight appeals to isn’t the audience that’s going to want or even care about a deep, captivating storyline.

On the other hand, the developers did find it important that you cared about the titular character. This was important, as when us old-timers played Mario, Zelda and Mega Man in the past, we fell in love with the characters, despite the relatively empty storylines. The developers accomplish this partially by giving the Shovelmeister a decent amount of dialogue to bring his personality out. He’s a noble and naive character full of honour and innocence, wanting only to do good and help everyone, but suffers such crippling heartache that he’s completely lost his livelihood. It’s such a simple concept, but it’s one that many of us are familiar with. Who can’t feel that?

The game also adds a few extra touches to show you just how much he cares about Shield Knight. In between each level, the game puts you right next to a campfire. Whilst here, Shovel Knight has a dream about Shield Knight falling from the sky. The game then tells you to catch her as she falls. Once you’ve caught her, Shovel Knight awakens and goes on his way. It’s the game’s way of reminding you just how much of a heartwrenching impact the loss of Shield Knight has had on Shovel Knight.

 Let’s talk about the gameplay…

In case I didn’t make this obvious enough earlier, I just need to get this out. There is not a single new idea attached to the game. Instead, it takes what was great about 2D platformers of past generations and puts it all together.

You play as Shovel Knight – a blue robot knight wielding a pogo stick shovel, which can be used as a weapon to attack enemies or a mobility tool that allows you to bounce on enemies to reach high ledges. You traverse through the stages, encountering numerous enemies that must be shovelled to death. Each level is capped off with an engaging boss encounter, usually comprising of one of the Enchantress’ Order of No Quarter.

Grim Reaper Knight. Or whatever he was called.

Grim Reaper Knight. Or whatever he was called.

The level design borrows plenty from the Mega man series. Levels consist of a mostly-linear path from the beginning to the end of the level. Occasionally, you’ll find multiple pathways through a certain segment through a level (usually by uncovering a secret area within the game), but the paths converge again soon thereafter. The design allows for limited freedom in terms of how you tackle a level, but also eliminates the need for back-tracking. It’s also impossible to get lost in the level, so there’ll be no time wasted there either.

Each level and the corresponding boss has a theme to it. For example, Spectre Knight (that Grim Reaper pictured above) caps off a level with a very gothic flavour, consisting of skeletons and other undead creatures, whilst Plague Knight tends to favour scientific experiments and has a level full of test tubes, beakers and exploding rats.

The aptly-titled Explodatorium level, owned by Plague Knight, the mad scientist.

The aptly-titled Explodatorium level, owned by Plague Knight, the mad scientist.

Whilst Mega man allowed you to pick the order in which you tackled levels and bosses, Shovel Knight follows a Mario bros. 3-esque system of level progression. Once you complete a level, the game unlocks more of the path ahead of you on the world map. It forces you to follow a fairly set pattern of progression, but several forks in the road allow for some choice in the order for which way you wish to dig through the game. Fortunately, unlike the Mega man titles in which defeating bosses awarded you with a particular weapon, which was usually effective against one or more other particular bosses, Shovel Knight has no such system. Instead, you’ll find yourself defeating a majority of the bosses by whacking them with your good ol’ shovel. Consequently, although the game does give you some degree of freedom in which order you’d like to attempt two different levels/bosses, the choice is almost purely dependent on personal preference rather, without any real particularly strategic benefit to picking one over the other.

Shovel Knight world map (left) vs. Super Mario Bros 3. (right)

The game makes up for a lack of freedom in level choice by giving you the freedom in how you wish to engage in a level. You see, each level contains some amount of gold, either stashed away in chests or breakable objects, or dropped by the enemies that you vanquish. This gold can be spent on upgrades, including the increased health and/or magic, relics or sets of armour that aid you on your journey. Each set of armour possesses a different set of characteristics. Are you sick of dying because an enemy hits you into a bottomless pit? If so, pick the black Mail of Momentum, which reduces the amount of knockback. If you fancy yourself as a spellcaster type, perhaps the Conjurer’s Coat may just be your thing. Are you a badass that wants to shed any actual bonus for a piece of armour that looks flashy and allows you to occasionally spin in the air, which serves only as an aesthetic bonus? Purchase and put on your new set of the Ornate plate.

Wait wait wait… What’s this relic thing you mentioned earlier?

Ahh, I’m glad to have one astute reader. Yes, sir/ma’am, that’s you I’m talking about. Throughout your journey, you’ll be given the chance to obtain relics, most of which are purchased in town using your hard-earned dough. Many of these function very much like the sub-weapons in Mega Man, and many will come in handy both throughout the levels and during boss encounters. Each of the relics cost a certain amount of mana to use, which can be refilled by picking up magic pots that drop off enemies. As previously stated, you can also increase your mana by purchasing the upgrades in town and/or purchasing and equipping the Conjurer’s robes. Experimenting with each of the relics is enjoyable, although you’ll find that you’ll be using some relics, such as the Phase Locket will be used far more often than others.

All the available relics for you to mess around with.

All the available relics for you to mess around with.

The game also offers a number of optional stages in the game, each of which highlight the use of a particular relic. Keeping with the Phase Locket example, the “Forest of Phasing” contains numerous spikes which can’t be avoided. The only way to get through the level is to activate the Phase Locket prior to jumping onto the spikes. Completing the levels offers you rewards, thereby enticing the player to attempt these and also allowing the player to get a good feel for each relic before they give it a go inside the main game. It’s a great way to introduce the relics to the player without adversely affecting the pacing of the game.

But Mr. Dr. Bitchface, I don’t remember any towns in the early Mega Man titles.

Well no, no you don’t, because there weren’t any. Instead, the game borrows from titles such as Zelda II and allows you to visit town in between levels. It’s here that you’re able to make the purchases outlined above, but saying just that would be selling the towns short. You see, Shovel Knight has done everything in its power to make the town feel as alive as possible. Each of the NPC’s has its own unique line of dialogue, and even though much of it is trivial text for the sake of flavour, it’s almost always funny. For those that want their punny bone tickled, there’s even a character that makes a terrible pun every time you speak to him. And you can bet that my lame punny ass spoke to him a lot. Heck, there’s even an achievement for hearing out all his puns, in case you needed more motivation.

Other interesting characters you’ll encounter in town include a girl pushing a hula hoop around, a bard that’ll play music for a small fee, a a somewhat depressed girl looking after a mini-game and a very peculiar hat enthusiast that has a special interest in your helmet. Despite adding little to the gameplay itself, reading the dialogue in the game never felt like a chore. It also makes for a fairly nice break from the otherwise gruelling challenges that the game throws at you.

Is it “Nintendo hard”?

Most of the games that inspired Shovel Knight belonged to an era of gaming where the length of games was artificially inflated by their punishing difficulty. It’s completely understandable – I mean, if you’re going to pay a certain sum of money for a game, you’re going to expect to get a reasonable amount of play time out of it. As a result, games often included things that were brutally difficult or flat-out unfair. Have any of you ever been hit by an enemy that suddenly appeared on the screen, which subsequently knocked you into the tiny little pit that happened to be slightly left of said enemy? Of course you have. It’s frustrating, but it’s also practically a given in most of the NES-era platformers. Most of these games came with a limited set of lives as well. Losing all your lives would more often than not take you back to the start of the game, where you had to slowly make your way back up to where you were before.

The difficulty of Shovel Knight is often spoken about. The game is not a walk in the park. It never was going to be. People wouldn’t have allowed it to be, given the games it was inspired by. There are a number of segments in the game that are frustrating and will make you curse. Heck, you may even feel like throwing your controller out the window.

I will say this though. Read my lips text.

This game is not “Nintendo hard”.

There are several differences between this game and those that are bestowed with that title. Whilst Shovel Knight  does have challenging sections, there is rarely a point in the game that you’ll feel you got screwed over by the game, or that a particular section was unfair.. The best way to explain this is that most of the time when you die, it’ll be more of a “dammit, I messed up” rather than a “this game is bullshit” type of thing.

In addition, unlike many NES games of old, there is no limit to the number of lives you have. Instead, dying causes you to lose a portion of the gold you’ve collected, which gets left at the point at which you died. You then spawn at the latest checkpoint that you’ve hit and have an opportunity to obtain the money that you dropped. However, if you die again prior to reaching your lost gold, that gold is lost forever, and a new set of gold bags will be left at where you died more recently. It’s a good system, as dying isn’t a terribly punishing ordeal, as you do get the opportunity to get back all you had lost, but the risk of losing the money forever keeps you on your toes. It’s a far less tedious option when you compare it directly to Mega Man and its awful password system.

It certainly helps that the controls are very tight and function beautifully in this game, because there’s nothing worse than a game that’s difficult because your character on-screen doesn’t do what you tell he/she/it to do.

Those gold bags that I dropped.

Those gold bags that I dropped.

Seasoned platform gamers (for which this game is most likely targeted at) will probably get through this game without too much of a struggle. Newer gamers however are likely to get stuck and potentially frustrated at various segments of the game. With that said, regardless of how difficult you may find the game, each level you complete will leave you with a sense of achievement.

BUT I WANT A GAME THAT’S “NINTENDO HARD”!

Well, you’re in luck. You see, there are options to make the game as hard as you want to. You see that bit of fire encased by a glowing crystal ball in the picture above? That’s a checkpoint. If you consider yourself a mad baller and think of checkpoints as a plebeian handicap tool, you have the option to destroy it. Doing so will reward you with extra gold that leaks out of the checkpoint. If you’re an average gamer like myself, I wouldn’t really recommend it, but to each their own I guess.

Completing the game also allows you to start the game is New Game + mode. In this mode, you keep all the upgrades, relics and armour that you’ve unlocked and embark on a significantly more difficult journey, where enemies do more damage, there are less beneficial items that drop and checkpoints are far fewer in number. In the early levels of New Game +, the game actually becomes easier, as you start off far stronger and have access to so many more tools than you otherwise would in the normal mode during that segment of the game. Fairly soon however, the difficulty of New Game + overtakes that of the regular game and shoots past it. Despite my love for the game, I’ve yet to finish New Game + mode.

The game looks like shit for a game released in 2014.

NO IT DOESN’T YOU FILTHY PEASANT.

The game is beautifully ugly. The game borrows heavily from the 8-bit aesthetic of older titles, including the disgusting colour palette that these older games were limited to, but sheds the horrible slowdowns or screen-flickering that occasionally plagued that of it’s predecessors are now gone. Naturally, the game features much higher resolutions than what we had to work with back in the day. I love the aesthetic and I legitimately wish all games looked like this.

The Mega Man series had some of the best video game music of all time. How does this compare?

The music follows a similar chiptune style of music that’s present in Mega Man. It was so similar that I was completely unsurprised to find that Manami Matsumae, the composer for the original Mega Man series, contributed several tracks to the game. Does it compare favourably to the original series?

Partially. Whilst I can’t complain about any of the tracks, I also can’t remember a single tune that was played through the game. The quality is there, but it’s not something that’s going to stick with me like the Mega Man soundtracks, or even the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtracks ever will. With that said, the music is definitely appropriately fast-paced and does add to the game. My preference for other soundtracks may just be a matter of taste, and your mileage may vary.

Anyone interested in hearing the soundtrack can do so here on Jake Kaufman’s Bandcamp.

Overall thoughts:

Overall, I would recommend this game to anyone looking for a good NES-style 2D platformer. Yes, the price of this is currently relatively steep for an indie game (as it has never been bundled, nor has it received a steep discount before). With that said, as PC gamers, we are spoilt for choice. We live in an age where, on Steam, and with the overabundance of bundled games, we are able to get decent-quality games for very cheap. From a value-for-money point of view, I would recommend getting much cheaper-but-high-quality 2D platformers such as Super Meat Boy, Braid, Spelunky and a host of other games well before you got this one. However, if you’re like me and time is a considerably more limiting factor than money, then Shovel Knight represents one of the best value-for-time deals on Steam.

In other words, I strongly believe that Shovel Knight is the best 2D platformer currently on Steam. If you have any interest in old-school 2D platformers or even a fleeting interest in seeing what gaming through the ’80s and early ’90s was like, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.

You can dig up this beautiful gem of a game on Steam here for $14.99.

For people like me who are excited for more Mega Man-inspired video games, please check out the Kickstarter for Inafune’s latest title Mighty No. 9.

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