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09 September 2015 @ 07:20 pm
Game Review: Shovel Knight  
Imagine the perfect NES game. A game with the tight controls and world map of Super Mario Brothers III, the variable weapon choices and themed bosses of Mega Man, the item design of Castlevania, and the bounding pogo jumps and treasure hunting of Duck Tales. Imagine that it could be made for modern systems and wouldn't be bound by NES limitations like four-color sprites and no independent background scrolling. And then realize you don't have to imagine it, because the game I'm talking about is right there in the subject line and I'm not fooling anyone here.

I've known Shovel Knight was great for a long time since basically every review is blasting praise around like it's a game of Splatoon, but I have enough of a backlog that I wasn't willing to buy it until I found a sale on it, and that wasn't until around a month ago. And of course as soon as I started playing it I wondered why I had waited so long because this game is amazing.

This, uh, isn't going to be an impartial review.

I've seen plenty of these screens before.

This isn't a game that hides its influences. Other than the extra colors in the sprites, every part of it could easily have been something I played on the Nintendo I had as a kid. This extends to the control scheme, which requires you to press Up + Attack to use Shovel Knight's subweapons--or relics, as the game calls them--and down while jumping in order to pogo off people's heads. At least, I thought that was a requirement. It turns out that you can set the relics to a button press, which I only discovered after I had already beaten the game and which I'm glad I didn't know about because I almost certainly would have switched and missed out on the true NES experience.

I can't say enough good things about the controls. It's not without reason that I compared them to Super Mario Brothers III--I don't think there's a single moment in the game where Shovel Knight didn't go where I put him. Which isn't always the same as where I wanted him to go, but one of the most important aspects of most games for me is that you feel like you failed because you screwed up, rather than because the game screwed you. When I failed platforming sections, I knew it was because I hadn't activated my relic correctly, or because I failed to attack out of a pogo chain and blew through my footing, or because I had been rushing and didn't properly account for the hazards. In a game so dependent on bouncing on enemies' heads, it would have been very easy to screw up the jumping and make it feel like Shovel Knight was careening out of control, but I never felt that at all. All the pogo jumping may as well have been conducted under laboratory conditions.

The first time I won, I wasn't paying attention and I fell straight into the pit afterward. Oops.

The Shovel Knight designers were explicitly inspired by Dark Souls for some of their mechanics, but before you run screaming--either toward or aways, as befits your preference--the inspiration is relatively light and mostly has to do with death and progression. Levels are full of gems, either buried under piles of dirt that Shovel Knight must scoop up, hidden in breakable walls along with the occasional wall chicken, or dropped by enemies, and this money goes toward buying upgrades in the Zelda II-themed town areas. When you die, you lose a portion of your money. So far, pretty standard.

But the money doesn't disappear. Like in Dark Souls, it remains where you died, floating as little money bags in the sky, and if you reach it without dying again you can pick it back up and continue on. The respawned enemies on the way don't drop more gems, so the amount of wealth available in any given level is fixed and getting that money back can be pretty important. Furthermore, it's possible to destroy the checkpoints along the way for a bit more money if you think you're good enough not to need the, which adds another element of risk vs reward.

In practice, though, most of this seemed pointless. The money I got from beating a boss was often as much or more than the total haul from the whole level and destroying checkpoints never seemed to provide enough of a bonus to be worth it. I destroyed them all once in one of the earlier levels for the achievement and then never did it again and I still had more than enough money to buy everything in the game, and that's without repeating the levels for extra money, which is possible. Maybe it's better balanced in New Game+.

All that money and it's totally superfluous.

Like Mega Man, there are eight bosses you have to defeat until you make it into Dr. WilyThe Enchantress's fortress and win the final battle, and like Mega Man there's a boss rush which I had no idea was coming and which I fortunately beat on the first try, otherwise I might be a lot more annoyed with the game. Each stage is themed in a Mega Man way as well, with Polar Knight's stage featuring lots of ice and sliding around and Propeller Knight's stage featuring lots of being blown into pits. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

The world map. This is a third of it.

The story was actually really affecting for an 8-bit-style game with minimal text. As the intro explains, Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were a pair of wandering adventurers who were both incredibly successful and incredibly well-matched. Their exploits were legendary until they tried to invade the Tower of Fate, where a cursed amulet caused a terrible calamity. When Shovel Knight awoke from his stupor, the tower was sealed and Shield Knight was gone. Devastated, he retreated to a life of solitude until he heard that the Enchantress had taken up residence in the Tower of Fate and her Order of No Quarter ravaged the land, whereupon he took up his armor and his shovel once again. So far, pretty close to the standard NES era "save the princess" story other than the more martial beginning.

But it's not that simple. After each level, Shovel Knight rests from his labors by the fire. And sometimes when he rests, he dreams. Shield Knight is falling and he has to save her (here's a great OC ReMix of the music that plays). Originally it's just an empty level and you have to jump and catch her, but later versions have enemies that you have to dodge until she gets within jumping range, and it's when the first one of those showed up that I realized what was going on.

Catch her.

Shovel Knight has PTSD. He and Shield Knight were a team, always fighting together, with Shield Knight providing the defense and Shovel Knight providing the offense. She was always in the front lines, keeping the enemies away and setting up the conditions so that Shovel Knight could get in the killing blow. That's why she was in front in the Tower of Fate, and why Shovel Knight made it out while she did not. She's been protecting him for their entire career, and the one time that she needed him to protect her...he failed.

So he dreams. He dreams that she's falling, and only he can save her. Monsters all around him, and Shield Knight is falling, ever so slowly, and he looks up at her, and he leaps...

And wakes, alone, by the ashes of his fire.

A bitter dawn.

I was honestly tempted to drop the mic there, because even with the amazing gameplay, the story is why I like Shovel Knight so much. Sure, it's mimimal and mostly told through inference, much like Dark Souls, and because of that it ends up with a much stronger resonance than endlessly droning on about Shovel Knight's internal torment. Shakespeare can write soliloquies well, but I haven't met the video game that does anywhere close to as good a job.

If you like side-scrolling platformers even a little bit, Shovel Knight is a contender for the best one I've ever played, up there with genre-defining classics like Super Mario World and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It really is amazing, and the only reason I'm not trying New Game+ is because I have too many other games to play. The Golden Age of gaming is now.
Current Mood: ecstaticecstatic
Current Music: Shovel Knight - Catch Me (RoeTaKa OC ReMix)