Shovel Knight: An Indie Masterpiece

Indie platforming darling Shovel Knight arrived five years ago. Here's why it's an absolute masterpiece...

Shovel Knight

Years ago, I contributed toward the funding of Shovel Knight, this old-school pixelated action-platformer on Kickstarter that looked a lot like the old NES DuckTales game, but with Scrooge McDuck pogoing around on his cane replaced by a knight bouncing about on a shovel.

In retrospect, I don’t really know why I did it. The fact is I never owned an NES. My parents, though strangely okay with PCs, felt console gaming was a hollow timewaster, so it probably wasn’t till college that I got a chance to play DuckTales for the first time (on an emulator). My contribution to this Kickstarter was a moment of weakness derived from a misplaced nostalgia.

Many indie games these days, Kickstarted and otherwise, depend and thrive on this sort of thing, producing facsimiles of titles from bygone gaming generations. Revolution Software managed to get enough old-timers to empty out their pockets in support of a new Broken Sword point-and-click adventure. Independent developer Zeboyd Games has basically made a career out of Dragon Warrior clones. And what about that time literally all the money in the world was donated to the creator of Mega Man to make not only a spiritual video game successor, but an animated series on top of that?

There’s definite foolishness to funding reheated versions of gaming artifacts. Nostalgia is a dirty liar. While there was a lot of good in those old titles, there was a whole lot of nonsense and garbage paired with it—unavoidably so, really. These were games made during a period when whole genres were still being invented, games that were defining what the artform actually could be. Some of the design was bound to come out wonky.

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But my funding of this pixel-knight-bouncing-about-on-a-shovel nonsense is a uniquely absurd situation. So powerful was the pull of nostalgia that I dropped money on the idea of what I thought retro gaming was supposed to be. Sure, I got to play some NES at friends’ houses back in the day (Ninja Gaiden, mostly), but my concept of the salad days of Nintendo and Sega is informed primarily by hearsay (both then and now) from more fortunate gamers. In other words, I gave Yacht Club Games money to make Shovel Knight based on false memories, or at least, false emotions implanted in me by childhood peers and the internet.

So what a wonderful surprise it was to start up Shovel Knight on my 3DS and find it to be easily the best game I played in 2014, not to mention, one of the best modern 2D action-platformers out there. The interesting thing is that Shovel Knight honors and pays homage to Nintendo-era gaming, but still feels like the product of smart, contemporary development.

It looks and sounds a lot like Nintendo, but this game would never have actually been possible on a system of yore. Aside from the obvious hardware deficiencies, the design is light-years beyond what gaming was capable of in the 80s and 90s. If Shovel Knight had actually been a Nintendo game, it would’ve blown the rest of the system’s library out of the water.

This is no fluke. This brilliant balance of retro and modern is the result of extensive, painstaking work from Yacht Club Games, who approached the game’s development with a desire to showcase their reverence to 8 and 16-bit gaming, but with the added goal of not outright aping it. They strove for an experience that would both recall and build upon 2D action-platforming, which would engage older gamers without pandering to them and, additionally, wouldn’t alienate modern audiences. How did they accomplish this?

THE PRESENTATION

Lately, my initial reaction to pixels has been that they’re a gimmicky trend that allows for lazier, cheaper graphical design. Should we abandon pixel art altogether? Well, no. Pixel are is a perfectly valid style that has the potential to be truly lovely.

Some of our most respected media (see: the original Star Wars trilogy) has come out of working with limited resources, and many 8-bit games still look great, because the artists were clearly pushing the system, doing as much as they could with what little they had. Much has already been written about the odd, simple Dadaist presentation of the original Super Mario Bros., with its funky little creatures and mushrooms on minimalist backgrounds. Or what about the surreal, dramatic presentation of huge boss battles against black backdrops?

There are plenty of examples where the updating of graphics hasn’t served as compelling evidence that pixels should be left in the past. The special edition versions of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge look much like the stuff of bland, browser-based flash games, with far less character than the detailed pixel art of the original versions. I would also argue that all the Mario Bros. games that have “New” slapped on the front of their titles suffer from the same affliction.

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And while this is entering a later generation, the PlayStation’s Klonoa: Door to Phantomile featured 2D sprites on (rather rough) 3D backgrounds. The remake on the Wii 3D-ed everything up and went for an overall cleaner look, but removed the organic feel of the textures in the process, rendering everything sort of sterile.

Shovel Knight looks great because a rather insane amount of thought went into getting the graphics to their final iteration. As Yacht Club programmer David D’Angelo notes, there is a surprising jump in quality when comparing later NES titles to early releases, as the tech that went into NES cartridges advanced greatly over the course of the system’s life. With that in mind, Yacht Club approached Shovel Knight by asking, “What if development for the NES never stopped?”

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As such, Shovel Knight supports widescreen display and has parallax scrolling (the ability to move different layers of the screen at different speeds to give the illusion of depth). There are also occasionally more particle effects than the NES could manage because, well, it looks cooler.

Still, Yacht Club recognized that the strength of great NES games came from (in every facet) their simplicity. They therefore endeavored to hew closely to the NES’ original color palette, which could only do 54 colors total. They cheated a little bit, creating a few extra, darker colors that the NES never had, but only because they felt them to be necessary inclusions (e.g., the Hall of Champions features pixel portraits of higher-tier Kickstarter contributors of various ethnic backgrounds). Also, a la NES, they kept sprites to a five-color maximum and went through multiple design rounds to achieve a simplified, uniform look to them throughout.They also kept in some of the more charming quirks of those old games, like the way Shovel Knight obscures the HUD whenever he reaches the top of the screen. And the battle with Tinker Knight pretty well resembles those black-backgrounded boss battles of old.

Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is some awesome throwback work, too. It was composed by Jake Kaufman (aka virt), who notably created the music for all the Shantae games and generally kicks a lot of ass at making chiptune stuff.Shovel Knight’s NES tunes were specifically composed to work with a more advanced, external sound chip introduced in Konami games later in the system’s life (which specifically only worked with the Japanese Famicom and not the US NES). Basically, Shovel Knight’s audio is Nintendo-authentic when compared to the system at its absolute best.

Of course, there were still a few cheats here too, like how sound effects and music are able to play simultaneously with no change in quality to either while actual NES games had to drop out music channels to accommodate for effects. However, the goal, again, was a rose-colored 8-bit experience. There would be no point adhering to NES limitations that would mar the experience.

THE GAMEPLAY

If a game is labeled “retro,” it’s naturally expected that it will also be challenging. However, the reasoning is typically that, to achieve a truly retro experience, a game’s challenge must be absolutely relentlessly unforgiving. But in modern gaming, it’s worthwhile to take into consideration the actual purpose of difficulty. In the early days, when space limitations meant a game could only be so long, the focus was frequently on longevity, often achieved by making the game nigh-impossible to beat.

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The focus of game design has changed so much that difficulty needs to be approached differently from title to title. The Silent Hill series downplays its combat elements in favor of providing a moody experience. Telltale’s The Walking Dead has some action elements but is essentially a story-driven interpersonal relationship simulator. Then there are games like Gone Home that are so focused on tone and setting that one could argue there’s nothing left resembling what we used to call a challenge.

Still, there are those modern titles that aim for a retro aesthetic and, in doing so, revel in making the player suffer much like the NES once did. Some—like Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami, and Dustforce—emphasize perfection, forcing you to become so acquainted with the lay of a level that you eventually have the game down to a science. Others don’t require the same level of muscle memory but throw seemingly insurmountable odds your way. Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV and Super Hexagon pile on instant-kill spikes and insta-murder walls, respectively. Cave Story is a game that has the old-school feel down pretty authentically, with its obvious nods to 2D Metroid titles, its uber-tough bosses, and a general tendency to fill the screen with droves of enemies and projectiles (and there are some spikes in there, too).

Again, it’s worth questioning what function the high level of challenge in these games serves. Cave Story and Super Hexagon are among my all-time favorite games, but would I recommend them to anyone outside of seasoned gamers? No way. Furthermore, what concepts of challenge are we attempting to recapture here? If we’re looking to the Nintendo and arcade games of yore for inspiration, we’re talking games that weren’t just challenging so much as straight-up unfair. Design was just not as tight back then, meaning sometimes it really was the game’s fault, not yours, that you died. Plus, it was considered normal for developers to design their games with the notion in mind that the player was their foe. The old Sierra adventure games, for example, were chock full of obtuse puzzles and unclear ways to murder the player character at every turn, but these were called “features,” rather than “bad design.”

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Having worked at Wayforward on sequels and pseudo-remakes of eighties’ titles like Contra 4 and Double Dragon Neon, the Yacht Club guys developed a game that felt like an all-new franchise from that period. As such, Shovel Knight is a decidedly difficult game. However, it works extremely hard toward tempering its difficulty so as to appeal to veterans while still giving modern gamers a way in to enjoy the experience as well. It does this, as it does with all other elements of its design, by examining early gameplay mechanics through a modern lens, and then tweaking them as necessary.

One of the most welcome features borrowed from the past is a distinct absence of handholding. The player can really only perform four core actions in Shovel Knight (jump, attack, shovel drop, and use a relic). Shovel Knight doesn’t even have a tutorial level (or anything clearly marked as one, anyway). It trusts that the player will discover and grow to understand its controls just by giving you a space to play around with them a little. Beyond that, it presents you with simple obstacles and situations and then builds upon those, relying, as the best old games did, on your ability to retain the compounding concepts being linearly introduced to you in each level and then intuiting what to do next based on what you already know.

The very first level forces you to discover the shovel drop maneuver (if you haven’t already) by first presenting you with dirt blocks obstructing your entrance to a cave. You clear those away easily with a swipe of your shovel, but then you’re presented with blocks you can only access from above. You know that you can break blocks, but find that your swipe can’t reach these particular ones. Seeing as the blocks are below you, you’re likely to jump around on them and try pressing down, which will reveal to you how a shovel drop is performed. This may sound like crazy simple stuff, but it’s a result of great, systematic design that is easy to take for granted because, when it’s done well, it feels natural. You don’t even realize the game is teaching you anything when it’s actually doing that constantly. (Here’s a long video breakdown of the first level, if you want to hear about this design junk even more in-depth.)

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As it gets more difficult, Shovel Knight stays smart in its design to make sure the player is still along for the ride. The Lich Yard unlocks after the first level is complete and features darkened sections where you can only see silhouettes of Shovel Knight, his enemies, and the level layout in general. It may seem like a very tough stage to have to tackle only two or three levels in (and, well, it kind of is), but as Shovel Knight pixel art guy Nick Wozniak explains, it’s very important in any platformer that the player has a sense and a feel for where their character is located in a level, even if they aren’t able to see him. Shovel Knight’s formidable difficulty is mostly derived from its platformer elements, so it’s integral and extremely smart that this level shows up early to prepare you for what’s to come.

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Death in Shovel Knight is a major overhaul of old-school mechanics as well. Lives and continues are very much things of the past. Yacht Club couldn’t go so backward as to resort to forcing the player out of the level (or even to the beginning of the game) after dying too many times, but it needed to have some penalty so that dying didn’t feel negligible. Therefore, a mechanic was borrowed from Dark Souls (which there’s no shame in; as mentioned, Shovel Knight merges great elements from both old and new games). If Shovel Knight dies, he drops bags of gold. It’s possible for him to retrace his steps to grab the gold, though there’s no guarantee it won’t have landed in a precarious area.

Gold is used to buy upgrades and useful new items, and when you “die,” a significant enough amount is lost that going back to retrieve it is an attractive prospect. Plus, if you die again before you manage to do so, those initial bags of dropped gold disappear forever. This is incentive to be all the more careful after dying once. Also, when a bag happens to have landed in an iffy spot near a pit or other hazard, the player must make a decision about whether or not to try and go for it and risk losing another life in the process (though the game also has your back here to an extent, as the fishing rod can often help with gold retrieval).

Something that repeatedly stunned me about Shovel Knight is the way it isn’t just toning down retro difficulty, but rethinking and inverting its concepts entirely. First, there’s the completely ingenious checkpoint system, which gives you the choice of activating checkpoints to respawn at if you die or, alternatively, destroying them to collect the treasure they hold inside (plus, there’s an in-game achievement for demolishing all of them). This is really a having-and-eating-cake-too mechanic.

Yacht Club managed to provide more checkpoints in every level than in your average NES game, but has also given the player the option to forego them and try to finish levels from beginning to end on one life like it’s the Reagan era all over again. And the system allows for customizable gameplay beyond that. One could choose to set off one checkpoint after a particularly difficult section, but destroy another later.

In Jim Sterling’s review of Shovel Knight, he seemed a bit obsessed with “Medusa Heading.” This refers to the effect present in Shovel Knight and many old platformers where the player character gets knocked backward when injured. Specifically, this is in regards to the floating Medusa heads of Castlevania, which flew in obnoxious patterns in areas requiring precision platforming prowess, invariably knocking the player into bottomless pits over and over again. What Sterling neglected to note, however, is that Shovel Knight demonstrates an awareness of how frustrating Medusa Heading may be to some players, and offers the ability to do away with it. While a good bit of the game must admittedly be cleared first, it is eventually possible to purchase armor that will cancel out the knockback. Wearing this armor, Shovel Knight will stand his ground when injured, though at the cost of sliding a bit before coming to a stop (making him control a bit less like Ryu Hayabusa and a bit more like Mario).

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There are other, more subtle inversions of old mechanics and quirks. For example, it’s long been the norm for enemies to respawn if you leave and return to a room. In NES games, this would sometimes happen in the same area if you just let the screen scroll a little to the right and then went a few steps back to the left. Infamously, there were spots in Ninja Gaiden where, if your position was such that an enemy’s respawn point was right on the edge of the screen, it would respawn eternally no matter how many times you killed it. This sort of thing was a right pain in the ass when trying to jump over a bottomless pit but some sort of murderous pigeon wouldn’t stop spawning in your way.

Instant-respawn enemies were a side-effect of hardware limitations. It was certainly a lot simpler to program and store an enemy’s behavior only once, rather than have the game keep track of which baddies had been killed and which hadn’t. However, it also fell in line with the old design credo of “make the player suffer.” Shovel Knight half-honors this technical relic by having many insta-spawn enemies. However, it’s done with calculated thought.

Larger, particularly tough enemies do not respawn. Also, if there’s a room that can be entered from the left or from the right and an enemy is programmed to spawn in front of the left entrance, it simply will not spawn if the player should enter from there, so as to avoid unfairly taking off some of your health. Further, throughout the game you must use the shovel drop to bounce off enemies and reach higher areas. You’re bound to accidentally kill a usefully-placed enemy at some point, but walking a few steps away and then back will likely respawn the enemy you need to reach that secret area. Clearly, the use of respawning enemies was done strategically.

The old platformer standby of bottomless pits also gets reworked a bit. In a NES game, you might ascend from one area to another and then find that falling still kills you as though the world ends just below the screen, even though you were just down there platforming around a second ago. In Shovel Knight, the vertical levels are relatively forgiving. If you fall and there’s another area below you, you will fall down into that area and still have a chance to save yourself. In fact, Propeller Knight’s airship level is hugely based around the concept of giving you more chances to regain ground should you lose your footing, rather than frustratingly killing you over and over again for one misstep. Here’s a video unpacking in detail how the Flying Machine level does this: 

Yacht Club Games designed Shovel Knight with the challenge of an NES platformer. But after that, all they did was tweak and redesign so as to turn the difficulty down to acceptable levels. In truth, I might be nuts, but I wouldn’t have minded the game being a little more true to its retro roots. I feel that Yacht Club overcompensated just a tad.

The relics, for example, can make quick work of enemies—maybe too quick. A fight near a bottomless pit should be super-tense, but becomes a cakewalk when you can simply toss fireballs at the baddie from afar. Good use of a relic can absolutely destroy some bosses as well, to the point where you don’t even have to take the time to learn their attack patterns. The Phase Locket, which makes you invulnerable from everything (even spikes!) for a few seconds at a time, is ridiculously easy to spam, especially considering how frequently enemies drop mana that refills your magic.

Overall, Shovel Knight’s difficulty is derived from its platforming far more than its combat. Still, perhaps it’s for the best that mechanics like the relics exist to ease newer players into discovering the aspects of classic gaming that are worth bringing back. 

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Besides, there are in-game achievements unlocked by never picking up any relics and also New Game+, which unlocks after you complete the game once and enables enemies to inflict greater damage as well as eliminates almost all health pickups. As such, the challenge of playing a harder, more authentically retro version of the game is technically still there for the players who want it.

THE STORY

Shovel Knight’s story isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, and I feel it could use a bit more fleshing out, but it’s still an impressive achievement. In action-based NES games, story was usually an afterthought (or, alternatively, a bit too silly and reliant on text crawls that most players skipped through, like the ones in Ninja Gaiden). Shovel Knight has brief cutscenes and minimal dialogue. But what’s really great about it is how it tells its story and establishes its tone through gameplay.

Clearly wanting to keep the storyline heavily ensconced within the already established framework of the game, Shovel Knight’s relationship with his partner Shield Knight is mostly deepened through dream sequences that take place after certain levels. The first time I finished a level and was presented with a screen of Shovel Knight resting by a campfire, I figured this was just a between-level breather like I’d seen in so many games before. I expected my stats for the level might pop up or something. So it was an absolute delight when the moment suddenly became interactable, and I was made to live out Shovel Knight’s recurring nightmare of being unable to rescue his beloved.

The fact that these sequences require you to play just as you have been the whole time with the skills you already know, the way each dream fades to white, leaving you unsure whether you succeeded or if success is even possible, the sad music that plays during these action-based scenes, and the way Shovel Knight has the same dream again and again establishes a melancholy tone and makes these the most affecting sequences in the game. That I’m even calling a throwback NES-style platformer about a knight who uses a shovel as a weapon “affecting” at all is something pretty special.

It helps that Shield Knight herself is a pretty cool character. We don’t know a ton about her, but we do know she isn’t just a love interest. She’s half of Shovel Knight’s team (and the end of the game implies she’s even more of a badass than he is). This is yet another simultaneous homage and inversion of an old concept. Yacht Club has even said that originally Shield Knight was the standard damsel in distress, a McGuffin princess. While the distressed damsel is a useful storytelling device, Yacht Club also recognized it as outdated. It was only a few key changes to Shield Knight’s character that changed her from a simple damsel into something more interesting, but it’s effective. Shield Knight feels like a far cry from Princess Peach.

THE NOSTALGIA

One of the most important things Yacht Club Games did in developing Shovel Knight was honor 8-bit platformers without getting sycophantic about it. There’s really nothing in the way of overt references to other games. Shovel Knight’s shovel drop isn’t outright ganked from anywhere. Instead, it’s a combination of Link’s down-thrust from Zelda 2 and Scrooge’s pogo cane from DuckTales. The bosses feel very Mega Man-esque, but beating them is based more on general combat skill than on figuring out which power-up is most effective against which boss. The awesome world map looks a lot like the one from Super Mario 3, but the way more of it gets gradually revealed by a moving storm cloud is inspired by a Capcom game I’ve never even heard of called U.N. Squadron. The intent was never to stuff in specific references to other games, but rather, as Yacht Club puts it, to go with a “distilled idea of what we remembered” of 8-bit gaming.

This is how to do homage properly: show reverence to your influences, but also show off your awareness of how important the ambition in those titles was by trying to improve on these concepts you so respect. Interestingly, Yacht Club’s ability to meaningfully improve upon and move beyond tired attempts at emulating 8-bit gaming is hugely dependent on how utterly dedicated they are to it. I mean, they’re so into the NES they actually took into consideration whether or not to recreate the ugly sprite flickering many NES games suffered from (they wisely decided not to).

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Yacht Club wasn’t held back by hardware, so they challenged themselves to create a rose-colored 8-bit homage that came from having the feel, graphics, music, gameplay, and challenge of that generation, while also implementing their own vision. Their goal with Shovel Knight was to show “the merits of these eighties’ ideas and why we shouldn’t abandon some of them.”

It’s easy to dismiss stylistically retro titles as bringing back outdated concepts out of nostalgia for a now largely-irrelevant period in gaming history. But Shovel Knight makes a convincing case for revisiting what did work in those early titles. No medium has evolved and changed so rapidly over such a short time. Just because technology has allowed us to do away with two-button-centric, 2D action-platformers in favor of scripted, cinematic 3D experiences doesn’t mean we exhausted all the possibilities of those early gameplay styles. However, there’s also no point in glamorizing this medium’s past mistakes.

With Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games left behind the mistakes of eighties’ game design, rethought its problems, and built upon its achievements. In other words, they went through the design process necessary for making an awesome new game. And they did it through a crowdfunding campaign with loads of backer input. Shovel Knight may look and feel like it came out of the eighties, but if that isn’t an embracement of modern game development, I don’t know what is. 

Joe Matar is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.