This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Shovel Knight.
"Gosh, Yahtzee, isn't the summer games drought a pain?" Shut your hypothetical face, viewer! What the fuck do you know about pain?
For starters, it's the winter games drought in Australia. It's bad enough we have to huddle in our homes trapped by the cruel blast of one degree below ideal surfing weather without AAA releases drying up and forcing us to pass the time with games like "Guess how many kicks to the bollocks it takes to draw blood" or Frozen Grandparent Tetris, or for those who are truly lost, Boggle. And still, the AAA industry makes these droughts longer by always demanding more and more arduous development cycles for the bigger and better graphics that dangle before our misery. But they will bring little comfort to poor Grandpa, whose testicles we have left so swollen and engorged that we have to use him as the T-shaped block!
So I turn instead to indie games and I played one this week that really grabbed me, namely Shovel Knight. I thought I'd look for a second game for one of my indie two-for-ones, but I opened the Steam new releases page, saw the title Zombie Solitaire, and then I fucking closed the Steam new releases page. Then I thought, "Am I being part of the problem? This cockeyed industry where the bland, safe, and soulless gets happy endings while auteur-driven artistry lies on its back in the mud trying to catch strings of carelessly discarded jizz for nourishment, and yet I too force them to share a seat on the complain train while the big knobs get one all to themselves. NO MORE! This is Day One of Year One, all aboard the buffet car to share out the fucking sandwiches!"
Shovel Knight is a platformer that deliberately tries to look like a game on the NES in order to score nostalgia points with an aging cabal of fat neckbeards who haven't seen their winkies since 1989. Well, that's unfair. Deliberately retro-style low-res graphics might seem like the easy route, but it is by no means zero-effort to look convincingly like an NES game. There's a very specific colour palette and font you have to use, not to mention having to make all the music and sound effects by stamping on the tails of cats wearing voice modulators, and it's also a lot more than zero-effort to do all that and still make a game that looks and sounds appealing. Hey, wait a minute, the NES didn't support parallax scrolling. Well, that buggers the whole effort! To the bin with you, Shovel Knight.
And another thing the NES didn't do much was in-depth storytelling because adding five explanatory text boxes to an NES cartridge meant cutting off a boss fight or two to make room. Shovel Knight, meanwhile, tells a story of the titular adventurer (you know, I've realized I can't say the word "titular" without picturing some kind of breast-themed enemy of Godzilla) who retired from adventure when his beloved partner was taken from him by an evil tower, but who must take up the mantle again when the land falls under the shadow of an organization of evil knights with themed powers. I believe the proper collective noun is a boss-rush of evil knights.
On the surface, the plot seems a bit uninspired but acquires depth as you go along through brief dialogue exchanges. One thing worth noting is that Shovel Knight's lost love comes across not as MacGuffin Princess Sexdoll Model 731-A but an actual equal and partner, illustrated in a sequence towards the end (really trying not to spoil here) that shows how well they work together as a team and how much of a loose end Shovel Knight is without her, all within the context of gameplay alone. It's almost Dark Souls-y in storytelling and I don't say that lightly.
And what's the other thing we know about Dark Souls, children? "That it's about as forgiving as a roomful of Australian border patrol guards who all came off a low fat diet this morning." That's correct! Although Shovel Knight's difficulty lies more in platform challenges than in combat which is more "easy to learn, of middling difficulty to master." Hit things with a shovel, jump on things with a shovel. Hoh yes, they don't call him "Shovel Knight" just for the lol random humour value like his contemporaries, Biscuit Samurai and Fridge Viking.
The addition of magic spells almost feel like overkill and kind of trivialize things to an extent because enemies and diggable blocks drop magic like Gandalf with the squirts. But I suppose there has to be something around for you to spend money on, because a lives system was one of the few dessicated body parts Shovel Knight was unprepared to dig up from the NES's grave, and so death carries instead the threat of a momentary dock in adventuring wages. You have to do the Dark Souls thing and recover the lost money from your point of death, but after you've died a few times trying to grab a floating money bag from when you died last time, you may stop appreciating the inherent life lesson.
If genealogy is your thing, Shovel Knight lies at the bottom of a family tree more rampantly incestuous than the fucking Lannisters, combining DNA from Super Mario 3, Zelda II, Castlevania, Ducktales and a big eager sticky mouthful of Mega Man. It's like the fucking Captain Planet of NES games: "By your powers combined, I will now bleep like someone doing squeaky farts in a tin elevator!" But notwithstanding that embarrassing parallax scrolling elephant in the room, Shovel Knight may be trying a bit too hard to be an NES game.
I can't think of any reason why spikes need to be an instant kill. We've got bottomless pits for a perfectly functional if slightly ambiguous instant kill, we don't need spikes muscling in on their turf! Five minutes ago, a bloke the size of a pregnant bus jumped down and hit me with the metal windsurfing sail that he seems to think is a sword and it didn't even take off a whole health point. Now I'm being splattered across four dimensions because my elbow brushed against the stucco ceiling. I'm a trifle miffed! I think it's only an instant kill because spikes were an instant kill in Mega Man, but it was just as unnecessary then, too. Yeah, I did have to dig pretty hard to find that small potato.
On the whole, it's an engaging game where a rudimentary core gameplay is used with a surprising degree of variety without compromising its simplicity, just the way I like it. And while you might write it off as 'nostalgia bait', as indeed I did a few paragraphs ago, I have never owned an NES, so if I liked Shovel Knight, it can't possibly be working on nostalgia alone because I have none for anything except Red Dwarf and Fantasy World Dizzy.
The fact is I liked it because it filled a hole that was left behind when I ran out of new Dark Souls to play and Dark Souls disappeared into the night, leaving me sweaty, unfilled, and harder than a slab on concrete with a Private Eye cryptic crossword carved into it. A hole I've also been trying to fill lately by playing old Castlevania games on the DS, again without nostalgia, 'cause I've never played them before.
My question is: is it still nostalgia if you play old games not to relive happier memories long past, but because old stuff does stuff you want that new stuff doesn't do? My next question is, would you mind beating my stiffy down while I grind for the treant soul?
- Defender of the faith: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Sadly Shovel Knight would go on to fill in his identity forms incorrectly, renamed himself Hovel Knight and have to move into lower-income housing
- Knighty knight