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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Shovel Knight.

TranscriptEdit

"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?

AddendaEdit

  • 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

ScreenshotsEdit

Shovelknight3

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?

Shovelknight1

I've realized I can't say the word "titular" without picturing some kind of breast-themed enemy of Godzilla

Shovelknight2

I'm a trifle miffed!

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
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2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
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Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
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Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

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