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December 8, 2014

Season's Wii-tings II: Shovel Knight

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a hypocrite.  And then I remember that I am, so I go about my business.  But then I remember that I brought up that point for the sake of a blog post, so I guess I’d better go into detail.

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of the Game Grumps.  Whether it’s the original Jon era or the current one with Arin and Dan, it’s still a series I tune into routinely.  Sure, not every second of every video is a laugh riot, and their regular stumbling blocks are problematic (I’m surprised I lived through their Wind Waker playthrough, given how long it took them to leave the first damn island), but on average?  Team Grump is pretty good. 

Still, I have to make a confession.  Whenever the two of them decide to play through an old-school NES/SNES game -- platformers, typically -- my heart ends up sinking.  I mean, Team Grump has access to a monstrous library of games, both from fan contributions and a museum-sized collection.  Out of all the choices available, why opt for something like Super Adventure Island?  And why do that as a months-later follow-up to a game like Shovel Knight, the premiere love letter to old-school games?

Crap, did I just give away my opinion on Shovel Knight?  Great.  Now why would anyone want to read this post?  I might as well just post pictures of cats or something.

Or not.

If you read that post I did on Mercenary Kings, then you’ll know that I’m more than a little conflicted about these modern/retro games.  Nothing would make me happier than seeing games grow and evolve -- to conclusively lay claim to the respect they deserve -- but sometimes it seems like the minds behind every polygon and pixel aren’t aiming for that.  It’s like they’re just trying to survive.  Just trying to get the sale.  And I can understand why, obviously; they’re dealing with an art form, but there are stakes on the line.  Sometimes you need a sure thing.

But my problem goes beyond that.  I like Shovel Knight in terms of its execution -- very much so, as you’ll see -- but conceptually it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Okay, sure, you can’t expect every company and every game to push the envelope, especially with small companies/teams like Yacht Club Games having finite resources (Kickstarter success aside).  On the other hand, it feels like they’re ensuring that we stay in our comfort zone.  It’s dangerously close to pandering, in a way.  “Hey!  Remember when games used to be like this?  Well they can STILL be like that, so relive the glory days!”  Further, there’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while.

If the current games industry wasn’t the shitshow that it is now -- if we could reliably count on a new Mega Man game on a regular basis -- then would there be a need for Shovel Knight?

I guess I can’t go too much further without talking about Mega Man.  So let me say this to start: I don’t have any lingering attachment to the Blue Bomber’s franchise.  The first game of his I ever owned was Mega Man X: Command Mission for the GameCube -- and I only played the other X games via the anniversary collection on the same console.  In terms of classic mega-busting, I wouldn’t do that until Mega Man 9 came out…and even then, well past its release.  Don’t take that as a condemnation of the mega-canon, though.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that maybe this is just an issue with me.

I don’t look forward to Zelda games because I remember good times with the earlier Zeldas (remember, I didn’t play through Majora’s Mask until a couple of years ago).  I look forward to Zelda games because they’re ridiculously good, and each one offers something different in spite of following the same blueprint.  By the same token, I’m not excited for Guilty Gear Xrd because I remember fun times with an earlier installment.  I’m excited because it’s evolving the franchise.  It’s moving forward, and taking steps away from what it used to be so it can become something even better.  If nostalgia always got the best of me, then I’d be ranting and raving about how good Final Fantasy 13 is…you know, instead of ranting and raving about how bad it is.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that I don’t want to stay stuck in the past.  Having a look or two at how things used to be?  Yeah, that’s fine.  In small amounts, it’s refreshing as well as insightful.  But as I’ve said before, the past is not sacrosanct.  Maybe I don’t want to go through another Metroidvania-style game.  Maybe I don’t want to take on a 2D platformer (with a twist!). 

Again, budget constraints are an issue for a lot of developers, but isn’t that more of a reason to do something different?  I’m not saying that indie devs -- whose mere existence is doing God’s work -- put out nothing but new-age takes on old-school games.  But when they do, they need to make a compelling argument as to why I should set down a 2014 game and play it instead.  Or alternatively, why I shouldn’t just play one of the Mega Man X games.

Which (finally) brings us to Shovel Knight.

Here’s the setup.  You play as Shovel Knight, a knight who uses a shovel.  More specifically, he was one of the greatest adventuring heroes ever, alongside his more-than-just-friends friend Shield Knight -- but tragedy struck, Shield Knight was taken from him, and Shovel Knight ended up a broken man.  But he’s called into action one day when The Enchantress and the Robot Masters Order of No Quarter takes control of the land.  Now our ace of spades has to drive them all out and make his way toward the Tower of Fate to beat The Enchantress once and for all. 

Shovel Knight may be a lot of things, but in terms of its story, “ambitious” is not one of them.  You’re a knight out to fight the good fight, moving across the world Super Mario Bros. 3-style to wipe enemy knights off the face of the earth.  There is actually dialogue you can have with bosses and incidental opponents -- which actually works pretty well -- so you can’t exactly do a one-to-one comparison to one of Mario’s misadventures.  Then again, you CAN do a one-to-one comparison with one of the Mega Man X games; pre-fight banter has been a fixture since X4.  Still, there’s a pretty big difference between that game and this one, and it’s what gives SK pretty much all the justification it needs to exist.

To quote my brother: “This game is charming as fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

To be fair, if you’re the sort who can’t handle puns, then you should probably avoid this game -- because there are a lot of them.  But even then, when you’ve got downtime you get to enjoy the world that’s laid out before you -- a couple of towns bustling with activity (sticks and hoops, the GREATEST of all games!), shops with plenty of animated characters, nice music that’ll likely put a smile on your face, and just this general air of pleasantry that you just don’t get all that often these days.  The spaces you visit may be limited by budget, but SK makes that a moot point by having everything in it following a grand design -- a creative vision.

If you’ll let me use a food metaphor, you can think of it like this: SK is a plate of deviled eggs.  (For the sake of this metaphor, assume that no matter your current tastes, deviled eggs are delicious.)  Taken individually, a deviled egg is nice and tasty, but ultimately insubstantial.  You’ll enjoy it, but you won’t be able to savor it for long.  That is, unless you eat more deviled eggs; one after another, you take them in and let them collectively color your palate, and gain something substantial.  Now, imagine that each of those eggs is an aspect of SK’s package -- the visuals, and music, and air, and vision that you can break down into individual parts, but has the strongest effect when taken as a whole.  When everything comes together, you get something that just plain works.

Even for me, that reference is obtuse. 

SK is very obviously going for “classic appeal”, but that doesn’t mean the under-the-hood stuff is archaic by any means.  First off, the songs may be a mixture of beeps, boops, and chirps, but they legitimately come together to make some solid music.  (That’s to be expected from Jake “I Made Double Dragon Neon Godlike” Kaufman.)  The visuals may be sprite-based -- even though that’s hardly a negative point -- but some of the animations in this game are strikingly complex and fluid.  And the aesthetic works wonders, and goes well beyond just having lots of colors.  You may have a mostly-typical suite of video game levels, but each one brings something new and exciting to the table -- be it dangers, systems, or just plain something to look at in between jumps.

It makes me think back to something Bob “MovieBob” Chipman mentioned a while back in one of his videos, where he made a comparison between the games of the past and the games of the present.  The stereotype is that modern games have a glut of brown shooters (military or otherwise, arguably), but once upon a time there was a glut of platformers starring colorful critters, each one trying to ape the successes of a certain blue hedgehog.  A fair point, sure -- but MovieBob showed a bunch of those platformers in one shot, and each one looked incredibly distinct.  You knew immediately which was which, even if you didn’t know their names.

I don’t think I need to tell you what happened when he did the same for modern games.  I mean, do you know which game this is just by looking at a screenshot?

SK sure manages to make a case for itself with its gameplay -- as it should.  You can think of it as a platformer, but with some healthy puzzle-solving elements, and a semi-emphasis on loot.  You go from the start of a level to its end and fight a boss, as you’d expect, but the trip there has its fair share of danger.  Shovel Knight’s most useful ability is that he can bounce of enemies and objects out in the field with his shovel (don’t ask how that works), just like Scrooge McDuck once upon a time.  Still, SK isn’t just about getting from A to B as fast as possible; you’ll be using that shovel of yours to uncover gems and reveal secret areas hidden throughout.  Again, it’s about that deviled egg metaphor -- finding a nice stash of jewels or making it through a secret room on a regular basis really contributes to an overall feeling of progress.  It makes the world feel bigger than it is -- creating the illusion of depth and weight, as all video games should do.

You could make a pretty strong argument that you don’t have to go out of your way to collect EVERY gem you see (since doing so means risking a greed-born death).  But you’ll probably want to; you’re finding that loot so you can upgrade your knight, and make sure he can survive the struggles to come.  Boost your health, boost your MP, buy new magic, buy new armor -- there are plenty of combinations, which A) allows you to claim ownership of your personal adventurer, and B) allows you to tailor the game to your play style…or, alternatively, let you decide how you want to face the challenges to come.

I’d say that SK is more about traversal of the stages than it is about combat, but that’s pretty much thrown out the window when it’s time for a boss fight -- which might be my favorite parts of the game.  These guys have lots of moves designed to keep you on your toes, making use of both their tool sets and the environment you fight them in.  King Knight brings out the fanfare as you fight him before his throne.  Mole Knight tunnels underground and forces you to dig him out.  Specter Knight -- who could have been a late or final boss in any other game -- makes use of both teleporting antics and the darkness to leave you flustered.  And, you know, dead.  In a way, they remind me of the bosses from Metal Gear Rising; you may not get to know them for long, but they sure leave a lasting impression.

Still, there’s something that’s been on my mind -- both in terms of the bosses and with SK overall.  Given the hype and high scores associated with the game -- both the Game Grumps and the Best Friends Zaibatsu are notable contributors -- I have to admit that I went in expecting some sort of revelation.  I’m not a hundred percent sure I found that…but on the other hand, I don’t really need that.  The only thing I needed SK to do was offer up some sort of flair.  It needed some element to show that no matter the make or style, this is a game that deserves to be around in 2014 -- whether or not the games industry as-is has a lot of gaps.  And I think I know what that flair is.

So here’s my question: is it just me, or is Shovel Knight kind of a terrible fighter?

What’s important to note about Shovel Knight, I think, is that his default attack has pathetic range.  Between that and the fact that its frames aren’t active for very long, it’s a good thing that you can beat a good number of enemies with one good tap.  But it’s hardly something I feel comfortable in relying on; I’d say you’re better off just trying to get in a good bounce, or tossing out magic.  My point of comparison with Shovel Knight is Zero from the Mega Man X games; his range, as you’d expect, isn’t nearly as good as the buster-slinging X.  But the tradeoff is that Zero can do MUCH more damage with even his basic combo, and his Z-Saber has enough range on it to tear through foes from several steps way.  On top of that, a lot of the moves he gets from bosses don’t consume any MP.  Just press the right button combination, and you do it.

It leads me to a certain theory.  In the context of the game, Shovel Knight is a nice guy -- polite and hardworking, and he regularly tries to talk down aggressors.  That’s appreciable in itself, but it goes beyond that.  Remember, this is a guy who willingly gave up adventuring to work the land.  His trusted partner was Shield Knight.  His weapon of choice is a shovel, and rightfully gets laughed at and taken as a joke by others.  Sure, he may be one of the best adventurers around, but wouldn’t that practically demand a real weapon?  A sword, perhaps?  I can only think of a few reasons why Shovel Knight would venture out the way he does.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  There are three possibilities:

1) Shovel  Knight really is an awful fighter, and only scrapes through with wits and luck.

2) Shovel Knight never wanted to be a fighter, to the point of trying (and failing) to be a pacifist; he may be a great adventurer, but he might have only earned that fame because he was the best at digging up loot.

3) Shovel Knight secretly is a good fighter (to his dismay), but only because everyone else is secretly terrible; that is, by applying basic common sense and techniques -- a sort of shovel-based aikido -- he can beat out anyone.

I’m leaning toward the third one here.  Remember, it’s typically the other knights (and incidental bosses, like The Baz…of all people) who pick the fight, not to mention all of the enemies who take the first swing at our hero.  It’s true that Shovel Knight has to clear them out to reach the Tower of Fate, but he’s not out to wreck them because of some grudge or solely because they oppose him.  It leads me to believe that he doesn’t want to fight, but does so anyway.  Because of that, the game not only keeps its emphasis on exploration and traversing the world; it also makes a strong case for non-aggression.  A clear mind, focused on the task ahead -- on what really matters -- instead of petty grudges or selfish desires.

And to support this, the game has a functional flaw: it’s much easier than it should be.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is some challenge to the game; I can’t tell you how many times my heart skipped a beat as I landed on a platform half as wide as Shovel Knight, or how my blood pressure spiked as I went through a perilous section of a stage.  But those level-based dangers, and even the boss fights that follow, aren’t exactly hard.  Tricky, sure.  But hard?  No, not really.  It’s a blessing in terms of boss fights, given that you actually get a chance to learn their attack patterns before losing all your lives and being forced to start a level over.  But I still have to take issue.

Here’s the thing: once you get the Chaos Sphere spell (and learn the moves du jour), it’s over for most of the bosses.  You toss out a bouncing orb that can hit bosses multiple times in one go, and you can have more than one orb out at a time.  Sure, it takes up MP, but even if you run out, by that point you’ve likely whittled down a boss enough to bounce off of it until it becomes one with oblivion.  On top of that, it’s damn near required -- if not unavoidable -- for you to chain those bounces together into a combo.  There’s one boss that gets wise to your tactics and tries to blow you off, but by that point I’d done enough damage to him AND had enough health to completely ignore his offense. 

And that’s all setting aside the fact that you gain the ability to phase through anything and everything in your way -- enemies, traps, spikes, and more -- for a short amount of time as long as your magic holds out…which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if A) you haven’t been boosting your MP, which you almost certainly will, and B) you couldn’t spam the command nigh-infinitely to make you effectively invincible.  So I guess what I’m getting at here is that it’s remarkably easy to break the game wide open…either that, or I’m just too good at finding and abusing exploits.

I’m not asking for SK to reach I Wanna Be the Guy levels of difficulty (and the resulting despair), but I’d have preferred a little more of a challenge, and a little higher of a difficulty curve.  Still, whether it was intentional or not, the game’s design offers up some ideas -- some subtleties -- that make SK more than just some nostalgia-mining sidescroller. 

The game is made in such a way to reinforce that Shovel Knight may not be a frontline fighter (whether by choice or necessity, it’s hard to say), but he’s still damn good at what he does.  He has the wisdom and experience -- and common sense -- that not a lot of people in his universe even care for.  And rather than showing off his skill with raw displays of force, he proves why he’s an adventurer -- if not a fighter -- with the humblest and most basic of motions…broken mechanics aside.

Still, there are two things beyond that worth talking about.  The first is that, even if you don’t buy into my interpretation of the game, there’s no denying that it’s got an additional flair.  See, after you clear a level Shovel Knight will go to sleep.  Sometimes he’ll have a dream, which springs you right into a minigame -- one where your objective is to catch a falling Shield Knight.  It’s a simple game (and easy enough), but it’s surprisingly impactful when you get down to it.  It’s a brief scene with a lot of heart, and tells you exactly what sort of person Shovel Knight is despite his regular silence.

And you remember that thing I usually say, don’t you?  The main character defines a story; you can’t have a good story unless you have a good main character.  That’s true of SK, and I’m happy to report that he DOES make the game better.  Stronger.  He’s a character with heart, and as a result his game has heart.  Whether it’s the in-universe stuff that makes everything tick, or the real-world affects -- game design, crowdfunding, whatever -- that made it a reality, SK does more than just seek favor by aping the past.  It EARNS that favor by being the exact sort of game bred to put a smile on your face.

So, what’s that second thing, then?  Well, I’ve been thinking about games and storytelling.  You can’t always have a solid, linear narrative in them -- and even then, they’re on shaky ground -- but maybe that’s not a death knell.  Maybe games can tell their own stories without a single word spoken.  If they can -- if they can use their elements and affects to subtly weave a narrative into each area -- then maybe they’re even stronger than we give them credit for.  Maybe, just maybe, they can be one of the most powerful art forms around.

Maybe we’ve already reached that point.

See you guys next time -- for the season’s finale.


  1. *Spoilers ahead*

    IT sort of bugged me you abbreviate Shovel Knight as "SN". Going on. I chuckled at your theory about him being a terrible fighter-- but that's the whole point.

    As you play through the game Shovel Knight, or "Butt Butt" if your prefer (look up butt mode for some juvenile fun) it becomes very clear his tactics are incomplete. Shield Knight is an integral part of his hero routine and losing her forced him into retirement.

    He basically quit because he sucked without her backing him up.

    However, the call to adventure is the brief glimmer of hope that he could find her again. The 'twist' of the game may be a surprise to the player, but I get the vibe it isn't to him. He knows immediately what he must do despite his short comings. The final boss fight really shows you that this unlikely team is pretty friggen awesome. Shield Knight protects him, while he efficiently gets the loot. It's pretty brilliant in execution.

    The entire game gives the air of 'self defense' rather than a rampage you would get with a sword toting knight. Shovel Knight trudges along, slow and steady filling in the crap holes left by the foes before him.

    Despite the fact this game is a 'save the princess' plot, you really have to give it props. There's a clear reason why Shovel Knight is seeking out his partner, not to put her in a tower and fawn over her, but because he NEEDS her. She's an integral part of his creed, game plan, and ultimately his happiness.

    This is the sort of relationship games need more of. You have to wonder if the Enchantress is actually the manifestation of Shield Knight's spite against his uselessness. By the end, he's pretty bad ass. If you get the golden armor, even quite acrobatic (and shiny!).

    The last 'The End' brought a happy flush to my cheeks and I let out a sigh of relief. Seeing my intrepid hero accomplish all that for nothing really left me feeling hollow, but the last twenty seconds felt like a what if alternative to the first ten minutes of Pixar's "UP".

  2. Oh, WOW. I seriously did use SN instead of SK, didn't I? Jeez, what was I thinking? Though in my defense, Shovel Night sounds like the sort of party a die-hard gardener would enjoy. Or maybe not. Anyway, consider that obvious issue fixed.

    Yeah, I wouldn't mind seeing more relationships like the one between Shovel Knight and Shield Knight in games. Romantic implications aside, they're equal parties. An adventuring duo. Partners in -- well, not crime, but close enough to it (those treasure chests have to belong to somebody, right?) There's plenty of potential in something like that. It'd certainly be a way to get more of those elusive "strong female characters" in circulation, yeah?

    In any case, I won't deny that Shovel Knight is pretty badass; you pretty much have to be to fight what's effectively the grim reaper (or Death from any number of Castlevania games) with a shovel. But yeah, I appreciate that he isn't technically a good fighter. It adds plenty to the game, and to the story. All without saying a word.

    Ah, would that all creators could learn the art of subtlety. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to destroy every mirror in a five mile radius, so as not to force literal and metaphorical reflection upon myself.