One Giant Leap, 2014: Shovel Knight

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we luxuriate in the 8-bit vibes of Shovel Knight

We’ve talked before about how there’s an inherent element of throwback in the indie 2D platformer renaissance. As far back as Cave Story the scene featured pixel art and chiptunes. Even games like Braid, which lack the aesthetic, are still in conversation with the era (note Braid’s many references to Super Mario Bros.). But outside of inspiration, there was a real hunger for the actual classics amongst a certain type of gamer. This is the same era that gave us Mega Man 9 and 10, games which intentionally look as much like the NES Mega Men as possible.

I couldn’t tell you that this wasn’t an NES game and I’m the one who found the screenshot in the first place!

Shovel Knight is a game for this era, a game that intentionally apes the NES in terms of visuals, soundtrack, and gameplay. The game pulls from several main sources. The biggest influence is Mega Man1. It has the same approach to level layouts, breaking them into discrete chunks separated by scrolling screen transitions. It has the same philosophy around introducing gimmicks in a safe environment before adding danger, and like Mega Man it extends that to mini-bosses, often having them show up on player-favoring terrain before showing up later on terrain that favors them. The magic/relic system is very Castlevania, pulling from a global resource (magic, instead of the inexplicable hearts) and even having some direct parallels (the throwing arc on the anchor being comparable to the axe, for instance). Plus you find roast chicken hiding in the walls. There’s an overworld map straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3, complete with roaming enemies. You can bounce off of enemies with your shovel in a clear reference to the NES Ducktales, of all things. Plus plenty more, probably, elements I’ve missed because I’m the sort of person who sees an NES Ducktales reference as a deep cut.

The NES pastiche even extends to the game’s aesthetics. It uses the NES’s default font, it has big blocky pixels, it’s got a chiptune soundtrack that I think you could play on an actual Famicom2? But here we start to see cheating; Shovel Knight looks more like our collective memories of the NES rather than an actual NES game. Gone are the sprite limits, gone are the simultaneous color restrictions. Shovel Knight is blue as an homage to Mega Man, not as a way to cheat detail into her sprite. The game is based on old-school style, but embraces the modern lack of technical limitations to plus it up.

Look at the detail in the background! There’s even paralax scrolling.

And as with the aesthetics so with the gameplay. Shovel Knight is built to evoke the NES era, with tough challenges, instant death pits and spikes, bosses that will likely kill you a few times before you learn their patterns. But it’s far more forgiving than any actual platformer on the system3, featuring infinite lives and a generous health bar (outside of boss fights, I think I died to damage once?). There are bonus levels built to show off the movement capabilities of some relics, the sort of fun change-of-pace that you didn’t necessarily see in actual NES games, even when they did feature movement gadgets (Mega Man items were more to skip parts you didn’t want to deal with and to bypass the one hard gate in a Wily stage, the games never expected you to do anything cool with them). The levels feature checkpoints that are a little less forgiving than modern games, but far more frequent than any of its inspirations. It also features a very modern for the time feature, where you can choose to smash up the checkpoints for a monetary reward. The extra money is balanced by the fact that you’ll no longer have access to the checkpoint if you die. Combined with the system whereby dying causes you to drop some money at the spot of your death, which you must pick up on your next attempt or lose forever, the whole thing feels very Dark Souls.

Gotta grab those flying bags of cash stat

Which, that’s an interesting point of comparison. In terms of both game feel and aesthetic, there’s seemingly very little connective tissue between Shovel Knight/its NES forbearers and the modern Souls-like. But there’s something of a spiritual connection. Modern AAA games attempt to be frictionless; players should only die occasionally, they should never be confused about what to do next, and the game should make as many concessions as possible to facilitate this. It’s not a bad philosophy by any means; it lets you cast a wider net (if you can wrap your head around using one stick to move the player character and the other to move the camera you can play a game produced under this mindset) and for games with increasingly ludicrous budgets you need to cast as wide a net as possible. But if you have any experience with games as they used to be, when games used difficulty as the primary mode of engagement, when developers didn’t necessarily expect every player to reach the end, it can be easy to yearn for what once was.

And just like with the visuals, Shovel Knight hits a place of evoking the past while being firmly modern. You will die playing this game. There will be puzzles that are non-obvious, that you’ll need to think a second about. You’ll have to learn boss attack patterns. And yet, the game isn’t really all that difficult. It’s quite forgiving, with infinite lives and plenty of health and magic upgrades. After all, while it’s easy to yearn for the past, there’s a reason it’s in the past.

“”Whoever does not miss difficult video games has no heart. Whoever wants them back has no brain.
– Vladimir Putin”
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
– Katie

Stray Observations:

  • Another area Shovel Knight should have absolutely borrowed from Dark Souls is with healing ichors. If you use your healing ichor and then die anyway, it’s gone. Really unfortunate, especially at the boss gauntlet near the end of the game
  • Shovel Knight lets you pick the gender of every major character4 in a really neat post-launch feature. However, the feminine Shovel Knight body barely looks any different from the default masculine one. So whenever the text would use she/her for Shovel Knight it was like “oh yeah I am a girl huh”. It’s fucking early transition all over again, damn.
  • The very existence of the gender swapping feels very of-a-moment-in-time. My first thought was that it, like Spelunky before it, was a response to Tropes vs Women in Video Games and increased awareness of how damsel plots kinda suck. (In its original version, the male Shovel Knight is on a quest to rescue the female Shield Knight). Doing some accidental research5 though, it was inspired by the Adventure Time “Finoa and Cake” episodes, which genderswap the entire cast. So even then, very mid 2010s.
  • Shovel Knight has seen a lot of bonus campaigns added as DLC over the years, all of them completely free. It’s not strictly relevant to this article, but I wanted to mention it because it’s cool as hell.

Other 2014 platformers of note:

Keeping the throwback train a-rolling we have Freedom Planet, an homage to the Genesis-era of Sonic the Hedgehog. Despite being a known 2D Sonic hater I have a soft spot for this game. It does something super cool in the throwback space; there are lives, and if you run out you get a “Continue?” countdown straight out of Sonic the Hedgehog. Yet, if you do continue you respawn at the exact checkpoint you were at already. The lives are purely aesthetic. It’s so neat, it captures the flavor of the past without the bitter notes. The love for Sonic makes sense, since Freedom Planet began life as a fangame. Its history as a product of the Sonic fandom shows elsewhere, however. Look, I’m the girl who’s always praising Sonic for being earnest to the point of being embarrassing6. But…

It’s the amateur acting that really pushes it imo. Like, the duck guy doesn’t even have the same sound quality as everyone else, this is a Flash game that broke contain and landed on the PlayStation store somehow

Elsewhere, the super fun Captain Toad segments from Super Mario 3D World got their own spin-off with Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker. Being part of a full game lets them do much more intricate layouts, and the game has such a cozy diorama feeling thanks to its layout. If you didn’t own one the 13 Wii Us ever made you should definite pick it up on Switch.

Next Time: If I think I’m so smart why don’t I make my own platformer? It’s Super Mario Maker.