The Greatest Games: Shovel Knight (2014)

Shovel Knight (2014)
Developed by Yacht Club Games

Even with a successful transition into 3D, the platformer saw more of a distinct split than an outright evolution. The slick gameplay present in 2D platformers simply cannot be reproduced with a third dimension. Unfortunately, despite remaining its own distinct genre, mainstream gaming continued marching on with its focus on new technology. The 2D platformer did not get shafted like the shooter, but the few throwbacks during the sixth generation rarely came close to the classics.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the indie game boom largely revolved around the platformer. Braid broke through with its mixture of platforming and unique time mechanics, while Super Meat Boy turned the genre into an absolute nightmare of precision platforming. A truly timeless genre, people were finding more and more ways for the platformer to evolve.

Out of all these great games, few balance the nostalgia with innovation as well as Shovel Knight. With Yacht Club Games largely limiting their presentation to what could be handled on the NES, an image from the game could easily be placed next to Mega Man or DuckTales and anyone unaware would believe they were from the same era.

Shovel Knight is a challenging game, but not quite to the level of something like Super Meat Boy or Celeste. Instead, it’s a fun take on “Nintendo Hard,” again calling back to its obvious inspirations which were designed to be impossibly challenging (which was in part to artificially increase their length). At the same time, Shovel Knight never punishes the player through the same methods like a total reset, offering more of a Dark Souls-like mechanic where you must recover lost money. This game blends retro and modern design philosophies seamlessly. This means, while replicating the difficulty, there’s nothing artificial about its length; Shovel Knight is bulky for an NES-style platformer, and that’s before getting into its several campaigns (an important note is that I played this game years ago without much research and never realized how expansive this game would end up; it is here based on that first campaign alone. If the other campaigns hold up to the first, then I’m likely undervaluing the final product).

While discussing a relatively new medium, it’s easy to let certain things slide due to nostalgia. With something as complex as video games, certain genres attained their peak form sooner than others. The 2D platformer was one of the earliest to reach its heights, with the original Super Mario Bros. still being a seamlessly designed game. Something like Shovel Knight is less like an evolution and more of a refinement, a greatest hits of what made the NES era so important. Shovel Knight has it all and more, with intricate design offering a more fluid experience. Certain moments even invoke the hardware limitations of the NES, but as an intentional element of the design.

Plenty of games come along selling themselves on nostalgia, especially on Kickstarter. Some games like Mighty. No 9 and Yooka-Laylee exploited this desire with the involvement of people who worked on earlier successes like Mega Man and Banjo-Kazooie. Yacht Club Games understands there’s more to a good nostalgia piece; a mere replication will never stand up to the original. Something like Shovel Knight only comes about with a generation who grew up with the classics, those idealistic kids who played the same games over and over again to the point they simply had to learn how to create their own take.

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