Shovel Knight? Meh. Might as well see what all the fuss is about.
If you haven’t heard of Shovel Knight by now, then congratulations for having successfully avoided the wave of fan-made, kickstarted indie games that constantly threaten to take the game industry by storm and put an end to the soulless vacuum of triple-A games developed by people who know what they’re doing. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh, and I’ve said before I’m convinced that Shigeru Miyamoto is the only one who actually knows how to make a game, and anyone else with a modicum of success has just blundered upon it accidentally, enabling them to go on to make other games that have a chance of being good. Sort of a video game evolution, like a dolphin who manages to survive global warming because some random mutation made it enjoy swimming around in boiling Coke. While the indie movement is praised as revolutionary, I suspect it’s simply spreading out funds, talent and attention and it won’t stop until every game out there is as bland as Call of Duty, Madden and Rock Band. (At that point, no doubt, developers will want to capitalize on the craze of blandness and come up with games that creatively put instruments in the hands of football teams and make them go out and fight brown people.) Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why we have a thousand TV channels that all show reality TV, or why we have hundreds of musical genres that all suck.
Still, in spite of the musical smegma and TV programming that will shortly be replaced by high-definition mirrors, every so often we get something good. Likewise, in the world where everyone with a “Unity for Dummies” book is trying to publish a reinvigorated spiritual successor to what they view as the under-appreciated adaptation of Where’s Waldo for the NES, sometimes a game comes along that shines so brightly in the sunrise that the world stops and turns in unison to gaze on the wonders that private developers have wrought into being.
Shovel Knight is not that game.
Let’s start with the formalities. Shovel Knight takes place in a world where brutal violence by an elite aristocracy is looked on as cute and quirky, so long as the knights are paired up with mundane objects or themed personae rejected by the worst of indie comic book villains. Fresh off a marathon of indie horror movies, Shovel Knight fights with a sharp wit and an undeserved feeling of righteousness and indignation for those who lead a morally inferior lifestyle. Just kidding! He bludgeons his enemies on the head with a shovel. Having shoveled on my own once or twice, I can say those things don’t like to cut through grass roots without the weight of an obese manatee pushing down on them. A knight fighting with a shovel may sound cute, but we’re talking about a painful and slow death here. At least with a razor-sharp broadsword, your enemies will suffer clean deaths, bleeding out in moments. Anyway, Shovel Knight has a friend named Shield Knight. Shield Knight, presumably pissed off that she got saddled with the same character class as Goofy from Kingdom hearts, ditches the loser who would swagger onto the battlefield with a paintbrush after watching The Karate Kid. Then a bunch of other knights appear and…something. I guess Shovel Knight feels the need to prove the tactical superiority of yard work.
Okay, on the surface, I’ll give it this much; Shovel Knight is brilliantly conceived, well-executed, and hits on most of the right retro qualities to potentially make it a fun game. The game feels like Capcom’s Duck Tales more than anything else, although the stage layouts feel more like Mega Man, the overworld map is in the style of Mario 3, and there’s a town with simple quests Shovel Knight can accept, kind of like…Wikipedia goes with The Adventure of Link. Why not? Sounds good. I admit that during the first stage, I had a lot of fun learning the ropes, digging crap out of the ground, and hopping around on my pogo-shovel without questioning it any more than I did the fact that Scrooge McDuck apparently uses a pogo-stick as a cane. After the tutorial stage, I moved onto the town, thinking it could be really fun trying to collect special items in each stage and trade them for equipment and upgrades. Brilliant! Finding a way to expand on retro games without losing the 8-bit feel!
Then I spent an hour and a half trying to get through the next stage without snapping my 3DS in half.
The other trend spreading like gonorrhea through the fan-rom-hack and indie-game community is to make games hard. Really hard. Like, hard enough that when you beat them you feel a wave of remorse for working on the game with a dedicated passion that you could have used to cure cancer or reverse climate change. After all, the harder the game, the better, right? Why can’t every game be Kaizo Mario?
Let’s talk. Hard games aren’t inherently good games. Some good games are hard. Some hard games are good. The reason people make hard games isn’t because they’re more fun to play, it’s because they’re easier to make. I always questioned why Bowser didn’t knock down some of the platforms over his lava pits, or why he didn’t just build a wall around the first level to prevent Mario from reaching the flagpole. (Although, economic experts in the Mushroom Kingdom suggest the wall would cost billions of dollars to build, staff and maintain, and it wouldn’t stop Mario from entering level 1-2 on a legal visa and overstaying his visit) These things would have been really easy to do and they would have made the game impossible—which means best game ever, right?
No. See, it takes nothing to hack Castlevania to put a boss rush in level one. But does the player have the skill right off the bat (heh, heh) to deal with five bosses at once? Do they have the equipment and power-ups necessary? How many paths can the player take to avoid damage—too many and the game is boring, too few and they won’t be able to progress, get frustrated, and stop playing the game. Making a game hard is easy. Making a game difficult and playable takes skill and effort. Shovel Knight? It’s fun, has game play about as challenging as Duck Tales, and seems well-designed. And if you die, there are no checkpoints. If you spend ten minutes on a level and fail, you have to spend another ten minutes just to get another chance to practice what you screwed up. And this breaks the game, raising it to frustration-level hard. I’ve had this complaint before. After proving to the game that you can accomplish something, you shouldn’t have to keep doing it. If Shovel Knight were math, you could get a problem on your differential calculus homework wrong and it would send you back to Kindergarten to teach you how to count to ten.
If you want a good example of a game that is so hard it is literally impossible, but done so well that people can’t get enough of it, I’m sure whatever device you’re reading this article on has some version of Tetris.