Shovel Knight – Computer, 3DS, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, XBox One, WiiU

shovel-knight

Shortly, all games will legally require artwork wherein all the game’s characters stampede outwards from the box in dramatic recreation of either the Big Bang or a Kool Aid commercial.

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.

streetpass

Honestly, I’m not even sure if this is a screenshot from the game or if there’s been some expansion released.

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?

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This looks exciting. Too bad I couldn’t make it that far.

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.

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Gladly.

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South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Homeless

Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

Cartman

The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

Class

The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

Butters

If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

Fart

Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Lego Jurassic World – 3DS, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One, PC

Clever meme...

Clever meme…

We here at RetroCookie pride ourselves in our preservation of vintage games, which compels us to give credit to game makers who do the same (although don’t ask us what compels us to speak in the Royal We, as we still have much evidence to support the idea that we only have one body and very little control over household pets, let alone entire nations). To that end, I’ve covered modern 3DS games such as the Majora’s Mask remake, the Ulitmate NES remix, and even newer games based around the charm of the classics, such as the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. With that spirit at heart, I’d like to introduce a new 3DS game to the notches on my belt, Lego Jurassic World, which falls under the retro gaming category for reasons I will expound upon now.

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg's first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg’s first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

(Don’t rush me! I’m still thinking!)

Okay, you caught me. I just don’t have a PS4 or a WiiU. But with games like Bravely Default and Link Between Worlds on the horizon, and all my other NDSs worn almost to the breaking point, I figured a 3DS would be a wise purchase. Plus it doesn’t have creepy, voyeuristic tendencies like the XBox One. So to tell the truth, I own that one modern game system, and I do occasionally play it, and I struggle to get through games quickly enough to write a weekly entry with enough time left over that I don’t have to give my students lessons on metaphor and character development in Bubble Bobble. So this week, I give you Lego Jurassic Park, a coincidentally perfect game for playing in the ten minute breaks between classes.

...whassaaaa!!

…whassaaaa!!

If you read my review on the Lego Star Wars games, you’ll know the series has one or two issues with originality in game play. Inevitably, the games degrade into a process of collecting studs to purchase unlockable characters which help you collect more studs, and I strain to think of anything that such a cyclical experience might augment other than a walk down a moebius strip or a finely tuned, professional relationship with a prostitute. However, like the prostitute, Lego games may need to offer something other than a sense of humor and playing fast and easy if they want to keep my interest and coax me out of 20 bucks for cab fare. (Ah, comparing Legos to professional sex workers. It’s times like this that I wish anyone actually read this blog.)

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the...uh...belt?

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the…uh…belt?

Don’t get me wrong, though, there is something very zen about the act of romping through tropical environments, smashing everything into a zillion tiny lego bricks at the slightest touch, especially considering that realistically your characters would spend five minutes prying each piece loose with a butter knife that won’t fit into the crack and walking away with sore hands. Lego Jurassic World takes this stud collection (and as I say that I resist the urge to continue making sex worker jokes) very seriously. Traveller’s Tales games has always treated combat in their Lego series as more of an irritating formality, like renewing your driver’s license, waiting for a waiter before eating at Old Country Buffet, or telling your friends that their newborn babies don’t look at all like someone dipped George W. Bush in a bathtub full of Nair. In Lego Jurassic World, though, they have almost eliminated combat entirely, save for a few levels in Jurassic Park II and III where you punch a few compies and trample a few InGen workers with a stegosaurus.

Goin' down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

Goin’ down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

That last bit, though, adds a much needed touch of originality to the series. In addition to wandering around as your choice of any of a million worthless characters (When the novelty of playing as Dino Handler Bob loses its lustre, spice it up by having an affair with Dino Handler Vic!) , the game also lets you control most of the movies’ animals. Furthermore, you can unlock access to the Hammond Creation Lab, where you can play with genetic coding to mix and match different features into custom dinosaurs, thus proving that Traveller’s Tales missed the point of all four movies about as much as those people who think Harry Potter promotes devil worship. Certain secrets actually require this genetic Frankensteinery, as do two bonus areas that allow players to take full control of hungry dinosaurs as they eat, trample, gore, or hawk poisonous loogies at unsuspecting park staff.

Must drive faster...must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel...

Must drive faster…must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel…

Lego Jurassic World has more of a puzzle-oriented design than other Lego games. Normally, puzzles would earn the game a black mark by its name, followed by a swift hammer blow to the cartridge and, if I feel especially generous that day, a steady stream of urine. However, puzzles in this game simply means picking the right character to activate whatever interactive element might block your path at any moment, more of a formality than a puzzle: “Hello, there, Jake. Do you have a character willing to dive head first into this steaming pile of triceratops shit? Oh, I’m sorry. Here, fill out these forms and pay a small fee to unlock a character with a severe hygiene deficiency, then come back on a later playthrough.” Now, my regular readers (almost typed that with a straight face) might remember my Twilight Princess review where I described such mechanics as needlessly enforcing a developer mandated sequence of events without actually giving the player anything fun to do. Well…okay, so I have a point, and that point still stands here.

LEGO-JURASSIC-WORLDHowever, I played this game through to completion, so it must have some strong points. Earlier, though, I mentioned that Traveller’s Tales previously treated (and other companies still do) combat as a requirement for games, as though making a game without some type of fighting would create a vacuum that would implode, sucking the console, player, and northern hemisphere into oblivion. And since there’s no combat in oblivion, they’d like to avoid that. But as it turns out, games don’t need violence (I know…crushing news to all those bloodthirsty Tetris fans.), and Lego Jurassic World seems to have figured out how to replace that. Stud collecting, for one–simple, yet fun, and for whatever reason human beings have brain signals that light up on hearing a pleasing sound and watching dozens of small objects transmogrify into a score total ratcheting ever upwards. The humor, of course, makes us wait for the next cheeky thing the game will do–I’d recommend the game entirely based on the talking raptor scene from JP3. Also, did I mention you get to rampage as dinosaurs? Those segments might feel short and underdeveloped, but it does include a minigame that lets you target-spit at Newman from Seinfeld.

Hello, Newman!

Hello, Newman!