When they said that the indie game market was a good platform for small developers to strut their skills, most of them seem to have taken it quite literally, considering that the majority of indie games that come out seem to be platformers. Sure, they try and dress it up differently to stand apart. They can have AAA-level production values like Shadow Complex, or arts. They can be cerebral (Gunpoint), visceral (Shank) and even sneaky (Mark of the Ninja). We even have platformers such as Braid that subvert the tropes and mechanics of the genre, lending added context and layers for the player.
Basically, there are a lot of ways to dress up a genre that ultimately boils down to how well you jump, though considering that gaming has been beating this horse (or ape) since Donkey Kong, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the wardrobe must be pretty bare at this point. Not so, apparently, because platformers still emerge from the indie scene, and some of them manage quite a decent canter without relying overmuch on the nostalgia crutch.
Enter Shovel Knight, developed by Yacht Club Games, funded by the public through Kickstarter and inspired by just about every gold-standard platformer in the history books. Their pitch for crowdfunding was that they wanted to make a new game which was as faithful as possible to the 8-bit games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), but with modern design sensibilities wherever possible. Now while that has the chance of coming off as needlessly restrictive, I’ve often found that it lends focus to a task once you define strict parameters instead of assuming that the sky is the limit, and that seems to be the case here as well.
The story goes thus: Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were a badass dynamic duo who roamed the land taking on evildoers and then making cheer by the fireside afterwards. Alas, one adventure at the Tower of Fate proved a little too lethal, and Shovel Knight lost his partner in the bedlam. In sorrow, he retired to a life of rustic misery, which in turn left a power vacuum ready for consolidation by an enchantress and her minibosses.
Rise up to the challenge, take on the bad guys, save the day — you get the idea. All very standard fare, but presented with a nice balance of straight-laced and self-aware, keeping it light-hearted throughout.
One wry touch is the use of the shovel as the main player tool. While it may lack the glamour of other legendary
heroes’ arms, it sure pulls its weight in sheer utility! You can use it to clobber adversaries, perform a pogo-stick bounce attack, deflect projectiles, forge new ground and dig for treasure. It’s a good analogy for the game in general – it takes a simple tool and makes it something special.
Shovel Knight’s strength is in its creator’s close familiarity with the classic 8-bit games, and the tact with which they picked which features to use in their creation. The colour palette is artificially limited to the 8-bit hardware, except for a couple of extra colours, and the world crafted beautifully with a minimalistic touch. The soundtrack by Jake Kaufman (with a couple of tunes by Megaman composer Manami Matsumae) is proper chiptune fare, but as orchestrated and exhilarating as you could hope for through such a medium.
The gameplay takes it to another level. Controls are simple, but responsive and tight. It’s not a punishing platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, though there are occasional spikes in difficulty. Some additional dexterity is required to collect the treasure hidden around the level, but that just gives you a reason to replay. The checkpoint save system is interesting, since you can destroy the checkpoint for extra money if you feel like risking it. These mechanics are spread across 10 levels, each with its own boss for you to take down, some of them former friends. Significant effort has been made to give each level a flavour of its own, and since you can farm levels for money and experience indefinitely, that kind of signature style is most welcome. If you’re the kind of gamer who worships at the altar of Mario Bros, Castlevania, Megaman, Duck Tales, Shovel Knight is their younger, cooler sibling, and it’s amazing that this kind of thing can kick up dirt the way it does in 2014.