Sunday, July 27, 2014

Shovel Knight - Thoughts

Indie games with a retro look are a dime a dozen nowadays, but retro-designed indie games are fairly uncommon. You may have a slew of Canabalt, Super Meat Boy and Flappy Bird pretenders wrapped up in an 8-bit coating, but there's not many games that explicitly emulate the likes of Mega Man, Ducktails, or Shatterhand. Yacht Club's crowd-funded Shovel Knight attempts to tackle this challenge, harkening back to NES gems in this turquoise knight's journey for redemption. The pixel appearance isn't only for show though—Shovel Knight is a highly competent platformer that joins the pantheon of classics that have birthed its design and mechanics.

Wayforward may be the premier studio in 2D sprite animations but Yacht Club undoubtedly took some of that talent with them; their kickstarter baby is sleek, gorgeous and vibrant, both in style and motion. Each area is bright and ornate without looking needlessly complicated, happily accentuating the energetic feel of the game. Regarding controls, they're tight and precise (once you get used to Shovel Knight's reach) which is perhaps one of the most important aspects the programmers nailed, since platformers live and die by how well their character handles. But taking center stage (besides the near-flawless soundtrack) is the excellent level design and amount of variety present in Shovel Knight.

Besides the towns and quick diversions, you have eight Mega Man-styled bosses to take down that occupy different thematic estates—each knight's keep includes about 2-3 new mechanics along with half a dozen new enemies, all unique to their respective fiefs. Concepts and baddies are introduced in an unthreatening, "get to know them" way, but are quickly used in conjunction with some trickier bits later down the road. Levels are long too, spanning around twice the length of a regular Mega Man stage, yet littered with plenty of checkpoints and side paths to keep the journey engaging. Giving the player unlimited lives is a wise design decision, as it allows the levels to be experimental but doesn't scare off newcomers from trying the game.

There are however a handful of quirks Shovel Knight has that grow more noticeable when you revisit the areas you've already beaten. Most significant is that the stages feel more packed with gems than they do dangers, often utilizing space for excavating rather than challenging the player—this complaint can pertain to the gimmicks as well. For instance the rainbow spewing platform in Polar Knight's level is a fantastic and strange mechanic for the stage, but it's not really used in heavy conjunction with many other enemies to make it more than just an odd traversal option (even when there are hammer-throwing ladder-hogs above you, they can be rammed with the contraption). A lot of the problems in the game can also be brute forced once you acquire enough health and magic, negating some of the more nuanced design put into certain encounters (like the griffin at the Tower Entrance). These are admittedly minor complaints for someone probably running through the game for the first time, and these gripes honestly do little to take away from an already adventurous outing packed with fun and danger.

To those wary of the difficulty, the game is easier in comparison to it's predecessors, though that's largely due to the repertoire you can build for yourself. There's a heap of side arms you can equip, running the gamut from mildly entertaining to absurdly useful (and abusable). Even without those items it's a relatively easygoing quest, though if you actually want to make the game harder there's plenty of ways to do so: you can destroy checkpoints for gold, opt out of using the full healing chalices, refuse to upgrade your equipment and even skip out on expanding your health bar. New Game+ doubles the damage you receive and removes most of the checkpoints if that idea sounds appealing to you, but the main game should likely fit most players; it strikes a healthy balance of being classically trained while never veering into Sunsoft levels of ruthlessness and rigor.

Bosses also deserve a good mention since they're one of the biggest drawing points of the game to me. Each colored knight has a semi-elaborate pattern and arsenal of attacks, making the fights very kinetic, frantic, and tense—on three separate occasions I killed a boss on my final sliver of health! Special commemoration for the best battles go to Spectre Knight and Plague Knight, the former basically being Castlevania's Death pumped up with Quick Man's mobility, and the latter being an absolutely chaotic encounter full of arcing projectiles and disintegrating platforms. King Knight is an unfortunate pushover but every other fight is a sheer joy to partake in. The final boss also deserves a mention for being quite creative, only containing a misstep in conveying the way to damage said boss, but splendidly closing out the game with a struggle and ending that—in some ways—Team Ico would have been likely to make in the 80's.

To design a classic NES platformer but sprinkle in a variety of modern touches is a tricky thing to accomplish, but despite your thoughts on how detrimentally close Shovel Knight plays to its progenitors, it is an unequivocally solid game. I feel that its presentation, design, pace and heartwarming story all come together to form a complete, wholesome package, deserving of its widespread praise. It's unfortunate that the bonus modes weren't included upon its release, but the content here makes it well worth the purchase... and I hope Shovel Knight allows the newer generation to look back and understand what made the 8-bit games so endearing as well.

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