PAXtravaganza 2013!: Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight Logo Screenshot

The new “retro” craze found itself in full swing with the Kickstarter for Shovel Knight, a new action game looking to hearken to its myriad of inspirations. Yacht Club Games, the people asking for your money and support, look like no strangers to the style they’ve selected – as ex-WayForward employees, many of them worked on Double Dragon Neon and Contra 4, among other “revival” games that came out in recent years. I haven’t played those, quite honestly, not for lack of funds but for missing the boat. I’m pretty sure nobody liked Neon either (though the soundtrack’s rather amazing). Still, WayForward’s current project Ducktales contrast directly with Shovel Knight – who will win? Who knows. But Shovel Knight’s a game definitely worth your time in concept, if not in reality quite yet.

I won’t beat around the bush: I’m really excited for Shovel Knight for quite a few reasons. Mixing Mega Man, Ducktales, Zelda II, Castlevania (old-school, of course), and Dark Souls sounds like something out of a dream, a product that couldn’t possibly exist in the modern game market, Yet here we are, talking about such a game and seeing how the concept alone raises over a hundred thousand dollars; that’s enough to give me hope. The lines at PAX East were quite long (and the first stage is rather long as well) so I didn’t get a chance to play it, but I could see from a variety of videos how the core concepts work.

Shovel Knight provides you with two buttons: a shovel attack and the expected jump button. The shovel doesn’t just attack things; it digs. Yacht Club Games arrived at the initial concept through the “downward thrust” of Zelda II, and the game makes no qualms about wearing said influence directly. Still, it works similarly to Ducktales’ cane pogo more often than not, except that it only works on certain objects (usually enemies, switches and the like). The “magic” system copies the hearts/subweapons from Castlevania, and works in much the same way. If the demo’s any indication, than subweapons/magic won’t be picked up randomly off enemies but special chests – I imagine we’ll need to see more of the design before anything else becomes clear on that. Also, as the video above demonstrates, the subweapons are extremely powerful and blow through the boss (well-designed and interesting though his pattern is) like nothing, so the demo does not represent the final product very well! It’s proof of concept and the innate core “fun” of the mechanics themselves.

You’ll need to destroy dirt patches in order to progress at points, and discover many of the game’s myriad secrets (hidden in that old style). Piles of dirt contain treasures and gems which contribute to your overall score, which seems a definite focus; dying drains your scoring by a certain amount, so you’re encouraged to NOT die (in a game filled with challenging platform sequences, of course!). I also hear that the game will contain an upgrade system; I’m guessing you use treasure for this very purpose, although it hasn’t been confirmed either way.  The shovel also reflects certain projectiles, and that makes good timing a great asset. Everyone who’s played it approves of the controls as accurate and precise; that’s exactly what you want and need here. As their Kickstarter page says:

Like all of our favorite games, Shovel Knight has been designed gameplay first! We are especially dedicated to precise control. Pixel-perfect hit boxes, toenail jumps, and mobility mastery are our obsession. That wonderfully elusive ‘feel’ of great control.

That feel certainly eludes the modern developer as they continually cater to one demographic or another: either we dumb down the controls to the point of irrelevance (i.e., there’s no game to speak of underneath the veneer of excellent aesthetics), or we make the game so completely and utterly complicated that the nuances get lost on the mainstream audience. Few games bother to bridge the gap, though Shovel Knight appears a good candidate for both in its emulation of Mega Man tropes.

Shovel Knight screenshot 2

I mean seriously, does this not look like Mega Man?

Some call it something akin to a melee focused Mega Man game, and that’s not far from the truth. You look at the map, you pick your level, you proceed through interesting locales filled with traps and monsters to fight. Like any good Mega Man, the game’s not going to throw trial-and-error style obstacles at a player; if you learn from the theming of the levels (obstacles shown in advance without any danger, and then presented later), you will succeed, at the very least, in knowing what to do. If you fail, it’s your fault and not the game’s fault; it taught you how to traverse something, and now the burden rests on your shoulders. On the other hand, the level looked extremely LONG for that kind of system, and thus it necessitates a checkpoint system not unlike any modern games. This is where they claim a “Dark Souls” influence, and while I do see it to an extent, it’s not even close to that sort of difficulty.

See, Dark Souls isn’t kind in providing “checkpoints” – when you die, you REALLY die and need to start over at the last save point you entered (barring certain items every now and again). I imagine this might just exist for the PAX demo, considering if people can’t finish it they may find themselves NOT interested in it, but who’s to say? Furthermore, Dark Souls removes all the progress/souls you gained, putting you back at square one unless you find your corpse and take its stuff back. Shovel Knight chops your treasure count in half AND gets rid of all your magic, but that’s about it – starting so close to the obstacle fails the “hardcore” design they attempted, in any event.

Part of my excitement for something like this, other than the obvious aesthetic reasons, gets tempered by the possibility of disappointment. I found myself hyped over many game over the years, and barely any of them fulfilled the incredibly heightened expectations of the public. They were, to put it in a word, merely “good” rather than transcendent. I have a feeling Shovel Knight fits into the same mold, all said. While it iterates on the design of an old favorite and I’ll definitely buy and play it a great deal, I don’t feel the game presents anything fundamentally new to its audience. It’s an old game design funneled through some elements of the new. Once you’ve played so many games, there’s a point where a sense of ennui filters your sensibilities as everything just feels the same.

It’s that temptation to see that there’s nothing new under the sun, in the negative sense, that can lead to much missed opportunity and many problems. If Christians do believe what they say they believe, than we cannot see anything other than in the light of Christ’s resurrection. If we do, we betray the Gospel message, as 2 Corinthians 5 confirms:

14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

16 Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

I see a balance here. On the one hand, sin always existed and we will always find ourselves underneath it; on the other, we become a new creation through His death and resurrection. It is tempering human realism with idealistic expectations that hits that happy medium. This isn’t easy, but necessary; to be joyful and happy in life, you need to set impossible goals but reasonable expectations (on material things, I mean).

Therein lies my dilemma with Shovel Knight. Doesn’t mean I won’t play it, but I am withholding full support until I’ve got a final copy in my (digital) hands ready and waiting!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.