Still Playing: Shovel Knight

by on November 19, 2014

‘The true mark of [Shovel Knight’s] quality is that, upon completion, you’ll simply refer to its many levels, bosses, and ideas, as Shovel Knight. The wonderful modern retro classic, Shovel Knight.’

That’s how my Shovel Knight review ended. There’s always a worry when you post something that poignant (well, personally poignant at least) that it makes you think, ‘is this too hyperbolic? Am I going to regret making this statement in ten years?’ So it’s always a relief when a statement like that remains true.

It’s because Shovel Knight is tight. Every inch of every map and every tweak of everything in Shovel Knight has been created and tuned with a sort of mathematical precision that makes play fun, and experimentation inviting. To bring back those accursed comparisons for a moment it’s the same reason why I still play Mega Man games. It’s why I still play Castlevania games. It’s why I still play Mario games. Heck, it’s why I play Platinum Games’ games, it’s why I play Valve’s games, it’s why I play Blizzard games, and it’s why I will play future Yacht Club Games. I love titles in which the mechanics, and the relationships between those mechanics and the game’s challenges, are coherent and create fun.

And that’s Shovel Knight. Tight, responsive, yet versatile controls create the backbone for a remarkable 2D platformer that not only enables fast, masterful play, but nigh on encourages it. For an idea of the process, here’s a handy breakdown.

Shovel Knight gameplay

Shovel Knight playthrough one is: ‘huh, I like it. It’s retro and cute, but the checkpoints don’t make it too demanding.’ Fun/10.

Shovel Knight playthrough two is: ‘oh, I wonder if I can use this there? Oh I can, nice. And that? No, not that. Perhaps this is more effective? Oh ho, I see how you beat that time trial feat.’ Better/10

Shovel Knight playthrough three is: ‘I want to find Yacht Club Games’ offices and give everyone there a big sloppy kiss.’ Genius/10

My first experience was in Clockwork Knight’s tower at a point where you first find the mobile gear. This is a relic that you pop onto the ground and then, the moment you stand on it, it zooms forward. It’s immune to traps, and leaps at gaps making it an interesting tool. Not long after you grab it you’ll encounter a section of the level in which you stand on a large platform that moves right, slowly, over a sea of spikes. Thing is, the mobile gear can move across spikes, and moves much faster than this platform. Chuck it down, hop on, and carve a huge waste of time off the level. Experimentation brings results, which brings satisfaction, which encourages further experimentation.

Shovel Knight screenshot

It’s these sorts of ideas that help elevate Shovel Knight to be as re-playable as it is. Shovel Knight’s pogo ability is a big deal. Watch any sub one hour ten minute run of the game and you’ll see people using the pogo to skip entire rooms via cheekily placed debris, or hop from enemies over huge gaps you’d normally wait to pass. Thing is, it feels designed to be that way, and that’s where Shovel Knight earns so much respect from myself.

And no, the Phase Locket doesn’t break the game. I’d like to see you set a genuinely impressive time relying too heavily on that thing.

It’s all about versatility. Learning how to deal damage quickly, working out where to employ the Propeller Dagger effectively, devising room conquering pogo manoeuvres. It’s satisfying to play a modern game that, under speed run conditions, isn’t all about abusing glitches or mechanical quirks. Everything that makes Shovel Knight such a compelling and rewarding game to play, and play well, is all tightly and lovingly designed as part of the game.

You know what else makes me happy about that review quote? Nick Wozniak of Yacht Club Games gave an interview with CVG back in July, and in that interview he says, “We didn’t want to make a parody game, or a spoofing game, or even a direct referencing game like that. We wanted to make sure that [Shovel Knight] could stand on its own.” Which is, sort of, exactly the conclusion I came to. Did they ever read my review? Jury’s still out on that one, but in the meantime I guess I could give Shovel Knight one more playthrough.