Many video game creation projects can be found on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter these days, and many of those titles are full of nostalgia for previous video game titles or older eras of gaming altogether.
The recently released “Shovel Knight” for PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo WiiU was built around the latter category, with the developer, Yacht Club Games, proudly declaring that “with Shovel Knight, we are developing a next-gen 8-bit game” on their project page.
Unlike most other retro-styled titles on Kickstarter, however, Yacht Club Games delivers on their promise, crafting a game that easily holds up in both today’s market and in the ‘80s. The visuals are entirely sprite animations and pixel art backgrounds, evoking nostalgia for older titles in the history of video games.
The colors, however, are vibrant compared to most older games, making the visuals nostalgic for older gamers while still welcoming to newer gamers. Topping this all off is a beautiful chiptune soundtrack composed by Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae, better known as the composers of the soundtracks for “DuckTales: Remastered” and the original “Mega Man,” respectively.
The visuals and sound design aren’t the only parts of the game influenced by the 8- and 16-bit era; much of “Shovel Knight’s” design is a nod to older games. The story of the game is simplistic, much like game stories from the early days of gaming. Players will play as the titular Shovel Knight, in search of his adventuring partner Shield Knight, who has been lost after venturing into the Tower of Fate. Shovel Knight must go on a journey across the land, vanquishing the corrupt knights of the Order of No Quarter.
Shovel Knight’s movement and attacks feel like older 2D titles in the “Castlevania” series, with a simple melee attack and several unlockable magic attacks, as well as having a similar variety of enemies and finding secrets (including health-restoring chicken meat) in the walls. The platforming in the levels evokes feelings of “Mario Bros.” or “Mega Man.” The most used mechanic is an aerial down thrusting attack that can be used to bounce off of enemies, much like in “Zelda II” or “DuckTales.” Also, like in “Zelda II,” there are some light RPG elements, such as upgrades for health and magic levels, weapons and armor.
Finally, each stage plays out like in “Mega Man,” with a unique theme to each level and a boss at the end. Like in “Mega Man” and other older games, these bosses are difficult and lots of practice is required to learn the patterns of the boss’s attacks to find the right moment to strike.
These classic elements are combined in a game that makes use of a modern retrospective on gaming. Unlike most games from the ‘80s, “Shovel Knight” has infinite lives and a rather forgiving checkpoint system. When the titular character falls, instead of restarting the level or losing a life, he leaves behind bags of money that can be recollected once he respawns at a checkpoint. More daring players can even choose to destroy these checkpoints for an extra sum of gold.
The controls are tight and responsive too, making the game tough but fair, so that it never feels like the game is cheating you when you die. In short, the game takes the best parts of older NES titles while leaving behind the more aggravating parts.
The level design is intricate and thought-out as well. Thanks to the short iteration cycles of the checkpoint system, the player is able to take time to figure out each puzzle and the right way to proceed, and return to the puzzle in very little time if they fail. Each puzzle is a challenge that doesn’t harshly punish the player for failing. Notably, the Propeller Knight stage, which is almost entirely a vertical ascent, is designed such that missing a jump and falling down to a previous screen can be easily recovered without even losing a life.
Regardless if you were a gamer back in the days of the 8- or 16-bit consoles or if you started gaming more recently, “Shovel Knight” is worth a play. Older gamers can appreciate the nostalgic aesthetic, but ultimately the solid mechanics and challenging but fair gameplay seal Shovel Knight’s place in gaming history.
This game is much more than a celebration of gaming history; rather, it shows us just how far gaming has come, and how any game can succeed as long as it keeps to the fundamentals.