You want to know what my favorite chore is? Shoveling. I just love shoveling. The heft of a heavy blade swinging into the earth, sinking even deeper in as I press it down. The rewarding thrust of loosening dirt as I twist it into a fulcrum made out of my muscles. The relief I feel as a clod of dirt launches into the air, a gaggle of gems spreading out in its path.
I am, of course, referring to one of the key mechanics of the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games.
Shovel Knight is retro-inspired game that takes place in a bizarre and lively world, complete with apple-fish deities and witches that are literally trees. It uses a rather traditional control scheme with two face buttons and a directional pad serving as the player’s main method of interaction. Each level is a side-scrolling expansive map filled with secrets, lore and the occasional treasure seller. Each level ends with a boss fight, and, upon winning, the player will be able to choose the next level through a world map. In an indie scene dedicated to both innovative concepts and old-school nostalgia, Shovel Knight falls firmly in the latter. It lifts the elements that worked for many NES properties and finds familiar but surprising ways to iterate upon them.
The key to Shovel Knight’s freshness is the player character’s shovel. The character’s gameplay revolves about this shovel, acting as the hero’s main method of attack, propulsion and, you guessed it, shoveling. The Hero of this story deals with a host of Knights with similar commitments, each one having a defining weapon or characteristics that defines the manner in which they act. This gives the game great variety and makes each level more enjoyable, as there is usually an artifact that allows the player full access to the level.
These artifacts are varied and unique, most draining from the player’s mana with each use. Each one changes the manner in which the character moves, be they helicopter boots or a jet-propelled gauntlet that launches its wielder ahead, consequences be damned. They add an extra layer of depth to the game’s large dungeons, unlocking new regions for Shovel Knight to dig into. The real key to the level design, however, is that the player does not need to rely upon the artifacts to beat the levels.
Shovel Knight also has a story. It is not strikingly original, but where it does succeed is in its theme. The hero suffered a lost before the start of the game, one that continues to haunt him. This element of the story is rarely, if ever, discussed. It instead allows the player to act through the fall of his comrade multiple times through dream sequences. When the character does speak, he normally does so to take a pacifist approach or beseech to his enemy’s better nature, normally resolving by the end that things always end in violence. The gameplay is centered around a very mundane object, a shovel, but it accomplishes a lot of depth through the handling of its world. Additionally, the game takes a different approach to character death. When the player falls in combat, or more likely drops down a misplaced pit, a portion of their earnings is depleted from their counter and is left where the character died in a flying pouch, awaiting the player’s return. This removes the frustration of a game over, but the amount of value those gems have is remarkably important. This adds further emphasis upon the controller to guide their avatar through the game.
It is here that we come to the most crucial aspect of metroid-vania sidescrolling adventure title- the controls. Shovel Knight is a very tightly knit package. The character’s weight, their attacks and their stops feel very fluid and interlinked. The physics are readily perceptible and easy to work within. The levels require very precise controls, and thankfully the gameplay feels matches the necessary requirements.
Shovel Knight is available on PC, Wii U, 3DS, Linux, Mac OSX, and, come April, the current family of Sony Playstation products. It was backed through Kickstarter, and was produced by Yacht Club games. It was finalist in the Excellence in Audio category at the IGF awards, and was an Honorable mention for the Seumas McNally Grand prize.
I highly recommend it if you enjoyed Duck Tales. You can use your Shovel as a pogostick.
Its quite entertaining.