I started this one during the beginning of the summer, shortly after I had finished the wonderful Hyper Light Drifter. I was hungry for more games, or more specifically, hungry for the games I had heard so much about but had never tried. HLD was highly enjoyable, and not typically the kind of game I would normally go for. Because of this, I felt I should branch out more, and try other games from genres I hadn’t delved into for years. And so, I picked up a copy of Shovel Knight, a title I had heard good things about and had never laid a finger on. I was excited, and looking forward to a colorful, deeply engrossing retro adventure full of interesting sights, catchy soundtracks and dangerous villains.
What I got was a thorough as kicking.
Those of you who have been following me these past few months will remember my frustration with the Dark Souls games, and how I said, and I quote, “they were too damn difficult for me to put up with”. I went into Shovel Knight with the expectation that it would not be on the same tier of really hard, but the game made it clear to me within it’s first sixty seconds that it’s right up there with Salt and Sanctuary and Hyper Light Drifter in terms of difficulty. The game is not afraid of using death to teach you how to play, and when the credits scrolled down my screen at its conclusion, I was credited with 67 total deaths. Which is a lot less than what it felt like it should have been.
It can be tough to monologue about videogame challenge. I’m not saying that having a tough game is a bad thing. Titles such as the aforementioned would certainly lose a large portion of their excitement if they had been created with a more casual flavor in mind. However I feel that there is a sweet spot for difficulty, and you’ll know a game has nailed it when the game is not defined by how “hard” or how “easy” it is. In short, I would argue the difficulty of a game is perfect when you find yourself never thinking about it at all, and it meets your expectations for how challenging a particular segment should be. “Hard” games are something of a popular trend that has flourished in the past few years, and they have their novelty, but I absolutely do not think every game should aim for that kind of challenge. When I am playing your video game, and my time spent with it stops becoming fun and starts to become a chore because of the difficulty, I feel compelled to raise my hand and inform you that you need to tone it down.
When playing through this game, I was constantly reminded of how tough it was. 67 deaths across roughly 7 hours changes a man, and not for the better. Some of you are probably thinking “this blog should be called JoeSpeaksWimp, etc., etc.” but seriously now, I found my enjoyment for the game to be very negatively affected by the frustration of how frequently I was punished for trying to progress. I will admit that once you start playing, you get used to watching the little blue guy bite the big one and simply giving the segment another go, but quite unlike Hyper Light Drifter, which felt satisfying in it’s difficulty, Shovel Knight to me was too tough.
This is partially because of how you are punished for dying. I would say that game over is much more palatable if the only thing lost upon dying is progress through a level. When you get gunned down, sliced up, or experience whatever other horrible things that happen to you in HLD, your character collapses, and the screen resets to an area a minute or two behind from where you were, and the enemies respawn. Typical videogame fare here. However, in SK, and in other similar “Souls-like” games, you lose not just physical area progress, but you lose other resources as well; they’re usually some sort of ‘experience points’ or equivalent that is needed to make your character more powerful and progress through the game, and these points are reduced or lost entirely upon death.
It’s not unusual for a videogame to teach the player to *be* better through dying, but when the game punishes you for something as inevitable as making a mistake, the consequences of failure — which is guaranteed at some point in such games — have much more bite, and frustrate the player into not enjoying the experience. When you put experience points in your game that are necessary to get stronger, and you routinely take them from the player for making mistakes, it becomes highly discouraging for them to continue, because levelling up is the only way they feel like they’re getting anywhere despite the countless deaths. People like me aren’t enjoying it not because we don’t like overcoming challenges, but because we feel like we simply can’t get past them, and feel like we can’t progress. And enjoying the experience is the whole point of playing videogames, because lets be honest, we’re not doing it to maintain our girlish figures, so why would we *want* to experience that unpleasantness?
I think this is a bad choice in design. Being killed and having to conquer an area all over again is enough of a motivation to not let your hitpoints drop to zero, and to additionally lose something like XP only inhibits the flow of progression. If the game punishes them too many times, the player feels stuck, and chances are good they’ll put the game down and not return to it. We can all remember times when we got frustrated, put a game down and didn’t come back to it for a long while, if ever. I had this feeling constantly with this game, and that’s why I’m finishing this relatively short title in September, when I started it back in June.
I know a lot of people loved Shovel Knight, though, and I can certainly see why. Part of it has to do with the type of game it is: an oldschool platformer from the days of the NES console, of which it certainly looks and plays the part perfectly. This title in no small amount reminded me of the olden Castlevania sidescrollers and the original Mega Man lineup, especially the latter. This is a good thing, because these franchises have long defined platforming from the very beginning, and Shovel Knight succeeds in handling like a silky smooth dream. The blue knight drives exceptionally well, and controlling him never feels clunky, or annoying, or anything besides perfectly fine; you feel in control of the character at all times, and deaths never happen because he’s difficult to steer.
The game is also marvelous in presentation. The menus and colors and sprites, all of it screams “Nintendo Entertainment System” to me, and gives me flashbacks of my time spent with the Blue Bomber and Simon Belmont. The style is simple, and yet because of this, details in backgrounds and the enemy designs stick out more, and help create better theme and atmosphere for specific areas. The soundtrack is nice, too, and while it isn’t particularly mesmerizing, some tracks stick out and remind you of what a cool, retro game you’re experiencing. It ties nicely together with the visual style and gameplay, and creates an authentic experience that would not have been out of place three decades ago.
Something else that made the game stand out to me, and was the best thing about Shovel Knight in my opinion, was its characters. From the NPCs you meet in the town and the wilderness to the various bosses scattered throughout the game world, all of them are interesting and lovable in their own ways. The comically steadfast and gung-ho Shovel Knight himself and his love interest, the heroic and selfless Shield Knight were among my favorites, and the game’s finale was suddenly and surprisingly very emotional and exciting. In fact, I would say that all of the times I found myself muttering “I hate this game” as I experienced endless failure were worth it, just because the ending bosses and cutscenes were so awesome. In fact, I will declare that it has been years since I’ve experienced such a satisfying end to a videogame.
Though I recognize Shovel Knight as a *good* game, my relationship with it was very much love-hate. Unless you are really into this particular kind of 2D platformer, or really into retro-styled games, or one of those masochistic gamers who relishes a challenge, I can’t really recommend it easily. Casual gamers will more than likely find it too challenging to stick with, but those of you who like tough games might find a new favorite with this one.