Mega Man. Castlevania. Super Mario Bros. Ninja Gaiden.
These titles are where it all began. The 2D platformer is a genre that is credited as the genre that launched the gaming medium into popularity. Between the simple (and satisfying) mechanics, creative level design, charming pixel graphics and catchy music, these games stood as the foundation upon which the rest of the industry would build and grow.
As the years passed, technology became more advanced, and developers sought to design brand new types of gaming experiences. The platformer genre entered the three dimensional plane starting with Alpha Waves, but creators had even bigger aspirations. Soon after, games of all kinds hit the market. Racing games, shooter games, puzzle games, sports games, and more all made their way into the cartridge slots of Nintendo Entertainment Systems and SEGA Genesis’. And as hardware kept evolving, so did the titles that ran on it.
Left: Ryu Hayabusa in 1988’s Ninja Gaiden.
Right: Shovel Knight in 2014’s Shovel Knight.
Fast forward to modern times, where our video games have photo-realistic visuals, massive orchestral scores, complex storytelling, and deep mechanics. The era of 16-bit simplicity is over. The age of four thousand pixels and massive, immersive worlds is what we, the current gamer, live in now.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with how gaming has evolved. But sometimes, it’s nice to return to the time of the industry’s infancy and see examples of what pushed this medium of entertainment forward.
Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games is, at its core, that experience. A game inspired by the 2D platformer age of simplicity, creativity, and charm, Shovel Knight is a title that highlights the timelessness of gaming’s past, and shows why the classics will continue to influence game design in the far-future.
Simple Mechanics, Creative Level Design
To understand how Shovel Knight is influenced by classic platformers, we first have to look at the core mechanics and levels.
In this game, you control an armor-wearing warrior known as Shovel Knight that wields a special Shovel Blade to attack foes and traverse the environment. Unlike most games in the modern era, which provide you with a myriad of abilities, Shovel Knight only gives you three: jumping, slashing, and thrusting downward.
Though you eventually can use the gems you collect during gameplay to unlock special things, such as a charged slash attack, a set of armor that rewards you for consecutive thrust attacks, or throwable projectiles, the core mechanics are limited to these three abilities, and they are ultimately what allows you to progress.
This approach allows the game to be easy for anyone to pick up and play. Understanding these three simple mechanics is a piece of cake, and because of that, you might think that the game will be easy as a result. But that couldn’t be more wrong.
After the first level or two, which serve as a tutorial of sorts, you’ll be faced with several different types of levels that challenge your mastery of these mechanics. One level has platforms that fall once you step on them, which means you’ll need to jump to each one hastily. Another level has many areas with no platforms at all; to progress, you need to use your downward thrust to bounce off of the flying enemies over death pits to safety.
It’s not just the platforming aspect of levels that’re like this, either. Enemies also vary significantly, too. Some of them can fly, and require you to combine a jump with a well-timed slash. Others use a giant shield to protect themselves, meaning you’ll need to find a way to hit them from behind or above.
The beauty of this design is that it creates creative, challenging, and fresh gameplay through the levels, while keeping the mechanics simple and easy to remember. It’s not about how many different ways can the player solve a problem. It’s about how many different problems can the player solve.
This philosophy resembles exactly what made the older platformers so satisfying to play. Games like Super Mario Bros. only had one core ability: jumping. Aside from invincibility stars and fire flowers, you had to get through that game by jumping. And to make the levels consecutively harder, the obstacles you had to clear via jumping became more and more complex. Koopa Troopa enemies gained wings, making them harder to land on; Cheep Cheep fish foes could spring out of the water below, forcing you to quickly leap to the left or right or risk being damaged. It’s the exact same idea.
Additionally, the game rewards you for having a keen eye and curious mind, as well. That shovel is good for digging, too, and attacking walls with weak points in them can cause the whole thing to collapse, opening up a new area rife with treasure or a new complimentary piece of gear. Just as Mario games reward you with 1-UPs for finding that hidden vine and finding the hidden cloud area. Discovering how you can use your simple mechanics to find complex secrets is truly a joy.
Presentation: Definition of Charm
Though the gameplay design is what makes 2D platformers satisfying to play, their trademark art style and catchy music contributes to what makes them satisfying to experience.
With Shovel Knight, this remains the same. There’s just something special about the aesthetically pleasing colors used, the pixel graphics, the bouncy animations, and the soundtracks that you could listen to over and over.
Left: Shovel Knight (2014)
Right: Mega Man (1987)
Here’s a sample of one of the game’s level themes:
You’d be crazy to think that music isn’t awesome. And that’s the thing; Shovel Knight is chock full of this stuff.
The music is phenomenal, but I think what really struck me the most was how creative the visual designs for the enemies, environments, and bosses were.
(Here are two enemies from the game, taken from Yacht Club Games’ website.)
The game feels so diverse and creative, ranging from dirty, industrial factories filled with mechanized enemies to lush forests with goo monsters and sleeping dragons in caves. It really feels like the artists sat down and said, “Okay, how can we bring this little pixel world to life?”
It all just feels so charming. Being thrust into this setting filled with interesting creatures, magic-wielding mages, deadly spirits, and just about everything you can think of from a fantasy world is a complete blast, and it recaptures that feeling of discovering all of the wacky and cool foes in Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, or any platformer from the past. It proves that you don’t need cutting edge graphics or grand orchestras in order to make a satisfactory universe.
Writing: Laughter at Every Turn
I wanted to dedicate the final section of this article to an aspect of Shovel Knight that was, for the majority of games, not present in the classic platformers: the humor.
One of the best details about this game is the fact that when you travel to villages in order to buy gear or obtain upgrades, they are jam-packed with funny characters who check all the boxes for fantasy stereotypes. Gruff blacksmith? Check. A woman who swoons at the sight of a man in armor? Check. Rich noble folk who regard you as lowly? Check. And the list goes on and on, with each one of these types of NPCs programmed with genuinely humorous dialogue.
It’s fun to see a fantasy setting poke fun at itself in this way, and it works especially well in this game because the tone and atmosphere is already light-hearted. It just works. It adds even more to the aforementioned charm present from the art and music, and overall it just makes the world a fun place to lose yourself in for a few hours.
In conclusion, I love this game because it’s a love letter to a bygone age of gaming. Shovel Knight plays, looks, and sounds like something straight off of a Nintendo Entertainment System, and stands as a reminder to why the platforming games of old hold up even today — all while managing to feel fresh and unique thanks to its humorous, light-hearted NPC dialogue and, for a platformer, its uncommon midieval aesthetic. I highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t already.
Boy, do I really love Shovel Knight. I’m super bummed that I didn’t find this game until three years after it came out, but am I glad I did. What an incredible experience. I was glued to my Switch practically from start to finish.
Speaking of Patreon…shoutout to Ardent Prayer for the continued support! The article I’m doing for him in regards to clone troopers is coming right after this one. Expect this during the week at some point:
That should be good!
Anyway, that’s all I have today. I hope everyone is having a good 2018 so far!