So I’ve been in a bit of a game slump the last month or two, basically since I put down Fallout 4 and finished playing The Witness (twice). There have been a small slew of indie games I’ve tried out in the meantime with varying levels of engagement. I spent about a week fiddling with CounterSpy, which is a mildly fun 2D stealth game with shooting gallery elements that riffs on the Cold War; a few days on The Swapper, a 2D puzzle platformer in space!!! that examines the nature of identity and consciousness; and I dabbled for a night with Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star, which is an entertaining visual novel that I’ve just not been inclined to return to lately. These games were all fun in their own ways, and they satisfied my recent inclination towards smaller, easily consumed gaming experiences, but they haven’t left much of a lasting impression.
Conversely, I purchased Shovel Knight about a week ago when I noticed that it was on sale to celebrate having sold a million units since its release last year. I’ve only heard good things about Shovel Knight, and it got a recommendation from a buddy of mine, so I was looking forward to playing it.
I didn’t anticipate just how much I was going to enjoy it.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of this game, Shovel Knight is a 2D 8-bit retro platformer that features some updated design elements (the big one that comes to mind for me is the removal of any kind of limited life system; dying only carries a penalty to your gold, which can be recovered if you reach the point in the level where you died without dying a second time) overlaid on a very traditional platforming experience built around themed levels with unique mechanics that culminate in boss battles akin to what’s found in the Mega Man series. The story follows the eponymous Shovel Knight, who is on a quest to defeat the evil Enchantress and her Knights of the Order of No Quarter while mourning the loss of his beloved, Shield Knight. The whole package is extremely traditional in presentation (the story in particular feels the most bound to traditional conventions, with only two major female characters in a cast of about fifteen), but it’s so remarkably well executed that this generally isn’t a deficit.
As someone who grew up on platformers (I still occasionally get the urge to play an old Mega Man game), Shovel Knight is absolutely my jam. Rachael noted to me one night while I was playing that it looks like a very fun game to watch, but it must be pretty stressful (I was working through a section where you have to bounce off of floating bubbles as you climb higher to avoid falling off the upward scrolling screen), and I could only say that I was having a ton of fun with it. It was a moment that crystallized for me the idea that Shovel Knight is built as a nostalgia trip for a pretty specific subset of gamers who grew up on all the platforming classics of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
After finishing the main game once, you get treated to Shovel Knight‘s free expansion, Plague of Shadows. This is basically an alternate story following the adventures of Plague Knight, one of the Order of No Quarter, on his quest to brew the Ultimate Potion as a way to impress the woman that he has a crush on, his alchemy partner Mona. Plague Knight controls very differently from Shovel Knight, so much so that playing through the same stages with him feels like a brand new experience (I momentarily had flashbacks of the Luigi mode that unlocked after finishing Super Mario Galaxy 2, which could have been interesting except that there wasn’t a fundamentally different set of movement mechanics so much as a tweak in character physics). Where Shovel Knight’s about getting up close with enemies for combat and relying on bouncing off obstacles like Scrooge McDuck, Plague Knight is built with tons of aerial maneuverability. He has a double jump, and holding down the attack button charges up an extra explosive hop that can be triggered at any time in the air or on the ground. Combine that with the large variety of bomb types at your disposal (Plague Knight’s bombs can be customized with various trajectories, explosive effects, and fuses for timing), and he’s simply a much more versatile character than Shovel Knight. He’s also a generally more fragile, since his health doesn’t max out at high as Shovel Knight’s, but that’s a small trade off.
Plague Knight’s story is also a little bit regressive, but it does offer some interest as Mona is a fully fleshed out character who participates throughout the majority of the campaign (also refreshing is the fact that it’s apparent Mona is already romantically interested in Plague Knight and simply working up the courage to admit her feelings while he’s trying to do the same). There’s a late game misunderstanding that’s more reminiscent of standard rom-com plots than anything which offers some slight narrative tension without ever really overshadowing the levity implicit in a story about a mad scientist who’s stealing peoples’ “essences” in order to make an ill defined Ultimate Potion. Plague Knight is sympathetic, but it’s clear he’s still a villain.
All in all, Shovel Knight and its expansion have been one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had recently. It probably isn’t a game for everyone, as the platforming can definitely be challenging, but it’s worth taking a look if you’re intrigued by retro-style games.