What makes writing a playtest for Shovel Knight tricky is that it’s a game unabashedly designed to inspire nostalgia. There’s some Mega Man in here, some Castlevania, some Super Mario Bros. But I’m not nostalgic about those games so I can’t really report on how well the game achieves its mission. I can recognize certain specific borrowed features, but whether those elements combine to pay tribute to or desecrate those original experiences is beyond me.
So instead, I report to you as an explorer in unfamiliar territory. Though you may roll your eyes as I describe concepts familiar to you, I hope that an outsider’s perspective can shed new light on a game that—frankly—is not designed for outsiders.
I think probably the most important thing to know about Shovel Knight is that there are unlimited lives and five checkpoints per level. For all the old school difficulty (both for better and for worse) that this game throws at the player it has a very contemporary sense of player punishment. Failure sends you back a few screens at worst, refills your health to full, and if you can make it back to where you fell you can usually get your treasure back too. Not even all of your treasure, just the little bit that you dropped upon dying.
For me, a player lacking in genre experience and reflexes, this generosity is not just time saving, but it saves the entire experience. If I had to go back to the beginning of a level every three or five or even ten deaths it would not have enhanced my experience or taught me how they played games in the “good old days”—it would have upset me and probably led to me never beating that darn snow level at all. Players who want more punishment can destroy the checkpoints for money. Why anyone would do that is beyond me, though.
I don’t much care for Shovel Knight’s tone. It seems like it’s gunning for comedy, but the comedy never really extends beyond the initial joke in the title. A knight is fighting to save the world/the girl with a shovel! That’s kind of goofy, but when the game so frequently goes back to it, it also eliminates any dramatic potential.
Maybe this is just me, but I was ready to accept that this is a world where shovels are valid weapons and move on to the meat of the experience from there. There are some limited conversations with named characters and some dream sequences that suggest that this could have been a cast of characters and a world to care about. You know, in that old-school way where there’s not much dialogue or graphical flair so the game suggests a wider world and your imagination fills in the blanks to make it an interesting and wonderful place. But when Shovel Knight felt the need to deal out some “Shovel Justice” or otherwise get smart that imaginary universe is contradicted and replaced with lame shovel jokes that read like they were written to play well on forums.
Shovel Knight is not an extraordinarily long game, but it’s not short either. Something about linear 2D side-scrolling level design seems to put a hard cap on the amount of content in a game. The game is an 8+ hour experience for me, but skillful players may burn through it faster. Suffice it to say that Shovel Knight has as much content as the games that inspired it, plus a few extra bits of optional content scattered around. This is one area where I wish the game had strayed from old school design. More levels, please!
Why do I want more levels? Because the level design is good. That’s ultimately what everyone needs to know, I suppose. Accessible or inaccessible, well written or lame, short or long… none of that addresses the quality of the core game inside. So, the good news is, that game is good. The levels are all really unlike one another and feature different level gimmicks. Some are better than others, but none are terrible. All of the levels teach the player without tutorializing, all of the levels feature clever traps in places where the designers predicted your movements.
Every jump, every enemy, and every gem stone has been placed purposefully.
What Shovel Knight made me realize is that the nostalgia it inspires about the side-scrolling platforming or the pixels or the sub weapon that is totally just the axe from Castlevania doesn’t matter. The superficial similarities it shares with the games of yesteryear are just an appeal to an audience like high-resolution graphics or huge open worlds are for other genres. Underneath the retro stylings is a game unmistakably handcrafted, and even though I can’t comment on NES similarities, I can definitely say that I like it a lot.
Food for thought:
1. I playtested the 3DS version of the game, and the 3D is nice! I feel like most 2D sidescrolling games can benefit from just a little bit of 3D effect dropping background layers behind the action a little bit, and it works well here.
2. The music was pretty good, but kinda started to sound the same to me after a while. Most of the tracks seemed like they could have been assigned to most of the levels. So although I don’t see any new classics coming out of this soundtrack, it’s perfectly serviceable. Just a lot of chiptune anthem type songs.
3. I can’t comment on post game content because I couldn’t beat it. I hope to eventually, but if I died on this last (I think last?) level one more time I was going to break the 3DS. So this playtest covers everything up through the final level – and I wouldn’t have spoiled anything about the final boss for you folks anyway.