It comes with great pleasure that in this article, I get to talk about Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight, by Yacht Games Club, stars the titular hero in an adventure that hearkens back to the golden age of gaming. Every year, there are a ton of games that come out and make the same claim, but what makes Shovel Knight stand out?
Here at Quark’s Corner, I always try to give a unique spin on whatever I review, especially if it’s something that was released a while ago on other consoles, like Shovel Knight. If you’re reading this review, you are most likely already aware that Shovel Knight is a great game. Even though we all know how fun and entertaining the game is, it’s important to understand why. The best way to explain this is by comparing it to Duke Nukem Forever.
How are Shovel Knight and Duke Nukem Forever in any way related? One is a retro 8-bit side scroller and the other is a shooter. But what they both meant to accomplish was the same: to be callbacks to the great games of yesteryear. One succeeded and became arguably the biggest Kickstarter success story ever – the other failed, was in development hell and was met with near universal negativity. (I, however, love both games.) Let’s look at the two and see what they wanted to do and how they either succeeded or failed.
Duke vs. Nukem
Duke Nukem Forever, released in 2011, is the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, released in 1996. After a lengthy development cycle by 3D realms, Gearbox finished it and released it as the Duke Nukem Forever we have today. The game is nothing like Duke Nukem 3D in terms of game play. Open-ended levels with secrets everywhere are replaced with linear levels with limited exploration. Health packs are replaced with regenerating health and only two weapons can be carried at a time instead of holding all the weapons you have found. While I had a lot of fun due to the games humor, the game was met with very negative reviews. The main problem was that it failed to adapt to modern gaming and had an identity crisis. There's a moment where Duke Nukem finds a set of Master Chief-esque armor and mocks it, a subtle jab at Halo and it making regenerating health the standard in FPS. Ironic, considering that even Duke himself ditched the health pack system in favor of regenerating heath. It's weird, Duke Nukem Forever feels like it wants to be a run and gun shooter like Duke Nukem 3D, but has all the mechanics of a modern shooter. Even so, the game feels like it is living in the past trying to capitalize on gaming of yesteryear. But Shovel Knight is different.
A simple plot that involves Shovel Knight saving his love by battling through over 10 stages, Shovel Knight attacks like Scrooge McDuck and has items he can use like Simon Belmont. The game has hub zones reminiscent to Zelda II, a map screen similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 and different bosses that feel like Mega Man‘s robot masters. Shovel Knight feels like the best type of homage; the type that borrows and learns from the past instead of living in it. That's what some games don't think about. Retro City Rampage, while a decent game, had that exact problem – it was too focused on being a homage which left something to be desired in terms of game play. Shovel Knight, while being an 8-bit game, doesn't feel like it belongs in that era. Shovel Knight, unlike Duke Nukem Forever, is living in the present. Megaman 9 & 10 are both fantastic, but they aren't a homage to the 8-bit era, they are 8-bit. They feel like they belong in that time. They didn't learn from the old games, they ARE the old games. Not faulting those games, but saying they are perfectly indicative of the 8-bit era would be a fallacy.
Rose Tinted Gaming
Even though Megaman 9 & 10 were just like the old games, they are judged harder due to the times they were released (2010.) We expected more from them and judged them using a 2010 brain. This is why Mighty No. 9 will succeed where Mega Man 9 & 10 failed, it will adapt instead of trying to replicate. This is why Resident Evil 1-4 gets a pass and Resident Evil 5-6 do not. We put on our rose tinted glasses and remember how the state of gaming was when RE 1-4 were released and judge them based on that. While the way RE 5 and RE 6 control is a huge improvement over the other entries in the series titles, compared to any other title released at the time, RE 5-6 are failures. But when playing RE4 you pretend you are back in 2004. You realize that it is a timeless classic because of what it did at the time. Sure it's movement is kind of sluggish and it's weird that you have to aim to shoot, but you respect it because it was 2004. You remember how gaming was in 2004 and how RE4 was the new benchmark. This is the same reason Super Metroid is one of the greatest games of all time. Even by today's standards it's great, but considering it was made in 1994, it's a marvel. The game even said “Nintendo Presents”…in 1994. That one line set the precedent that gaming were great creations made by talented individuals and that it was worthy of being not just played, but presented.
Shovel Knight breaks all of these trends. It isn't trying to be an old game. There is no dispute that it is a current generation game with an old school paint job. Its goal is to be fun and it succeeds. It doesn't want to be the newest entry in an old school series, it's trying to be it's own piece of gaming history. A game, that while playing, makes you feel like you are back in that era, but is still able to be appreciated with a modern gaming mentality. Shovel Knight is the perfect homage to 8-bit gaming because it proves that even if you look like you're from the past, doesn't mean you have to live in it.