2014 has been a relatively good year in terms of gaming for me. I did pick up a few releases that came out this year — I typically pick things up later on, as they tend to be a lot cheaper — and one of those was Yacht Club Games' wondrous Shovel Knight.
If my euphoric adjective wasn't indication enough, I loved this game, and I'd like to take some time to share why.
Shovel Knight does three things beautifully: the game looks, sounds and plays like the classic NES games of yore, but subtly is a vast improvement on many of those titles; the game's plot subverts the trope of a damsel in distress in a rather remarkable way; and the gameplay treads the perfect degree of challenge that rarely frustrates. Let's break that down.
Shovel Knight, as evidenced by the screenshot above, mimics the style of the glory days of the NES. Pixels rule the day visually, with amazing animation and charming designs pouring over the eyes. Jake "virt" Kaufman (frequent Wayforward musician) and Manami Matsumae (composer of the original Mega Man) combine their talents to create one of the most amazing tributes to the sounds of the 80s video game. And Yacht Club borrowed elements from several games of that era, namely Ducktales' nifty pogo mechanic, to power the gameplay to glorious effect. This is a labor of love, and every minute detail drips with that love.
Secondly, Shovel Knight twists the oft-used damsel motif into something novel. USGamer's Kat Bailey noticed this herself in her article on the game's plot (massive spoilers at the link!), and in her discussion with Yacht Club Games' David D'Angelo, the developer confirmed that the company decided to avoid lumping the female lead, Shield Knight, into the same kind of trope as "Roll, Peach, Zelda, and other Damsel in Distress models from the NES era."
Moving away from that notion, the team
"started discussing how we could modernize and improve the model for today. We saw the idea of seeking out a loved one a worthwhile theme, but we felt in doing so, we needed to make Shield Knight just as strong a hero as Shovel Knight. In that way, we felt the connection between the player and Shield Knight would be even more powerful, as Shield Knight wouldn't be just an object—Shield Knight would be as meaningful as a loved one."
The beautiful thing about this statement is that they succeeded in that mission. Shield Knight is a central narrative tool — the means for Shovel Knight's motivation to quest — but there's an actual relationship between the two that the game expertly builds as you progress through the game, culminating in the game's final moments. I won't reveal that to you here, as I think experiencing it yourself is more worthwhile. But the careful, thoughtful crafting of the game's narrative focus turned the game away from "yet another princess to rescue" story into one that shows the genuine force of a strong, equal relationship.
The last reason I adored Shovel Knight was that it was perfectly paced. The game starts you off with a solid tutorial level, and provides plenty of incentives to make the game easier or harder for the player. Checkpoints litter the landscape, but they can be destroyed to earn more treasure. Once broken, they won't be checkpoints anymore, making the risk vs. reward model a very real, crucial gameplay element. Life and magic powerups can be optionally gained. Potions to refill your life meter can be quaffed. If the player fails, a Demon's/Dark Souls "lose some of your experience" concept is put into play in the form of losing treasure which can be regained if the player can return to that spot. There are no extra lives to fret about. The game's levels are rife with hidden secrets, passages and treasure nooks. The bosses are all unique, challenging and engaging to battle. And the game increases its difficulty in a moderate fashion, steadily raising the enemy and environmental threats with each map reveal. There's ample opportunity to gain treasure to beef up Shovel Knight through optional levels and replaying old ones, too.
Hopefully I have explained why Shovel Knight is the ideal game for me, and why I feel it's the finest of 2014.
Its retro decadence, the compelling narrative that gives a woman equal status to its male lead, and a difficulty that straddles the sweet spot all the way through combine for one of the greatest games I've had the pleasure of playing in any year.
If you haven't given Shovel Knight a shot yet, you really ought to consider it!