I know I talked about it before, but Shovel Knight is probably one of the few games this year that I was hard-pressed to put down. Aside from being a fun Castlevania-Megaman style Platformer, attached is a great soundtrack, a style that references games of the past but is still able to carve out its own image and gameplay that is never “too easy” or “too hard” but consistently finds the middle ground to keep the player lingering in the “I know I can complete this” mentality.
Guns Away, Fists OK
One of the biggest benefits in combat that I can think of is that Shovel Knight is a “get-in-yer-face” melee-attacker due to the fact that he uses a shovel. If this were Megaman, or any other Action-Platformer, you have the range of your mega-blaster, so many enemies are reliant on your patience and your accuracy. This means that the player can approach many enemies from a distance, keeping the feeling of danger at arm’s reach. But, because Shovel Knight is mainly a Melee attacker, all enemy encounters require the danger to be touching your nuts, which give a malicious presence to all enemies, rather than taking away that malice aura from enemies further away.
The abilities that the player does obtain throughout playing helps make combat easier, but you only get a handful of ranged attacks in the game which require you to consume an exorbitant amount of MP making the idea of spamming these few moves extremely un-useful for general combat tactics. There is some luck that enemies will drop blue chugging bottles, which will remedy some of your MP-consumption issues, but I tended toward other means that required less MP and yielded as effective results.
Balancing the Insanity
The game has its difficulties, don’t get me wrong, but the game never feels impossible to beat. The game is plentiful in its wall-chicken and MP Chuggables, access to “anytime” potions and upgrades are available at the beginning of the game and you’ll expect to use these potions during boss encounters but not in many other places. The deaths and the difficulty come more from the execution required in maneuvering the various stages or the intermingling of the stage hazards with various enemies on screen rather than the difficulty from only enemy encounters.
That being said, one of Shovel Knight’s strengths is that most problems that the player comes across exists multiple solutions and finding these solutions is where the player’s creativity can come in. Creativity in problem-solving is something that isn’t normally found in Action-Platformers but is instead left to games like ScribbleNauts and Little Big Planet, i.e. games where creativity-though-exploration is the focus of the game. Other games like Megaman, Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario Bros tend to have some emphasis on exploration, but the paths and solutions to these path-exploring problems are few. In earlier iterations of Megaman and Super Mario Bros, you couldn’t back track to explore the branching paths of a stage to acquire missed treasures but would be forced to replay the stage in order to explore the various paths. In Megaman X and later Mario Bros, the player was able to back track but in some instance would still be forced through the path chosen which still left the exploration aspect feeling cumbersome.
Here’s a screen from Treasure Knight’s stage. There are a few ways of approaching this screen based on what abilities that you have and are comfortable using.
Let’s first go through the most direct approach and one that requires the basic of abilities.
Using your at-birth abilities, the player maps out a route with many hazards initially in the path and one by one deals with each encounter. Each Attack-Point helps reduce enemy-induced risk but still requires some player-induced risk in getting to each enemy.
But with each ability that the player acquires and learns to incorporate in their repertoire, the more creative in expression that their solutions can appear. In my approach for this solution, we use the Phase Locket in order to bypass the enemy-hazards for a short time but the player-induced risk is still present. The player still needs to reactivate the locket in order to keep their invulnerability and this is still under the assumption that the player knows the timing and MP usage of the Phase Locket.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of solutions to this problem since the flame rod, the anchor, and the chaos ball are all abilities that help manage enemies from a distance but still require the aptitude to know how to use these items. There are also many different attack paths that the player can take, each with their own risks, while the player is illustrating their solution to the problem of just this one screen.
Solutions become more diverse as the player progresses through the game while unlocking and mastering more abilities that the game presents. But because many of the abilities aren’t mandatory in the core-stages of the game, there is always a solution to the stage. Where Shovel Knight shines is allowing the player’s creativity to searching for a solution.
Let me try that again.
In order to master and have the player incorporate the various abilities that are available, Shovel Knight allows for stages to solely test the player on application of one ability.
This is the test stage for the Knuckle Duster. The first thing to notice is that the stage requires the Knuckle Duster for admittance early on. You can get around this with the Flying Sword, but that doesn’t happen until a few stages later.
The stage teaches the player the few but important applications in identifying the use of the Knuckle Duster. The first is to get across gaps where the Knuckle Duster is viable.
The second is to learn the timing when falling down and using the Knuckle Duster to continue forward movement without falling to one’s death.
Similar test levels are found for the Phase Locket and the Propeller Dagger that help the player learn and become more comfortable with using abilities of mobility while progressing through the stages. More on point, the test levels help build the repertoire of the player in incorporating these abilities when finding solutions to the stages of the game.
With all of the practice that the player gets with the abilities that empower the player, there’s an interesting dynamic that the player never feels overpowered. This is in part due to the abilities earned having a cost to use it, so you can’t just spam the abilities if you find them to be overpowering, but the majority of moves still put the player in the harm’s way so there is a risk that pressures the player regardless of the means of attacking and maneuvering about a stage.
As I mentioned earlier, this is in part due to the Shovel Knight being almost strictly a melee brawler which leaves you in some vulnerable state whenever they choose to attack, but also persists a challenge because you can never rely on a single strategy to get you out of a situation.
Money is my weakness
Money also has an interesting dynamic in Shovel Knight in that you feel obligated to spend it. For a casual playthrough in other contemporaries, money often goes overlooked by the player because they feel to keep their stockpile of coin in-case something worth spending it on comes along. The problem is that in Shovel Knight, you are incentivized in spending your money as often as possible.
You run around, collecting gold in expecting something super special awesome to appear that seems worth buying. The problem is that you’re prone to dying in game. This would normally not be a problem because usually when you die all of your goods are intact, but in Shovel Knight when you die you lose a rather large percentage of your gold. You have the opportunity to get it back by back tracking to where you died and recovering the lost gold, but sometimes the area is too treacherous to return to or died in a pitfall that it impossible to recover your goods. Much like how Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask forced you to use the bank in order for your in-game currency to persist through the various resets that occur so you wouldn’t lose your rupees, Shovel Knight incentivizes the player to spend their money between stages so you don’t have the opportunity to lose it due to careless deaths or unknown obstacles which gives meaning to the actual power to the money in Shovel Knight instead of potential power of the money.
Compare this to the bolts in later iterations of the Megaman game. Bolts are collected from enemy drops or by finding hard to reach sections of the stages, but your collection of Bolts persists as you die and retry each stage. If the game is designed well enough, the player should always have a working knowledge of how to traverse a stage and so their deaths are due to timing or learning phases of the game. So if you couple the persistence of wealth with the idea that we know how to complete a stage, then we (the player) aren’t given motivation to spend our bolt-currency because “I know how to beat the stage, I’ll save my spending for a harder level.” The only times that I ever spent my bolts in Megaman were when I thought I was stuck on a part of the stage and needed the help to only sweet bolt-worthy items could provide, but when I’m spending money in Shovel Knight I do so because I don’t want to have to recollect any gems in-case they’re stuck in a difficult area. In this sense, Shovel Knight and Megaman have differing philosophies on in-game money where Shovel Knight encourages spending to prevent loss of money and Megaman encourages spending to prevent loss of life.
And the soundtrack is amazing, the gameplay exciting all wrapped in an atmosphere of passion, melancholy and excitement that accentuate which they encompass. But this isn’t analysis-talk, but blurb talk. And blurb talk doesn’t tell us much, so bleh.