Shovel Knight (2014)

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Shovel Knight feels like the love-child of Duck Tales and Mega Man and even some aspects of Super Mario Bros. 3 thrown into the mix, complete with beautiful NES-like graphics, a whimsical and charming story and challenging but still beatable difficulty. Use your shovel to bounce from enemies or blocks, go through 8 themed stages and beat their similar themed bosses.

Old-school gameplay with flawless controls yet modernized enough (save points) to appeal to today’s audience. Kickstarter games rarely manage to exceed expectations as well as Shovel Knight does. The game has an overworld (this is where SMB3-aspects come into play) and it’s one of the reasons I think that it has been tagged by some as a Metroidvania on Steam, and my first reaction to this is WTF.

Metroidvanias are a subset of exploration-driven platformers, with one, big consecutive world and new areas behind hard locks only accessible through new skills or items. Shovel Knight is not that. But there is another class of exploration-driven platformers, where an overland map allows access to individual levels that can be explored at free will (e.g. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Odallus, Ys 3: Wanderers from Ys).

And at that point my second reaction sets in. Maybe they are not completely wrong. One rather divergent game from those mentioned above is Super Mario World, another platformer with an overworld map, but where the emphasis in the individual levels is less on exploration but more on classical platform action.

Exploration-driven games rarely have any insta-kill obstacles (no pits, no insta-kill spikes or lava, etc.), whereupon more traditional platformers punish any lack of sufficient twitch skill with death. Exploration-driven games merely detract a few hit points to show you what is dangerous or deadly, but almost never kill you instantly. Also, the levels accessible from the overworld allow for complete backtracking (you can go back from entry to exit and back to entry).

But the funny thing is, Shovel Knight has both kinds. Hard-as-hell classical platform action. More laidback, exploration-driven parts (the cities). They aren’t exactly big, but still, it’s understandable that people think of the game not just in terms of classical platformers. And the game has a clear upgrade path for your hero, which is a typical mainstay of Metroidvanias or 2d action-adventures.

Still, while Shovel Knight is located in the borderland between those two genres, it manages to merge the best aspects of both worlds into an exhilarating and utterly successful mix.