Every aspect of a game communicates something about the overall experience of the game. It’s very easy, and very common, for these signals to be confusing and conflicted: Yet it’s hard to say definitively that these conflicts are flaws or problems, since it’s impossible for an artist to completely account for whatever colloquial associations attach themselves to components of their work.
Shovel Knight is a lovingly crafted homage to the aesthetic of 8-bit NES games such as the Megaman and Castlevania series. The art and music take certain liberties with this, but in very careful and considered ways. This creates a certain set of expectations of the gameplay, that it would be similar to these older titles – which, in generalities, is true, but in specifics will frequently lead the player astray.
For instance, due to technical limitations NES games rarely tracked objects that were off-screen, instead deleting them as soon as they were no longer visible. Even for games where this wasn’t the case, in virtually all instances once a player left a room and came back it would be reset to its default state. Shovel Knight pays homage to these conventions with certain enemies and objects, but not with others: It takes what was a technologically enforced rule of game design and turns it into a suggestion. Some enemies track while off-screen while others don’t. Some blocks will, once destroyed, stay destroyed, while others will reset if you leave the room and come back. There’s no consistency in deciding which is which beyond what will be most difficult – and frequently frustrating – to the player, while not leaving a level impossible to complete.
I don’t mean to portray this game as bad or incompetently made, but the choices made in regard to its gameplay design lack much of the strong and decisive sense brought to its sound and visual design. It’s possible to jump over the top of the screen onto the ceiling of a level, ala Super Mario Bros, in some areas but not in others, with no visible difference between areas where it’s possible and areas where it’s not. Enemy and prop movement timing is based on character proximity, and how long they stay in place is based on arbitrary timers rather than simple and understandable movement patterns. Your character has a different model of acceleration depending on whether he’s on the ground or jumping, something that was, as far as I can recall, unheard of in NES games: Some, like Castlevania, had no air movement at all, some were slippery all the time like Super Mario Bros, and some were inertia-less on/off directional controls like Megaman, but none had a character slide around on the ground while having accurate control in the air. In fact, the only game I can think of with similar controls was Super Meat Boy, a decidedly non-8-bit platformer. While these aren’t exactly flaws, strictly speaking, they are mechanical contrivances that go directly against the message invoked by the game’s aesthetic, telling us that this is supposed to be like a classic NES game.
The worst aspect of the game is its money system. Each source of money in a level is set to only drop it once, the first time you pick it up – tracking all these individual money drops a truly blatant undermining of the NES aesthetic – so that you can’t get extra money by redoing a section of level over and over again. Money is made to be important, because the main punishment for death is that you drop about a quarter of the money you’re holding. Except you don’t lose it permanently, that money scatters around where you died in floating sacks of cash. There are so many problems with this: First, the sacks of cash don’t disperse in any consistent way, so based on the whim of the game you can either easily retrieve your lost funds or find them completely impossible to reach. Second, it means that the best case scenario is that there’s no extra punishment for death beyond having to do the section you were already doing, and the worst case scenario is that you got screwed over by the game’s random number generator. So the game is simultaneously telling us money is super important, but it’s not, but it is, but we shouldn’t be too upset if it’s just impossible to recover, but we should definitely try to recover it. It’s a mess: Someone saw Dark Souls and thought its penalties for death seemed cool, but watered those down and mixed them into a context where they were frustrating and served no clear gameplay purpose.
Here’s the thing though: If you ignore all that garbage (which I guess must be easy since apparently no one besides me was bothered by it in the first place), it’s a pretty good game. The graphics and music are beautiful, assuming you like pixels and chiptunes, the core gameplay is enjoyable, and each level has some interesting twist which is cleverly tutorialized through the level’s structure. It’s just that, for anyone looking for logic and consistency, and especially the sort of technologically-enforced straightforwardness that classic 8-bit NES typified, it is going to be a somewhat frustrating experience.
Still, I’d recommend it to anyone who likes 2d platforms and jumping on them.