Digging Shovel Knight [Preview]

Joel Couture
Guest Writer
 
April 9th, 2013

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I don’t know what it is about the downward thrust that makes it so compelling. There’s something about the combination of jumping on someone’s head and driving a sword through their skull that just makes me want to keep doing it. I did it all the time in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Super House of Dead Ninjas, and I’m going to be doing it lots more when Shovel Knight comes out. The folks down at Yacht Club Games have set out to design an entire game based around the move; one that draws inspiration from Mega Man, Ducktales, and just about any other NES action game that’s worth your time.

I didn’t have to see a single screen in order to be excited about it. Yacht Club Games is made up of developers who’ve  split off from WayForward, otherwise known as “The Only Game Company I Trust Implicitly”. The guys who created this company worked on Contra 4 and Double Dragon Neon, something that is grounds for me to just hand over my credit card and tell them to go crazy. On top of that, they’ve tapped Jake Kaufman for the sound design. I routinely listen to his music for months after I finish the game, and am willing to give anything he works on a chance just to hear the music he’s composed. These guys are the definition of dream team for me, and the game could be called Super We’re Going to Rob Your House and Kill Your Family, For Real, Seriously, We’re At Your Back Door Right Now and I would still play it.

That doesn’t much help you guys, does it? Ok, well, I got to try the game at PAX East and it was really cool. The game feels like a melee-based Mega Man game; one where you use your shovel to smash through anything that gets in your way. You have a straight attack that kills most enemies in a few hits, but that downward thrust the game was built around is far handier. It gave me an excuse to just rush forward, jumping over projectiles and dropping down onto the enemy’s head; bouncing on it until they died. There were also a few enemies in the demo that protected themselves from the front, so it was important to use that attack to hurt them.

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The downward strike is very comfortable and natural, but not everyone in the game is just going to let you bounce on their heads. In the interest of keeping the demo challenging, there were a few knights who carried large shields that they could use to block their heads or the front depending on where you tried to hit them. They reminded me of the knights from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, but they weren’t anywhere near as difficult (impossible) to hit. They still blocked quite quickly and forced me to keep altering my plan, though.

I accidentally found out that if you can’t get to a projectile-firing enemy in time to hit it, you can always bounce their shot back at them. There was only one enemy type in the demo who could fire projectiles, though, so I don’t know if only certain shots can be ricocheted back or not. It was a nice added tool for when the enemies are too far to attack, as hitting them with their own shots caused them damage. For a melee-based action game it was a very cool option to have, but I wasn’t without my own way of firing shots. There was an optional magic wand that I picked up during the demo level, one that let me shoot fireballs that drained a magic meter I hadn’t noticed before. Very handy against the boss.

What good is the shovel if you’re not going to dig, though? The developers have hidden a lot of little treasures all over the map, many of them within obvious piles that you can dig with your shovel. It was a cool way to have treasure just lying around, but it also provided new ways to traverse the levels. There were certain kinds of rocks that I could dig through in order to sneak around enemies or take different routes. It was an option that was only available a few times during the demo, but I’m sure they’ve put a lot of thought in where you can dig around throughout the game.

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That’s especially because of their love of secrets. There were a whole lot of hidden cracks and crevices in the game; enough that any time you see some empty or weird space you should be trying to fiddle with it. There were spots on the first screen of the game that held some hidden gems, so the game really encourages a lot of exploration while you play it. I asked one of the devs how many secrets I’d found by the end of the demo, and I was told that I hadn’t even found half of them. I thought I’d prodded and poked at every surface, but it seems like the guys at Yacht Club Games are much better at hiding things than I am at finding them. It’ll be a great excuse to play the same levels over and over again.

I still accrued a decent amount of money during the demo, although I’m not really sure what it’s all for. I doubt it’s as simple as just being points for points’ sake, but right now I don’t know for sure. There is a picture of a shop on their kickstarter page, so that may indicate that there’s some stuff I can spend all this money on. Given that you lose half of your money every time you die, there has to be some importance placed on going through the level without dying so you can keep it all.

Getting through a stage without dying didn’t look that hard when I watched other people play it, and it didn’t feel like it was going to be once I got a controller in my hands. The game controls like a dream, letting the player fire off attacks and jumps without hesitation. If you want to do something, your character will be doing it. Want to hop off someone’s head, reflect a shot in mid-air, then land and fire off three quick hits against another guy on the ground? Nothing to it. For a guy wearing a big suit of armor, the Shovel Knight really gets around when you need him to. This is not a game you’ll be able to blame the controls for losing.

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That quick response means that some of the platforming and enemies required good timing. At one point during the stage I had to bounce off of magic books in order to keep going, but only after jumping on a specific item that opened them up. I watched a lot of players die in this sequence because they thought they had all the time in the world to get through. If you didn’t move quickly, though, you’d find yourself near the end of a series of jumps with no place to go and your only platform fading out from underneath you. That responsiveness is really nice when you’re playing, but the developers have taken it into account when they set up your challenges.

If that wasn’t clear for me after playing through the level, the boss drove that point home. The King Knight was flying all over the chamber I was fighting him in, rarely standing still to do anything for more than a second or two. Projectiles were all over the place, I think trumpets were shooting out damaging confetti overhead, and the whole thing was just frantic. I only just beat him in my clumsy attempts to keep up with him, managing to get lucky and hitting him with a bunch of fireballs right in a row from the magic staff I’d picked up. It was a great fight, but I still left the demo with the feeling that he was one of the easier bosses in the game. I can’t wait to fight the others.

He looked great in motion when I could see him, too. The whole game does, and still shots don’t do it justice. The game looks like an extremely high-end NES game from the screens in this article, but it’s far better than that. It uses a lot of layered screens moving on top of each other, and the characters all have a lot of frames of animation that make them look smooth in motion. A lot more detail went into this game than any NES game I’ve ever seen, using 8-bit pixel art as a springboard to do some amazing stuff with modern technology. The castle I played didn’t show off as much of that as I would like, but seeing some of the boss and level designs from the video and kickstarter page made me see just how sharp it’s going to be. It may look retro, but it isn’t limited by its art style.

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I was a little devastated that I couldn’t hear the music that well on the show floor, but luckily there was a sample of it on the kickstarter page. Listening to it now, it would have made a great experience even better. It’s just so full of energy it made me want to bust out of the front door of my house and start hitting people with a shovel. Again, the inspiration from Mega Man and other awesome Capcom games of the era can’t be denied. It’s a fantastic track, and knowing the talent that will be providing the rest of the songs makes me confident the whole game is going to sound just as good. I can’t wait to hear the boss music.

If you’re not entirely sold on the music and its inspirations, Yacht Club Games has recently tapped Manami Matsumae. I provided a link for anyone whose inner nerd didn’t freak out right there, as she’s the original composer for Mega Man. Go ahead and let that settle in for a minute. I was dying of excitement at the soundtrack before, but having her and Jake Kaufman on the same game almost makes the game a secondary concern. This is like buying a soundtrack that comes with a game at this point.

Lots of solid platformers have been springing up over the past few years, but this game is striving to be the best. It’s looking to surpass the games that inspired it, and wants to become the benchmark for action platformers. I think it’s going to do it, too. From what I’ve seen in the demo, there’s a very good chance this game will stand tall among the greats of the NES era. With the talent behind Shovel Knight, it might even surpass them.

Will Shovel Knight be the Mega Man 2 of this century? I guess we’ll see.

Shovel Knight‘s kickstarter page is still live and taking donations.

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A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

Specialty: Horror