As much as I love the unceasing Manifest Destiny of progress that characterizes the game industry, pushing developers to adopt ever more impressive and advanced hardware, their came a time when I realized that, in a certain way, it was virtually oppressive to gaming as both an art form and a medium. In the constant quest for better and better visuals, graphics, and audio, developers never really get the time to maturate their skills at each step in the ladder that leads from basic 8-bit pixels to lifelike computer graphics. We have always, for various reasons, just assumed that better graphics will make better and more engaging games, even though this isn’t necessarily the case.
This is one of the primary reasons the indie scene has truly come into its own within the gaming world. Unable to afford the exorbitant prices of today’s cutting edge graphics, smaller independent teams have typically been forced to adopt simpler graphic sets and use them to the best of their abilities. This has driven them to cultivate those very skills I spoke of prior, to push those simpler designs to newer and newer heights of artistic and gameplay creativity. Whether it’s 8-bit, 64-bit, or somewhere in between, the indie game scene has heralded a renaissance of games that have adopted the older styles, sometimes foregoing any contemporary designs altogether.
Enter Shovel Knight, the long-awaited debut game from Yacht Club Games.
Branching off from the indie developer WayForward, responsible for such great titles as Ducktales Remastered and Double Dragon: Neon, a small group of developers led by Sean Velasco broke off from the core company early last year in order to begin work on original concepts. This became the team we now know as Yacht Club Games. Certainly owing to the skills they developed while working at the former company, their freshman opus, Shovel Knight, began to turn heads immediately after being announced later that year.
The standard premise is simple, in the style of their own quirky sense of humor: you play as the titular Shovel Knight, so named because his primary weapon is, of course, a shovel. He travels the land in order “to defeat the evil Enchantress and save his lost beloved.” As he makes his way there, armed with the shovel and whatever other equipment he can find, he must defeat eight other knights in the Enchantress’ liege, “The Order of No Quarter.” The graphics are no better than you would find on a standard NES game, and the controls appear to be very simplified, with a d-pad, one button to jump, and another to swing your shovel (holding ‘down’ while jumping will also allow you to use your shovel to bounce). All-in-all, it’s a pretty basic side-scrolling platformer, with multiple levels and a set number of lives. To anybody not versed in game history, the plot and game itself sound very basic, if a bit humorous, right?
To anybody who grew up in the NES era, however, it’s quite easy for them to recognize the fact that Shovel Knight is likely the most heartfelt and finely-crafted homage to that era of all time. The team forced themselves to work within the graphical and musical confines of that era because it allowed them to not only push those traditional gameplay standards to their limits, it allowed them to make a game that was creative, original, fun, and not complicated by later standards set on games. It’s also a light-hearted parody of those same standards of the early period.
The very core story and gameplay should sound very familiar as well. Taking bits and pieces of old NES Capcom games (namely Megaman and Ducktales) as well as a few other influences (Castelvania), the team distilled the best pieces of each into a game that would feel fully new, while still acting as an evolution of the era itself, as if we’d never left it. There are eight core bosses/levels to choose from in the beginning just like MegaMan, the shovel physics work incredibly similar to Scrooge McDuck’s cane (albeit with the ability to reflect projectiles), and there are secrets and equipment scattered throughout, just as in Dracula’s castle. To someone who adores those core facets of the NES era as I do, it’s a dream come true; and to anybody who loves fun gameplay and a good challenge, there’s likely more than enough to be had here.
On next Thursday, the 26th of June, after numerous setbacks to this exciting project, we’ll finally see what Yacht Club Games has to offer. If it’s really as good as the media we’ve seen make it out to be, this is one game any hardcore gamer won’t want to pass up. If you’re still not convinced, you can read my full review of the game when it goes up on the same day, and see what I have to say after getting a chance to play through it for myself.