Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Let enough time pass and the desire for how things used to be will arise. In gaming, the trend of emulating the style of a certain era of games is alive and well. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a game that describes itself as a Metroidvania, Zelda-like, or retro. The greatest difficulty in emulating a classic is making it good enough that it overcomes the nostalgia factor. But when a game does manage to break that barrier, the result is a modern classic.
Such is the case with the best platformer of the last decade — Shovel Knight.
Better than you remember
Yacht Club Games, the developer of Shovel Knight, looked back at the platformers of the NES era for inspiration. Their goal was to “make really awesome original games that use modern and retro sensibilities” as stated in the original Kickstarter campaign for the game.
The Greek Philosopher Plato had a theory called Platonic realism. It is the idea that abstract objects have universal qualities that exist objectively. A common thought experiment to illustrate the idea is to think of a cup. What does that cup look like? Is it circular? Shallow or deep? What defines its cupness. Now if you pick up a real cup it might not perfectly resemble your ideal cup, but it is a cup, nonetheless.
Shovel Knight is the Platonic ideal of an NES platformer.
Shovel Knight looks better. It plays better.
This is because of the modern sensibilities Yacht Club applied to the NES platformer. The pixels look sharp and vibrant in a way that actual NES games only look with a veil of nostalgia pulled over the player's eyes. But making a game look better than one from 30 years ago is not a hard task. Creating gameplay on par with a classic, however, is a difficult undertaking.
The most obvious influence when it comes to the gameplay of Shovel Knight is the Mega Man series. The Capcom franchise is famous for its tight controls, difficult levels, and iconic boss stages. The games rely on the player defeating different bosses (all named in the [blank]+Man format) and gaining new weapons that other bosses are weak to. Platforming is an art in Mega Man, demanding the player master every mechanic to progress.
Shovel Knight’s reverence for Mega Man is laced throughout the game’s DNA. The main objective that moves the game forward is the need to defeat the Order of No Quarter, a collection of eight bosses who are all named [blank]+Knight (including Polar Knight, Propeller Knight, and King Knight). The game’s main mechanic is the titular shovel, which you can swing, dig with, or bounce on. These three actions define the gameplay and are so well tuned that every platforming puzzle and boss fight feels incredibly satisfying to master.
When Shovel Knight released in 2014 it was immediately recognizable as a masterwork of game design. But Yacht Club didn’t stop there.
Bet you can’t have just one
In fulfillment of the original Kickstarter, Yacht Club added three playable Boss Knight modes. Each one of these became an individual campaign with a fully fleshed-out campaign and a unique gameplay element. What began as development on one game turned into an over five-year development that produced Shovel Knight, three spin-off campaigns, and a multiplayer fighting game.
The three campaigns follow Plague Knight parallel to the events of the main game, Specter Knight before the main game, and King Knight even further back than that. While all three of these campaigns have merit of their own, the standout is King Knight’s campaign. Shovel Knight: King of Cards was the final campaign and was released at the end of 2019.
It tells the tale of King Knight’s ascension to the throne and how we joined the Order of No Quarter. King Knight’s defining gameplay mechanic is a dashing tackle inspired by a similar move from Wario Land. In addition, King Knight gets access to an airship (how Final Fantasy) that slowly gains residents who can provide items and new unlockables. The game focuses on defeating three different kings across the land. You can enjoy all of this, or you can ignore your responsibilities and play the most addictive mini-game ever.
Joustus is a mini-game exclusive to the King of Cards campaign. It is a card game inspired by the Triple Triad mini-game of Final Fantasy 8. Triple Triad saw players collecting cards from across the world and facing off with any NPC in the game. There is a lengthy side quest in Final Fantasy 8 dedicated to this minigame called the Queen of Cards. People have devoted hours to this card game alone. Joustus follows in its footsteps.
The game takes place on a grid, the size of which can change depending on which region of the map you are in. Certain squares on the grid contain gems, the objective is to get as many gems as possible in a match. You do this by placing cards in empty spaces and pushing them across the board based on what arrows are on the card. What begins as a simple game soon spirals out into complex play. Cards can have special abilities that push two or more spaces, switch places with a card, or even destroy the card it hits. All of this turns into a strategic game forcing the player to think about card placement as well as have a solid deck composition. All this for a mini-game.
Shovel Knight began as an attempt to create a game that could live up to the nostalgia Yacht Club had for the platformers of the NES. But over the extended development of the main game and its many sequels, the developer demonstrated its unique understanding of what makes games special. They could copy any gameplay mechanic they wanted, be it the pogo stick from Ducktales or a card game from Final Fantasy. But most importantly, they could improve upon them.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but nothing beats a bonified masterpiece.