28 February 2015

Nostalgia is a finicky thing. If you were never fond of something at one point, you probably won’t start to like it right now. Its main function is to smooth over any flaws. While it doesn’t make anything better, it does make things seem less bad.

You might be wondering where I’m going with this. Stick with me for a second, I need to give some context. If you don’t give a shit about that, just read the last line of this article, it’s pretty much the TL;DR.

The first game I played in my life is Super Mario Bros. But aside from that, its two sequels and some of Blades of Steel, I did not really get that much mileage out of my NES. No, most of my gaming time as a kid was done on the SNES and then later on on the N64. The first time I was exposed to the Mega Man franchise was with Mega Man X. I played Symphony of the Night before the original Castlevania. I learned of Duck Tales when Smooth McGroove arranged its moon level theme. And Zelda II remains the only game in the series I didn’t try.

So let’s just say that I didn’t go into Shovel Knight with a nostalgic feeling. I understand the historical context behind it, but I was never a part of it. And that probably explains why Shovel Knight left me mostly tepid. But let me explain myself a bit more.

It’s shoveling time

For those who are unaware, Shovel Knight is a pixel perfect homage to all the NES games I mentioned before. And by “homage”, I mean it: the level design, the controls, the screen resolution, the sound effects, even the color palette were all carefully selected to evoke an era of gaming that has died nearly 25 years ago. It’s the closest thing you can get to a NES game without actually running on a NES.

It got a tremendous amount of critical praise last year, winning many awards, and is typically considered by the gaming press to be 2014’s best indie title. So, when it went on sale on Steam several weeks ago, I decided to bite the bullet and try it. After spending a few hours with it and beating a few bosses, I stopped. Maybe I’ll continue later on, but for now, I don’t really feel that interested.

So, is it good? Well…


Let me start by saying that, as a programmer, I have a tremendous level of respect for the work they’ve done there. They even went so far as to emulate a Famicom sound chip in order to ensure that the soundtrack is as “8-bit” as possible. The game eschews the traditional lives system in favor of a Dark Souls-like “drop half your gold on death”. The controls work well, and the game sounds and looks and feels good. So what didn’t I like in it? It’s hard to say, really. It’s not really dislike, but rather disinterest brought upon by frustration.

I was never a big fan of old school hardcore platformers. When it comes to platforming, I prefer high speed fast paced dash-and-smash games like Mega Man X or Donkey Kong Country rather than the sluggish death trap with rigid jump arcs and unreliable weapon hit boxes like Castlevania or Duck Tales. For reference, my current benchmark for platformers is Rayman Legends. If I was designing a platformer, you can be certain I would be implementing wall jumping and dashing from the get go, and your main method of attack would be some sort of charge or tackle that allows you to deal damage without losing speed or momentum.

In Shovel Knight, I felt like I had to plan around technical limitations rather than being the true master of my destiny. Your shovel always has less range than you think it has, your character moves pretty slowly, and your jumps are rather weak. Your best move is a downward thrust, but it’s a bit awkward to use. And eventually you’ll go through a painfully difficult platforming section only to get hit by a flying enemy and knocked down a bottomless pit, throwing you back to the nearest checkpoint, which always feels too far.

Maybe I’m growing soft

You see, I like Rayman Legends a lot because, despite being challenging, you never lose that much progress. The low cost of failure combined with the high margin for errors mean you are encouraged to really breeze through the levels while disregarding your own safety. When you die, you just mash your controller or keyboard and jump right back in the action. In Shovel Knight, however, it didn’t take too many mistakes before I would feel frustrated and I would just stop playing.

And yet, I feel like most of what I’m saying here can be replied with “yes, but that’s how games were back in the day”. And I totally understand that. Shovel Knight has some legacy to lug around, and it does it very well. I have a feeling that all the reviewers who gave glowing reviews to it are older than me and grew up with the games it takes its inspiration from. Shovel Knight’s main draw is nostalgia, and unfortunately for me, it is nostalgia for a time that I do not remember.

So, again, is it good? I’d say it’s simply not for me. If you like hardcore NES-style platformers, give it a try. Otherwise, pass.