Why Shovel Knight Would Be the Perfect NES Game
Shovel Knight looks and sounds like the perfect NES game, even without ever being on the console. It was originally released as a PC game and on the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U in 2014, with PSN and OS X ports released a bit later. But Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight certainly would be the perfect NES game, rivaling Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 2, Castlevania, even Capcom’s sacred gem, DuckTales.
What Shovel Knight Is
At its surface, Shovel Knight is a 2D side-scrolling action-platformer with graphics reminiscent of the 8-bit era of gaming, with a rocking NES-esque soundtrack (written with an emulated VRC6 Konami sound chip), and full of old school gameplay design choices.
Players take control of titular hero Shovel Knight on his quest to uncurse his beloved, anti-Princess Peach, Shield Knight. Along the way, Shovel Knight faces “The Order of No Quarter,” a themed bunch of baddies recalling the bosses of the early Mega Man games. The Order has been dispatched by the Enchantress, the evil spirit possessing Shield Knight, and causing general chaos in the Adventure Time-like kingdom.
Shovel Knight features a world map for players to explore, housing villages, secrets, wandering foes, and dungeons that progress the game’s narrative. Players collect treasure to spend on upgrades and new skills in the villages, and they can discover new techniques in the dungeons. Equipping relics allows players to use certain skills, such as becoming invincible for a second, or a projectile attack, which consumes magic points. A large point of the game is deciding when and where to use these secondary abilities.
There are several checkpoints in each level that players can use to respawn upon death or break to gain some treasure. This adds an interesting risk-reward system to each level, and hardcore players can challenge themselves by destroying the checkpoints. Upon dying, Shovel Knight will drop a large percentage of his total treasure, and like in Dark Souls, players can retrieve the treasure by returning to the location of death, if they can make it back before succumbing to the level again.
Shovel Knight features several short cutscenes and points of dialogue with story and village NPCs. There are effective dream sequences after major battles with no dialogue that grant the game an extra, moody tone. These sequences are memorable, mysterious, and sad.
NES Influences and Authenticity
Somewhere in the first few action sequences of Shovel Knight, players familiar with DuckTales will reach an extreme ‘aha’ moment and exclaim “I get it. It’s like DuckTales.” Shovel Knight, like Scrooge McDuck before him, uses his weapon, a shovel, to pogo on the heads of enemies and break obstacles and blocks. There’s a rhythm of bouncing that needs to be mastered in the game’s more dire moments, and fans of DuckTales will surely appreciate the gameplay allusion.
But the connections do not end there. Shovel Knight‘s in-game world map is a clear allusion to the rectangular world map of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3, right down to the wandering enemies that move whenever the player returns to the map. Other Mario-related design choices can be seen in some of the levels, such as the vertically scrolling, platform pattern moving segment in one of the later levels of Shovel Knight.
While Shovel Knight does not gain new powers from defeated bosses as in the Mega Man games, each dungeon and boss has a specific theme (underwater, volcano, graveyard, airship). And like Mega Man, who can equip different abilities to get through certain obstacles or enemies, Shovel Knight too gains a new ability per level that has a discoverable specific use. The game’s bouncy platforming and dodging of enemies also looks and feels very similar to that of Mega Man 2 and 3.
Shovel Knight‘s village sequences and NPCs seem to have drawn from the towns of Link’s Adventure and Castlevania II, and the game’s soundtrack, which composer Jake Kaufman created through Famitracker’s emulated VRC6 chip, is a distant nod to the Japanese version of Castlevania III, which also featured Konami’s exclusive NES sound chip. Manami Matsumae, composer for the original Mega Man, also contributed to the soundtrack, adding to the game an almost Easter egg level of authenticity.
Programmer David D’Angelo explains in this excellent Gamasutra article how the development team strove to be as authentic to the NES hardware as possible, keeping in mind the hardware limitations of the now ancient but not obsolete technology.
For instance, the team stayed close to the NES’s limited color palette of 54 colors, only diverging, as D’Angelo says, four times throughout the game (the clandestine colors are #22123B, #360900, #9E9E5C, and #824e00, which the NES cannot display).
While Shovel Knight is natively displayed at a modern 16:9 resolution, each pixel seen is really 4.5 pixels when displayed at 1080p. What this means is that Shovel Knight‘s “actual” resolution is 400×240 pixels, coming close to the NES’s native resolution, a whopping 256×240 pixels. These two major factors (limitations) give the game a pure, NES look that other “low-res, 8-bit” contemporary games rarely get so close to.
Other limitations and quirks that the development team was concerned with were flickering sprites, parallax backgrounds, the number of colors for each sprite, swapping color palettes, sprite sizes, and passable HUDs, some of which were kept while others were scrapped. One of the biggest, non-NES qualities of Shovel Knight is its file size: Shovel Knight fits into a clean 1.2 gigabits, according to D’Angelo, while the largest NES game, the Japanese exclusive Metal Slader Glory, required an unprecedentedly huge 8 megabit cartridge.
Allusion or Transcendence
One can wonder what Shovel Knight would play like if it were an actual NES game, that is, be able to play on actual NES hardware through a homebrew cartridge. While the game sticks to its roots so closely, wearing its influences on its armored sleeves, should we (or can we) even entertain the idea that Shovel Knight “is an NES game,” whatever that means?
Part Mega Man, part DuckTales, part Castlevania, Shovel Knight does more than just merely emulate its revered ancestors. It transcends them.
Shovel Knight takes a cue from contemporary masterpiece Dark Souls (a game that “feels like an old game” due to its difficulty and conciseness) through its hardcore risk-reward system and lack of handholding. Shovel Knight also features several other contemporary game design choices, including abundant checkpoints, ease of saving progress, attention to detail and tone, ease of navigation, and the ability to always backtrack, that make the game never not feel like a modern game. No one would start playing Shovel Knight and actually think they are playing an NES game, despite how closely it feels. Shovel Knight is a clear product of 2014, not 1987.
Does this make Shovel Knight any less authentic? No. Rather, it makes Shovel Knight even more uncommon and surprising. It would be fair to claim that Shovel Knight “does nothing new,” yet that is a misguided notion. What Shovel Knight does “new” is take all these sacred, preexisting qualities and mash them into one, clean, fun presentation that is never affected, unfair, that never overstays its welcome, that never gets in its player’s face or wastes her time. Clocking in at under six hours, Shovel Knight is short, sweet, and concise.
Countless other indie titles have sought to “be 8-bit games,” whether through music nods, low-res graphics, or gameplay. The excellent Fez comes to mind, La-Mulana, Cave Story, even the Etrian Odyssey series sometimes “harks back to the past” through minimalism, pixels, bloopy beats, and esoteric difficulty. Shovel Knight falls in line with these games, but it feels the closest to an actual, contemporary, made in 2014 NES game, and this is the key.
Fez is all about pixels, but it never looks like an NES game. The original La-Mulana comes very, very close to emulating an old MSX game, but Cave Story never looks like the original Metroid. It would be ignorant to hold these qualities against these games, though, as would holding up “true 8-bitism” as the holy grail of game design. There is nothing inherently bad about “not really looking like an NES game.”
So, who cares if Shovel Knight looks and sounds like an NES game? What’s the point? Shovel Knight is great because it respects its influences, the games that the developers clearly love, respects the history of artistry in gaming, and respects its players, both players who want to indulge in NES nostalgia and those who’ve never even played a Mega Man game. Shovel Knight is enticing to NES enthusiasts, but stands on its own feet with more than just religious nostalgia.
Shovel Knight never asks to be cool, and never “tries” to be retro. Like the best of the NES games, Shovel Knight is challenging, paced well, and ends at just the right moment, only lingering around long enough to implant itself into players’ heads and hearts. Players may not be able to play it on actual NES hardware, but Shovel Knight may just be the perfect NES game.
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