I played the first half or so of Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight flat on my back in bed, nauseous from a nasty bout of food poisoning, using the Wii U GamePad’s “off-screen play” feature. It was, in its own weird way, the perfect means of experiencing the game. Aside from the very 21st-century technology allowing me to stream the game remotely from the console in the other room to my bed, it brought me straight back to the early ’90s: when a day home sick meant a day curled up on the couch playing Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, or any number of other games whose titles still send little rushes of endorphins straight to my brain’s nostalgia center.
Shovel Knight is, quite deliberately, an homage to that type and era of video game. It has the colorful interactive map screen of Super Mario Bros. 3; the item management of Zelda and the intricate pattern-based swordplay (or, erm, shovel-play) of Zelda II; the nonlinear stage order and imaginative boss design of Mega Man; the atmospheric pixel art and metal-by-way-of-MIDI chiptune soundtrack of Castlevania–and, again, Mega Man, whose composer Manami Matsumae contributed two new tracks to the score. Hell, there’s even a move modeled after the pogo-stick bounce from Capcom’s beloved 1989 DuckTales game for the NES. It’s a game intended to recreate 8-bit action platformers; not so much as they were (there’s no way any game on the original Nintendo could have handled the size, detail, or animation quality of the sprites in Shovel Knight), but as we remember them.
Ultimately, however, I think it’s a disservice to lean too heavily on that way of describing this and other games of Shovel Knight‘s ilk–even though, as I’ve already shown, it’s a hugely tempting path to go down. Because as much as Shovel Knight brought me back to the halcyon days of side-scrolling platform games, it isn’t just an homage to older, better games; it’s an excellent and, I think, oddly forward-thinking game in its own right.
Resisting the nostalgia narrative is a daunting task when discussing any video game, let alone a deliberately retro-styled one like Shovel Knight. For all its bluster about pushing the technological envelope and creating new experiences, the games industry is, at its heart, a deeply conservative enterprise, invested in recreating earlier successes and in retaining an audience that is in its own way obsessed with the past. Video games are art, yes, and cutting-edge art at that, but let’s face it: they are also digital toys, and often the highest praise we have for a game is that it makes us feel the way we felt when we were eight, just like the highest praise for pop music is that it makes us feel the way we felt when we were seventeen. Even the opposing view–the explicit rejection of video games’ childlike or nostalgic qualities–is itself steeped in a kind of psychological projection: the fanboy doth protest too much, as it were. Nostalgia, in presence or in absence, saturates our experience and understanding of the medium.
So what do we do with a game like Shovel Knight, which deliberately courts our nostalgic feelings? The temptation, as I noted earlier, is to embrace those feelings. I’ll be the first to admit it: Shovel Knight made me feel warm and fuzzy as fuck, and never more so than when I recognized the classic ’80s or ’90s game it was referencing. In one particularly glorious moment (pictured above), the game combines not one, but two Mega Man 2 references: a miniboss resembling a giant lanternfish like the one from Bubble Man’s stage chases Shovel Knight across a series of treacherous platforms, just like the dragon in the first stage of Dr. Wily’s Castle. I can attest that there was a big, dumb grin on my face the entire time. But when we over-rely on these kinds of nostalgic memories to evaluate “retro”-styled new games, it has the effect of turning those games into curios: concealing their actual qualities and making them feel like footnotes to the “real” side-scrollers–which, of course, are whichever ones we happened to play when we were eight.
See, for all its “retro” aesthetics and design choices, Shovel Knight is very much a game of its time. There are the obviously contemporary features, of course, like the in-game achievement system and (forthcoming) downloadable content. We can also point to its digital-only distribution, as well as its origins as one of the more successful examples of recent indie games crowd-funded through Kickstarter. Most importantly, though, it’s just a smart, streamlined game. In particular, its risk/reward system of allowing the player to either keep level checkpoints for easier continues or destroy them for extra loot is both fairer and more strategic than any game I can remember from the last ten years, let alone the ’80s or ’90s. My warm fuzzies while playing Shovel Knight may have been the direct result of nostalgia, but what kept me coming back was something a lot more simple: a great game is a great game, regardless of vintage.
This is something worth keeping in mind as the 2D platform game revival approaches the close of its first decade, looking less and less like a “retro” gimmick and more like the genuine resurrection of a form. The reverse of the nostalgia narrative we’ve been talking about is a very limited, teleological view of the medium’s history. Every development in the last thirty-plus years has led to this moment of, say, cinematic third-person shooters–or choice-driven Western RPGs, or Dark Souls clones, or whatever your idea of the “hardcore” gaming zeitgeist might be. Any game that deviates from this path–perhaps even, heaven forbid, borrowing ideas from the distant past–is about nostalgia, not progress. But what this narrative obscures is that all games–indeed, all artworks of any medium–build upon each other. The games we grew up with weren’t made in a vacuum (unless you grew up with Spacewar!, in which case okay, that one kinda was). And Shovel Knight is less a window to the dusty, misty-eyed “good old days” than it is a glimpse into an alternate dimension, one where developers continued iterating on the sidescrolling formula rather than relegating it to a nostalgic relic. Don’t get me wrong: it can be nice to feel like a kid again. But I think it makes games a lot more vital, current, and relevant if we look at them through the lens of the present and not the past.
I played Shovel Knight on Wii U, where it is available for download from the Nintendo eShop. It is also available on Nintendo 3DS and on PC, Mac, and Linux via Steam. Sometime this year, it will be coming out for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita via the PlayStation Network. So basically, you have no excuse, just shut up and play it.