By Geoffrey Bunting
In 2012’s Skyfall, Eve shaves James Bond with a straight razor while proclaiming “sometimes, the old ways are the best” in what becomes the main motif of a film so locked in the past that it almost becomes a caricature of its predecessors. However, the proclamation is one of the few truisms you will find in Bond films. In a rapidly modernising world, many now prefer to look to the past for what are perceived to be better and more successful ways.
Over the last few years we have seen the emergence of the same nostalgia as a driving motivation of indie game developers. For a lot of people, especially older gamers, the slick graphics and story-first style of modern games just aren’t cutting it. We don’t want to be bogged down by games requiring two hundred hours of our time. As such we’ve seen a steady stream of nostalgia-infused games flowing into the mainstream. And with games like Yooka-Laylee coming, it doesn’t look like this nostalgia is going to end any time soon.
As one of those older gamers who still recall the NES to N64 era fondly, I regard this as a good thing. If nothing else, this nostalgia is breeding a slew of excellent games – and some not so excellent – and bringing the old styles and gameplay back into focus in the industry.
The best of these games work to a simple formula: 1) draw from a variety of sources rather than just one, to avoid a straight up emulation, 2) don’t change things that made those games great, and most importantly 3) improve on what was wrong with those games in the first place. Nothing epitomises the exemplary use of this formula, nor personifies this movement, more than Shovel Knight. It’s got the look, the gameplay, and the music – and most importantly, it’s not really like the old NES games it takes its cues from at all.
You see, NES-era games, while often excellently designed, were marked by elements to stop the game being completed easily – a hangover from when games needed to eat all your change in the arcade. These games were designed to occasionally be cheap, with punitive deaths or pitfalls that wiped out progress and often felt unfair. They weren’t hard, per se, but they did require some learning to master the systems set in place by the designers to make the games last.
This is why games like Mighty No. 9, which stays faithful to the gameplay of NES-era games – in this case Megaman – are far less successful than games like Shovel Knight. They draw from one source and keep everything; they keep the good, but they also keep the bad. You still have to suffer the same flaws that should be ironed out of existence by improving technology.
So what does Shovel Knight draw from? Well, remember point one: draw from a variety of old games. Shovel Knight derives from pretty much all of the biggest NES-era titles. With his blue palette and his fighting similar looking bosses, all of which drop specific power-ups, Shovel Knight undoubtedly bears a striking resemblance to Megaman. These power-ups – and indeed what they do – are straight out of Castlevania. His attacks are reminiscent of a mix of Ninja Gaiden, Zelda, and Duck Tales, while the world map is straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3, right down to the enemy encounters. The towns, which provide brief respite throughout the game, are borrowed from The Legend of Zelda II. As opposed to games like Might No. 9, Shovel Knight takes influence from the entire NES catalogue to create a game reminiscent of NES games in general, rather than one in particular.
This is effective because our memories are dyed a particular shade of rose. We don’t remember things as they are, instead we exaggerate – for good or ill. We don’t remember that girlfriend as she was, but rather kinder and more beautiful. Similarly, we don’t remember that guy who deceived us over as reasonable and having his own motivations, but rather as the devil incarnate. This is cognitive bias and it means that we, as human beings, are just not reliable sources when it comes to our own memories. This is why Shovel Knight is smart to draw on an era in general rather than a specific game. We place elements from other games and even other generations into our memories of these old games, making them far better than they were. In doing so, Shovel Knight caters to what we remember rather than the reality.
Shovel Knight emulates what made those games good. It focuses on one mechanic and variations therein, it uses intelligent level design to allow us to explore – but also teaches us about said mechanics, rather than using tutorials. It keeps the bosses, the secrets, the precision and consistency that comes with 2D platformers, but it loses the cheap deaths and mechanics designed to stop you progressing too quickly, swapping them instead for good gameplay and fair challenges.
In this, Shovel Knight looks to the present as well as the past: using systems from contemporary games in order to improve on negative aspects from the 80s and 90s. Rather than penalising you for dying by making you start at the beginning of a stage, you instead lose a set percentage of your money that you can then retrieve. It also has an excellent risk-reward system that would be perfectly at home in a modern game. You can make risky jumps for big rewards, but risk losing more than you could gain in the attempt. You can dash in to try and retrieve previously lost loot but risk rushing into a challenge you can’t handle. You can destroy a checkpoint for a big pay out, though you won’t be able to return to it in future. It’s the kind of mechanics you’d expect from modern games, mixed with NES-era processes.
But, you might say, this all makes it sound like Shovel Knight is an awful lot like NES games. But take a moment to look at it. I mean, really look at it. When did you ever see a NES game that looked as good, as colourful, or as dynamic as Shovel Knight. The answer is, only in your head. With its broader colour palette, genuine parallax scrolling, and sprite density it is actually distinct from NES games. Rather, it’s closer to SNES games, though it also surpasses those technologically. This allows it to be smoother, more forgiving, and also, in some ways, more fun than its NES predecessors.
The point is, whereas games like Mighty Gunvolt or Mighty No. 9 stay faithful to their influences warts and all, Shovel Knight isn’t afraid to change and modernise what those old games did wrong or did to lengthen their experience, in order to create a better game. Rather than give us a straight homage, Shovel Knight gives us the idealised image we’ve had in our heads since games started getting farther and farther away from their NES roots.
In short, Shovel Knight’s main strength is making you think you’re playing an old game. In reality, you’re playing a very modern game that simply creates the illusion of 8-bit gaming, but still includes innovation and originality to make Shovel Knight a distinct game in its own right.
Going back to the original proclamation from Skyfall, Shovel Knight demonstrates to us that the old can be best. But it deviates from this onto its own path, too. Skyfall’s strength was also its biggest flaw – sure we loved the references to older Bond films, but it got bogged down in being a celebration of that nostalgia. Shovel Knight actually teaches us that taking the old road doesn’t mean forsaking the new. Rather, it shows us that contextual knowledge and respect of the past can create something beautiful when brought into the modern world. And in this case, that beautiful something is Shovel Knight.