Are indie games inherently inferior to their AAA cousins? Nick D. doesn’t think so, and points squarely at the recently released Shovel Knight as proof.
Shovel Knight, developed by Yacht Club Games, was recently released on the PC, Wii U, and 3DS. It’s an old school 8-bit platformer complete with a squawking soundtrack and to-the-point dialogue. It is also one of the finest retro-inspired indie games ever made, going a very long way in showing that a well made indie game can easily be as good if not better than its high budget sister from the larger developers. Many indie developers have tried to ride the retro-rebirth train, putting out 8-bit and 16-bit games that liberally take from previous classics. Few, however, succeed in a way that not only honours the past, but also cleaves a bright path into the future. Shovel Knight does this, and Yacht Club Games makes it look easy.
Indie games have been getting a bad wrap lately. It makes sense, really. They are relatively new to the scene, provide smaller-scale entertainment than games from large development houses, and are being heavily pushed by all three console-makers. The backlash from the larger community is more an attack on change than the general quality. Nevertheless, as with all games, there are some pretty bad indie games out there or games that fit in such a tight niche that they lend fuel to the anti-indie fire that perplexingly is lit. Retro-inspired games, in particular, are on the hate hit list. A few too many indie games draw from the simpler style of the NES or SNES, and many detractors have begun to associate all indie games with retro-inspired indie games. As such, Shovel Knight already looked as if it were screaming “me too!” to an already overcrowded market.
On the surface, Shovel Knight is, in fact, exactly what many indie detractors expect from an indie game. Retro design, graphics, music, and gameplay. There’s not much new here. But it would be criminal to merely stop at the surface. Shovel Knight comes the closest I’ve seen to not merely aping the style and form of classics, but actually carving out a place among them.
What makes all the difference is charm plain and simple. It’s relatively easy to throw together a game with tight controls and good gameplay. 2D platformers with good gameplay are a dime-a-dozen out there, and very few of them make any impact without charm. This principle was true even back in the heyday of the NES where the market wasn’t nearly as crowded. The original Castlevania, for instance, didn’t reinvent the wheel. Other games had similar or better controls, and similar or better level design. What Castlevania provided, however, was an immensely charming world. Who didn’t love the idea of creeping through Dracula’s castle taking down such awesome monsters like Medusa, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, or Death itself? How about Mega Man? There was plenty of innovation in the early games, but what kept people coming back was the series’ charm. Having those eight heads representing ridiculously-named robot masters, each with a gimmick and a satisfying boss level – that was what made Mega Man.
What is strange about Shovel Knight is that it manages to be overly familiar, while still embracing a charm unique to itself. The overworld and ending reek of Super Mario Bros. 3, but they feel fresh. The focus on stages with unique and flamboyant boss battles are heavily reminiscent of Mega Man. The gameplay feels like a mashup of Duck Tales and Castlevania and the art style reminds me often of the Commander Keen games. As styles cross, I can point to the screen and tell you which element comes from which game. But I don’t. I’m too wrapped up in the engaging world that Yacht Club has invented for its titular hero.
Speaking of our titular hero, Shovel Knight is perfect. There is the raw mix of indie humour and classic reverence. While the concept of a Knight walking around with a shovel to battle evil may be mad, it wouldn’t be out of place among other NES platformers. That’s the problem with many AAA games – they take themselves far too seriously. Some may say that indie games are full of nothing but inside jokes (I concede butt mode does point at this), but there is nothing inside about the design of Shovel Knight. Think about how truly insane many classic games are. Mario is an overweight plumber who kills turtles by jumping on them while getting large on mushrooms and shooting fire after touching flowers. Sonic the Hedgehog stars and anthropomorphic hedgehog – with attitude – who tries to destroy machines in order to free non-anthropomorphic animals from a scientist resembling an egg. By comparison, a chivalrous lad with a shovel is downright sane.
But it isn’t just about the hero. Each villain is oozing with personality. Lazy boss design could have been excused, but Yacht Club went all the way in making each boss memorable, whether it is the flying dandy, Propeller Knight, the slightly-less-than-sane Plague Knight, or the tiny Tinker Knight. Complete with theme-appropriate stages, and unique dialogue, these bosses are as much of a joy to behold as they are to fight. Such a thing may seem so ancillary to game-making, especially compared to the raw gameplay, but creating an interesting and vibrant world and enemies will bring me back to a game even if the gameplay is boring.
The core of Shovel Knight is entirely enjoyable with or without nostalgia – that’s what makes it so powerful. Everything about it, from the secrets around every corner, to the fanciful sub-weapons makes Shovel Knight a solid game for new and old users. Nostalgia is a tool that many indie developers of retro-inspired games rely a little too much on. The only area in Shovel Knight I’d say is mostly fuelled by nostalgia is in its soundtrack. The chip tunes style works for me, but that’s because I grew up with similar tracks. I’m not certain it appeals to younger gamers, unclouded by nostalgia. Nevertheless, the fact that Shovel Knight can work in and out of a nostalgia haze sets it apart from a whole host of games that can’t – indie or AAA.
All of that isn’t to stand from the roof top and shill for Shovel Knight, but merely to point out the quality of a game that happens to be part of a subset of games that people are convinced are incapable of quality. Not only that, but Shovel Knight is something indie developers should themselves pay attention to. That perfect mix of nostalgia and unique charm is something that is very difficult to capture, and Shovel Knight did it with style.