In between stages, Shovel Knight, star of Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, sleeps at a lonely camp fire. Sometimes, he dreams. In Shovel Knight’s dreams, his former partner, Shield Knight, is falling from a great height. You, as Shield Knight, are waiting on the ground, standing against stark white surroundings, a blank mindspace. As the game goes on, and you conquer more and more challenging levels, these dreams always get harder and harder, hordes of enemies crowding around you. Your shovel is only so fast, and there are so many foes to beat back. You move quickly and desperately, using every trick you have, to clear a space for you to accomplish your goal.
Your objective: to catch Shield Knight. Eventually she will appear on your horizon, and you have to leap, hoping that you’ll be in the right place in the right time. Either way, Shovel Knight always wakes up before you land.
I’m Sorry, Mario, But
Shovel Knight, which came out earlier this year to well-deserved critical acclaim, strives in most ways to emulate the 8-bit platformers of the NES era. In gameplay it’s an action platformer: you run around jumping around obstacles and hitting things with your trusty garden tool of destruction. The enemies and challenges you face will remind many players of Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Brothers. If you were alive and playing video games in the early ‘90s, you will automatically get what Shovel Knight is going for.
Not only does it do those things, however, but it does them incredibly well. I’m not a hugely nostalgic person (in fact, some of my friends would tell you I’m a nostalgia terrorist, constantly reminding people of how terrible the things they loved as children really are), but Shovel Knight manages to make me a little starry eyed by not only emulating those old games but improving on them.
Shovel Knight’s difficulty curve has been evened out, and the punishing and restrictive five-lives-and-you’re-done system all games used to use has been replaced by a checkpoint system pulled straight out of Dark Souls, which feels, in this context, modern and generous. Death only costs you money that you can regain if you have the skill, encouraging exploration and experimentation. It accomplishes in actual fact what nostalgia does through memory: offers a brighter, better version of the games you remember.
But Shovel Knight departs from its 8-bit roots completely in terms of story. These games weren’t pinnacles in terms of narrative design, often featuring poorly translated, elliptical stories, often just confined to a text screen at the beginning and ending of the game, if that. These stories were pretenses in the most straightforward way, imperative statements in instruction manuals to give your imagination a reason to shut up and go along with the game. There were exceptions, of course, important and memorable ones. But it was usually just: Save the princess. Save the president. Kill Dracula. And if you’re killing weird unidentifable pig monsters in the process, well, uh, shut up. It’s a video game, asshole. Just play it.
By contrast, Shovel Knight takes place in a clever, consistent world, one full of adventurers and warriors, knights and mages and one mostly stationary airship. The game’s title crawl lays out basic details, but the world is designed as such that it would be clear what was happening even without it. Shovel Knight is a former adventurer, an ex-hero who has taken to a life of farming in the wake of a tragedy on his last adventure. In his time away, the world has been taken over by the villainous Order of No Quarter, a troupe of knights who have set up fortresses around the land. The two villages you encounter on the world map are full of refugees, kings and leaders commiserating at the bar, mourning their lost kingdoms. It’s a brightly colored, whimsical world, but there’s a deep undercurrent of melancholy. This is a kingdom dethroned.
And Shovel Knight is a hero dethroned. It’s unclear why he comes out of retirement, but you are tasked with guiding him through the overlapping defenses of the Order, toward the tower in the center of the land. It’s where where he’ll find the Enchantress, ruler of the Order of no Quarter (if you’re looking for tongue twisters). It’s also here where his last adventure took place. The one where he lost Shield Knight.
What Used to Be
Shovel Knight’s combat is hard, and it often left me wishing I had something a bit more substantial than a shovel to dish out punishment with. In particular, there are enemy knights with shields and swords who are consistently challenging, and always in the wrong place. Against a huge, rounded shield, a shovel isn’t much use, and fighting these guys is a dance of frenetic vulnerability, as you try to find the gaps in their defenses and take them without getting cut to bits. Like all NES platforming heroes, Shovel Knight is vulnerable, always in danger of getting taken down by even some of the weakest enemies around him (this gets better as you upgrade your health, but I never found combat to be anything other than fairly tricky).
The reason for this is simple: Shovel Knight used to be part of a pair. As the title crawl tells you, Shield Knight and Shovel Knight adventured together, each supplementing the other’s abilities, each one half of a single warrior. But something happened at the tower, and now she’s gone.
The whole game is designed to reflect this loss—the vulnerable combat, the unseated kingdoms you adventure through, all of it gestures toward a deeper melancholy and unease that the game carries close to its heart. Even the very presence of the shielded enemies, whose shields you can bounce on using the head of your shovel like a pogo stick and spear in one (one of Shovel Knight’s two moves, the other of which is just shovel slapping) as Shovel Knight undoubtedly bounced on Shield Knight’s, is a mechanical reaffirmation of Shield Knight’s importance. With Shield Knight to enhance his abilities, one can only imagine that Shovel Knight was a better fighter and a bolder hero, a better version of himself.
A few weeks ago I wrote about games as potential sites of mourning, and it’s a pity I only picked up Shovel Knight after I wrote that article. Shovel Knight does something truly remarkable in crafting a bright, fun, nostalgic romp that is also sad, thoughtful, and lonely. Every moment in this game is suffuse with a repressed loss, a sadness that Shovel Knight only seems to fully access in his dreams. It’s the loss of someone who used to stand by your side, demonstrating the way losing a close friend or a lover can make you feel smaller and weaker, like the loss of that person actively took a part of you, actively pulled part of the world apart.
Shovel Knight is a lone hero, but the game is full of reminders that he shouldn’t be, that he wasn’t. Around mid game, you encounter a wandering warrior who mistakes Shovel Knight for a member of the Order of No Quarter and attacks. After pacifying this assailant at the head of his weapon, Shovel Knight reminds him, in one of his few lines of dialogue, that knights work best together. The strange power of Shovel Knight is that this moment works both as a goof hero moment and as a wistful recollection, a punctuation for a loss that hasn’t quite healed. He never can catch her, after all.
Shovel Knight is out now on Wii U, 3DS, and all major operating systems, with a release on Sony consoles planned for the first part of 2015.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.