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Polygon's Games of the Year 2014 #8: Shovel Knight

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

In April last year, Shovel Knight brought in $311,502 on Kickstarter.

I mention this because I forgot about it. With many of the early Kickstarter success stories, I tended to think of them as crowdfunded projects first and games second. That might have something to do with working in the media and viewing every game as a story rather than just a game. But in Shovel Knight's case, for a while now I've only thought of it as a game.

It helps that the team at Yacht Club Games avoided the fan drama that has coated various other Kickstarter projects. The developers didn't come under fire for how they spent money, what comments they made to the community or how their game design bent over the course of development.

More than that, though, I think it comes down to the game's execution. Shovel Knight is one of the best examples of a modern game that feels nostalgic. On the surface, it's an NES-style platformer where you bounce around on (and attack with) a shovel. Look at the subtle design decisions, though, and you'll find a game that doesn't feel like it's just imitating the classics, but is often surpassing them.

Shovel Knight is what you remember NES games to be like, rather than what most of them actually were.

Shovel Knight is what you remember NES games to be like, rather than what most of them actually were. It's the rose-colored glasses version of an early '90s platformer. Checkpoints rarely punish the player. If you make a mistake, you know it's because you messed up rather than because a button press didn't register. There are no rough edges like a gap that players consistently fall into because of a lack of proper playtesting. Some of the cutscenes are even interactive, and the game looks better and runs smoother than most legitimate NES software.

But it also feels old. Its characters and plot are silly and simple. The overworld resets enemy placement every time you enter the screen. And the controls let you improvise in a way that doesn't feel like the developers planned it that way, even though of course they did — like how you can squeeze in multiple hits in a row and take out a boss quickly if you bounce at the proper angle, rather than wait for a reaction animation to play out after each attack.

And now the game is spreading to PlayStation systems, getting DLC and ranking in best-of-2014 lists, as it should. Shovel Knight is a rare example of a game that straddles the line between nostalgia and modern design well, a rare case of a Kickstarted game surpassing player expectations and, ultimately, a game that's more interesting than its financing method.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.

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