The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.
“Mamonaku Kyoto ni mairimasu.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be arriving at Kyoto station,” echoed the voice on the intercom. “Please ensure that you have collected all baggage before exiting the train.”
The automated woman’s voice, though soothing, still managed to violently pry me away from the few winks I had been able to steal on the cross-country bullet train ride from Tokyo. Gathering myself, I rotely took off my glasses to wipe the sleep away from my eyes, forgetting in my foggy state that due to a pretty nasty tumble I had taken a few days ago, the left lens was liable to pop right out of the frames.
Well, pop it did, and so began a Velma-esque scramble to find the damn thing before having to strap on my monstrously heavy backpack and lug my mostly broken duffle bag off the train car.
“Excuse me, here you are,” said a young woman in earnest English as she handed me the (blessedly still intact) lens. I looked up at her with my half-sight, and was met with a look that I registered as, “I am helping you because it is polite, otherwise I would stay far away from you.”
I couldn’t blame her, really. I mean, there I was, an emaciated, slovenly foreigner who hadn’t shaved (or had, judging by the scraggly beard and creeping unibrow, attempted to shave with his half-broken glasses), wearing nearly four layers, including a sweater and topcoat despite the balmy, late summer humidity, and saddled with luggage so bulky and unwieldy that is was a wonder I had even made it on the train without being put on some sort of Japanese watch list. Hell, I might have been, actually—I still haven’t exactly checked.
“Thank you,” I said, jamming the near-broken lens back into its warped frame. She was cute, and I wanted to launch into a suave explanation for my horrid appearance. I wanted to tell her that my mangled glasses were a result of my being pushed down the staircase of a bar in Tokyo, and that I was wearing all this heavy clothing because it’s what I was wearing when I first came to Japan in the dead of winter, and so I didn’t have any more room in my already exploding luggage for a few sweaters and a coat. I wanted to tell her all this in Japanese, and put a self-deprecating comedic spin on the whole situation so that she might not only be endeared to me because of my wacky misadventures, but also realize that I could speak Japanese, and speak it well, because I had spent the better part of a decade learning the language.
I wanted to explain to her the weird pain of living in a foreign country and completely understanding the language, but never getting a chance to deeply communicate because it is assumed you can’t speak well. I wanted to grab her hand and tell her just how goddamned important that assumption of conversation is, because without it everyday is an insane, uphill struggle to break through barrier after barrier of communication, without which you succumb to a lonely isolation I had never before nor since experienced. I wanted to embrace her for showing me a kindness, no matter how socially obliged, and explain that, without a sense of community, we tend to lose hope.
I wanted to say all this, but I didn’t.
“You really saved me, there.”
The English left my mouth, and I clocked a curt smile on her face before she turned tail and fled out the exit. A deep sigh escaped me, and I walked through a throng of people on their way to office jobs, bobbing, weaving, and maneuvering my wheelless, handleless beast of a duffle bag through crowd after crowd until I found my bus stop.
Finding an empty bench, I collapsed into a heap of baggage and whipped out my 3DS, a device that had given me the only sense of community I had felt in months.
I was able to log onto the public Wi-Fi via my 3DS, and noticed that there had been a few new messages regarding some coming updates for the game I had been religiously playing for the past few months. This game had been the one real tether to a group of like-minded individuals I had felt in a long time. By playing it on train rides, listening to its incredible music on hikes, and engaging in conversations with its passionate and vocal fanbase online in my spare time, I was really able to ingratiate myself into a world so steeped in community action and involvement that I actually felt like I had an in-group.
A twinge of excitement went through me as I went to open the update and read the news, when a loud, broken-English sentence hit me in the face.
“You waiting on the bus?!” I looked up and saw the uniformed station manager looking down on me with a wide-toothed grin. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, I am,” I responded in Japanese. “What time is the bus to the airport? I wanted to get there a bit early because of all my luggage, here.”
He started laughing—not because my Japanese was bad, but because he wasn’t expecting to hear it from a guy like me.
“Oh, your Japanese is so good!” He said, chuckling to himself. “Bus will be here in thirty minutes.”
“Thanks,” I said, not bothering. He walked away smiling to himself, and I opened up my 3DS again. That great chiptune music blared, and I was greeted by the game that had given me such solace and hope during my stint in a lonely country. Thirty minutes was plenty of time to play a few levels of Shovel Knight.
Developed by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight has one of the greatest stories of any video game I have ever examined for Now Loading…The Video Game Canon, and I’m not just referring to the game’s plot.
A true love letter to the 8-Bit classics of the Nintendo Entertainment System era, Shovel Knight is one of the few retro throwback games that succeeds in both paying incredible homage to the predecessors it is praising, and also offering new and innovative changes to those old formulae in a way that creates a truly unique and unabashedly fun new experience. While largely taking cues from the original Mega Man series in terms of the structure of its gameplay, Shovel Knight pulls elements both aesthetic and functional from games like Duck Tales, Super Mario Bros, and the earlier Legend of Zelda titles in order to create a game that at once speaks to its nostalgic roots and creates a fascinating, engaging, and funny world that is a blast to play through time and time again.
I pretty heavily alluded to the importance of community in my little introduction, and nowhere is that more evident than with the group of people who made Shovel Knight a reality. The brilliant minds over at Yacht Club Games had the idea to make this synthesis of nostalgia and new ideas after joking for a while about the premise over lunch. Then, like all great ideas, it gained some traction and stuck with them for awhile until they were smack dab in the middle of developing the game from scratch.
Yacht Club wanted a game that not only paid homage to those early NES games, but also looked and felt like them in every way imaginable. And so, over time, the game would come to have the boss-rush-style level design of Mega Man, the tight platforming of Super Mario Bros., and the sense of wonder that drove exploration in The Legend of Zelda.
With a truly sublime chiptune soundtrack from genius Jake Kauffman, Nintendo-esque character design, and a story so excellently written it rivals any number of the greats, Yacht Club Games had only two hurdles left over which to jump: money and interest.
It’s ever thus, isn’t it folks? Well, luckily, these hurdles happened to coincide with one another.
A few months ago, my dear friend Aaron and I were lucky enough to interview Nick Wozniak of Yacht Club Games on the genesis of Shovel Knight and how it came to be. We had been under the naive impression that the game was more or less completely funded on Kickstarter, which, in our minds, made this game a feat in and of itself. The thought that a game was completely funded by its community raised a whole host of questions: not only on the future of how game developers can get their games made, but also on how this strong community aspect would inevitably affect the development of the game in question.
Well, it so happens that the Kickstarter campaign, which ended up going absolute gangbusters and no doubt had an incredible financial impact on Shovel Knight’s development and the creation of its multiple DLC installments, offered something decidedly more important than financial capital: the intense outpouring of support for this game from Kickstarter and other social media outlets, particularly YouTube, created one of the strongest video-game communities in the business.
Shovel Knight, though undoubtedly stemming from the brilliant minds at Yacht Club Games, became an almost collaborative effort between the developers and the community that saw themselves as being a part of the process. And although the prospect of throwing thousands and thousands of Internet denizens into the creative mix should by all accounts prove disastrous, Yacht Club Games opened the doors to that feedback and created a game so impressive, so good, and so fun, that it will be remembered as one the most successful community-driven campaigns in the history of gaming.
So, does this strong community that participates in and changes the way we view interactive storytelling net this game a place in the Video Game Canon? Join with me in the remaining pages, and I’ll let you decide.
But the answer is yes.
Story and Characters: A Shovel of Hope
Now, at this point in my storied yet staggered and erratic history of writing these articles, we have covered the spectrum of video-game narratives ranging from the incredibly simple to the head-scratchingly complex. And while I can do nothing but sing the praises of Shovel Knight’s story, it is certainly more on the simple side of the spectrum.
There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, of course, and oftentimes the simpler stories are the ones that tend to have a greater impact on us. It’s the stories that use the tried and true tropes of fairy tale and myth as a basic, familiar groundwork that allow us to enjoy the ride, slurp up the morals, and, most important, to get to know and love the characters that are taking the journey with us.
Shovel Knight, while telling a simple story, is so steeped in character and charm that the 8-bit facade melts away, and you feel as if you were really exploring the world as you dig your way through it.
The story opens with a prologue introducing us to the eponymous Shovel Knight and his companion, Shield Knight. Shovel and Shield are two brave adventurers who roam the land in search of treasure and glory, digging up gems and protecting the innocent wherever they see fit. There was no braver duo in all of Shoveldom.
But all was not well for long: on a journey to the wicked Tower of Fate, an evil amulet wrought a terrible magic on the adventuring pair. There was a terrible blast, and when Shovel Knight awoke, the Tower was sealed and Shield Knight was nowhere to be seen. In a deep depression at the loss of his partner, Shovel Knight hung up his heroing hat and resigned himself to a life of rural non-importance. And yet, as is the case with any sudden power vacuum, an evil force reared its ugly head and began ravaging the once-peaceful land.
The Order of No Quarter, a group of eight knights under the rule of the evil Enchantress, beset the land and terrorized its citizens. The dark shadow of the Enchantress clouded the land, until finally, coming out of retirement, a glint of light reflected off our main man’s Shovel of Hope.
So begins the adventure. Steel thy shovel!
The game proper follows Shovel Knight as he travels towards the Tower of Fate, defeating the members of The Order of No Quarter as he goes. He meets quirky townsfolk; he becomes an acolyte of what I can only describe as an adorable, dancing abomination before God known as the Troupple King; and, he occasionally faces off against his shovel-wielding rival, Black Knight.
Black Knight is one of many antagonists in Shovel Knight who is attempting to thwart the player’s progression towards the Tower of Fate, and yet, unlike the members of The Order who all have their own selfish proclivities and vices, Black Knight is, appropriately, much like Shovel Knight. Black Knight knows more than he lets on about the nature of the Tower, the Enchantress, and the fate of Shield Knight; but, as the lone rival to Shovel Knight, he refuses to tell you exactly just what is going on. He only lets you know in little spurts that progressing further towards the Tower of Fate will result in nothing but misery for everyone involved.
In this way, Black Knight serves a narrative purpose that is rarely done effectively in other modern games: he is a character that, through intrigue and mystery, builds your sense of suspense and interest in actually finishing the game.
He is, in short, a great rival.
Before you arrive on the overworld map for the first time, you begin the game in a rather easy level that serves to introduce you to the world as well as to the platforming and fighting mechanics that you will be using for the rest of the game. At the end of the level, you are greeted by Black Knight who openly mocks you, telling you that you should stay far away from The Order and the Tower itself. He laughs at you in that 8-bit way that is somehow more grating than an actual human openly guffawing in your face, and comes at you with his black spade.
Through this fight, not only are you learning the basics of how boss fights work, but you are also forming a relationship with this jerk who has come out of nowhere to tell you how awful you are. In a game that has upwards of a dozen protagonists, this first fight with Black Knight grounds the player in a way that gives her an internal sense of purpose. You were told via text that you have to defeat the Order and that Shovel Knight is sad about Shield Knight, but the first antagonistic element you encounter is a guy who personally insults you and then dares to attack you using the moves with which you have been familiarizing yourself throughout the level up to this point.
Black Knight, as we come to find out through multiple fights with him, is not evil. He’s just a jerk, and that makes for a much more compelling reason to move forward in a game.
Sure, I want to save the world and the girl, but really, I just want to rub Black Knight’s nose in it.
Though you never really develop that same kind of relationship with any of the other members of The Order of No Quarter, those other villains just might be the most entertaining part of this game. Essentially, Yacht Club Games took Mega Man’s brilliant idea—putting together a roster of eight wildly different boss characters with wildly different fighting styles—and made it more brilliant by assigning them all clear and compelling personalities.
- You have King Knight, a man so vain and full of himself that he marched on a castle just so that he could usurp the rightful ruler, sit on his posh throne, and throw lavish golden parties for himself.
- You have Plague Knight, the conniving, alchemical trickster who’s really more focused on his own weird experiments than whatever The Enchantress wants him to be doing.
- And then you have Polar Knight, the somber shovel-wielder who clearly had some sort of bond with Shovel Knight before giving up on adventuring and living a cushy life of servitude under an evil witch.
Every single character in Shovel Knight, whether The Order or the simple townsfolk, has such heart and personality that you are immediately endeared to them. They are so palpably themselves, in fact, that the whole Yacht Club team including the designers, programmers, artists, and composer, all of whom had a strong hand in writing the story, had instant message and text conversations in the voices of the characters in order to both develop the world and just make each other laugh. Shovel Knight’s cast of characters is working proof that strong writing and character development are an absolute necessity when it comes to creating a compelling game world.
Ten outta ten, story and characters, ten outta ten.
Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Can’t Beat the Classics
I mentioned earlier that this game cherrypicks its aesthetics and gameplay from a whole host of early NES games. The result is a perfect synthesis of tried-and-true game design concepts. making for an engaging experience that can be enjoyably played ad infinitum. I also alluded to the brilliance of the very first level when discussing how well this game introduces and establishes character relationships, but you also can’t overlook just how smart those first few screens are when it comes to teaching the player about the game’s tight control scheme.
There are innumerable examples of modern-day video games over-explaining how to play it. Saturating the player with written tutorials not only has the potential to bore or confuse her, but could also lead to the assumption that the designers were so unsure of their game mechanics that they felt the need to belabor exactly how everything works.
While I am not 100% anti-tutorial, I do subscribe to that old writing adage, “show, don’t tell,” and believe that it works wonders for video games. Well, Dear Reader, you may as well call the first level of Shovel Knight “Strunk and White” for all the style it pulls off showing the player how to play.
In fact, because Shovel Knight’s mechanics are so simple, there’s not much to explain here. Shovel Knight has only a few moves:
- He can jump
- He can slash his shovel
- He can jump and slash his shovel
- He can strike down to the earth from mid-jump with his shovel
Barring the use of any of the many cool items you get along the way, those are the moves you have at your disposal. All of these moves and the many permutations you can get away with are taught to you, not through pop-up text bubbles, but rather through the design of the level itself.
- You learn to jump over blocks
- You learn that enemies can be hit with your shovel
- You learn, through an ingenious platforming moment, that your downward strike can actually launch you further into the air depending on what you are hitting
Every single screen of that first level is carefully calculated to teach you everything you will be doing throughout the rest of the game.
Now, I did mention that there were a number of other items in the game (called “Relics”) that you can collect through your journeys, including:
- a magic fire rod
- a knuckle that bursts through enemies and obstacles
- a glowing orb that you can throw around the room, knocking enemies all over the place
These are all fun to use and sometimes make the game a lot easier, but what is important to note here is that not one of these items is required for you to beat the game. You can absolutely go through the entire game using only the moves that are taught to you by the design of that first level.
The optional nature of these items is an important factor in Shovel Knight’s brilliance: it allows the player to play the game however she wants. Sure, you can blast through the game using the Phase Locket and Dust Knuckles, but you could just as capably beat the Enchantress using nothing but your trusty shovel and your quick reflexes.
I always feel like I give short shrift to the music in these games I talk about, so I really want to make a point here that Jake Kaufman is the greatest living chiptune composer for all time in perpetuity. The Shovel Knight original soundtrack is so beautifully composed and fits so excellently with the rest of the world that the only way to do it justice is to strap you into a seat and have you listen to the whole thing on loop.
Kaufman’s use of leitmotifs in the Shovel Knight and Shield Knight themes especially does something that only the best of music can: it tells a story all on its own. Each character theme fits each character so well, and the overworld and battle music can make any situation more joyous and exciting.
I cannot recommend this soundtrack enough, and what’s more, Jake Kaufman put it up on his bandcamp site for anyone to download by donation. You could technically download it for free, but I urge you to tip this amazing man and his wonderful music.
Lastly, I have already waxed poetic on the old-school visual aesthetic that this game has, so I won’t drone on about it here more than I absolutely need to. What’s so interesting about Shovel Knight is not only its intentional retro look, but also the fact that it manages to look like an old NES game while actually being far more advanced than one.
Yacht Club Games availed themselves of three more colors than the developers of yore could use on the original NES, so Shovel Knight’s world pops much more vibrantly than those of The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. They were also able to use many more frames for animation than those older games, so Shovel Knight’s movements look a lot more fluid than his retro ancestors’.
What’s wonderful about this is that it elevates the game from a simple nostalgic homage to something new. Yacht Club Games took the gameplay, music, and visuals that they loved from those old games, deconstructed what made them amazing, and then reassembled them into a new product that is at once a nod to the past and a look to the future.
…which is almost like that slogan I have for this very series…
Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: A True Community
Inside and out, Shovel Knight is about hope. From the main character never giving up, to the uncompromising vision of the developers, to the Kickstarter backers, YouTube personalities, and the fans of old-school video games, this game is all about hope for the future of games.
I recognize that sounds hyperbolic, but exaggeration is warranted if it comes from a place of truth.
From what I can tell, there has never been a game before or since so steeped in community interaction that wasn’t some sort of MMORPG—and even then, I implore you to give me an example of a huge company like Blizzard working side-by-side with its community like the people at Yacht Club Games still do with the fans of Shovel Knight.
Yacht Club Games likely understood their community so well because their team was a tight-knit community all its own. Every single person—from the designers, to the programmers, to the artists—had a hand in imagining and writing the story they wanted to tell, and so it seems like a natural leap to get the players themselves involved in that storytelling process, too. The communal connection that Yacht Club formed with the diverse Kickstarter community early on was a key component in not only the initial creation of Shovel Knight, but also in the subsequent DLC packs that are still coming out to this day.
Shovel Knight was hyped up by the Kickstarter campaign as well as YouTubers like Two Best Friends Play and Game Grumps, but the hype didn’t end when the base game was let loose upon the world. The Kickstarter campaign had done so well that Yacht Club reached a number of stretch goals, including the creation of three separate pieces of downloadable content (DLC). These three pieces of DLC would let the player play as Plague Knight, Specter Knight, and King Knight in campaigns similar to that of Shovel Knight, but with completely different control schemes based on the different character’s themes.
So, true to their word, after the base game had its huge success, the folks at Yacht Club Games began developing Plague of Shadows, a DLC title that was essentially a completely separate game. In Plague of Shadows, you play as Plague Knight in a parallel story to Shovel of Hope, the base game. During the course of events, you fight all the other knights of The Order of No Quarter so that Plague Knight can steal their essences in an attempt to brew the ultimate potion.
Though Plague of Shadows had an enjoyable story and a lot of new interesting items, the gameplay so different from Shovel of Hope’s and the story seemed similar enough to Shovel of Hope’s that there was something of a backlash from fans. People thought it was at once too similar and too different from the base game, and so it wasn’t met with nearly the same enthusiasm as the first game was.
Whereas other developers or publishers may have seen the declining numbers and wavering faith and said, “Pack it in boys, it’s over,” Yacht Club Games instead took that feedback and incorporate it into the second DLC, Specter of Torment.
Instead of a parallel story, this was an entirely different story that acted as a sort of prequel to the first game. You play as Donovan, the man who would become Specter Knight, on a journey of penitence and vengeance that ultimately ends sadly for the poor fool. It boasted a completely different hub world, new boss fights, and a story that was just as compelling as the first one, if not more so.
Yacht Club Games had done the impossible: they had listened to the complaints and suggestions of the community and made a game that satisfied the masses without compromising their artistic integrity.
And what’s more, they’re taking even more cues and making even more community-driven improvements for King of Cards, the latest and perhaps final story mode expansion! But worry not, Shovel Knight fans, because even after the story comes to a close, the good folks over at Yacht Club are making good on their Kickstarter stretch goal of a Battle Mode that is sure to add hours more fine-shoveling content to the already expansive world of Shovel Knight.
When it comes to going above and beyond on these goals, I can say that yes, boys, it can be done!
BONUS LEVEL: What Could Have Been and Thankfully Wasn’t
There are a few moments of beautiful foreshadowing in Shovel Knight during which we see that our main man Shuv is plagued with dreams of failing to save his beloved Shield Knight. In vignettes where Shovel Knight rests by a bonfire, we are transported to a foggy realm in which Shovel Knight is beset by monsters, and text appears on screen that reads “CATCH HER” as Shield Knight falls from a great distance. The haunting “Requiem of Shield Knight” theme plays as time slows down, and we hack our way through throngs of enemies in the hope that we can catch Shield Knight before she falls to uncertain doom.
It’s a wonderful little interlude that, similar to the moments that cement our rivalry with Black Knight, gives insight into Shovel Knight’s plight while at the same time giving us reason to care about the woman we are hopefully trying to save.
These dreams ultimately pay off at the end of the game when it is revealed that the horrible amulet from the prologue was housing the evil spirit of the Enchantress: when Shield Knight touched it, she was possessed by her evil. We realize that Black Knight was keeping us away from the Tower of Fate because he was afraid Shovel Knight would unknowingly hurt Shield Knight; we realize that the ultimate hope that Shovel Knight harbored about saving his friend might just be dashed forever should he journey too far up the tower.
After the first fight with the Enchantress, Shield Knight is freed from her spell, and Shovel Knight’s dream becomes reality when you have to catch her before the final fight with the dark spirit made manifest as the Tower crumbles around you.
Once you have defeated the Enchantress, it seems as if Shield Knight has sacrificed herself, dying in the final blast that takes down the evil with and the tower around her. Black Knight manages to save Shovel Knight, and leaves him unconscious by a campfire.
Now then, here comes the two paths diverged in a yellow wood. Thankfully, for all our hearts’ sakes, Yacht Club Games took the road more traveled.
After the credits roll and we are treated to celebrations from across the land, we see that Shield Knight actually survived the horrible explosion, and managed to crawl her way to Shovel Knight’s campsite, collapsing in victory near her closest friend. We pan up to the night sky; our story has ended peacefully and happily for our hopeful protagonist.
And yet it was almost much, much more of a bummer.
According to Nick Wozniak, there was a pseudo-joke ending in which Shield Knight does die horribly in the final explosion, and Shovel Knight then carries her back to his campsite where the player is then forced to DIG A GRAVE AND BURY SHIELD KNIGHT IN A MOVE THAT IS SO BLEAK AND HEARTLESS THAT I CANNOT HELP BUT LAUGH LIKE A SCARED LITTLE BOY.
Thankfully, for your sanity and mine, they decided against this ending. This is a teachable moment for storytellers and game designers everywhere: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
Nick Wozniak, after laughing hysterically along with an aghast Aaron and myself at this horror of an alternate ending, explained that, while the team thought that this would be an impactful ending, they didn’t think that it gelled well with the rest of the story. More to the point, they knew that adding shock for shock’s sake wouldn’t make the game better.
The theme of hope, Wozniak says, was present throughout the entire game, and to suddenly undercut that theme at the very end would have been a meaningless betrayal to the player. There are certainly games, movies, and books that weave a certain theme throughout the entire narrative only to pull the rug out from under you in an attempt to say how useless that theme was in the first place—but Shovel Knight was not that game.
If there’s one thing this little anecdote points to, apart from maybe the hilarious sadism of some of the guys over at Yacht Club, it’s that the integrity of their game and its story means a great deal to the writers: they will forgo something cool or edgy if that thing would belittle the rest of the story.
VERDICT: Hope Strikes Eternal
Shovel Knight was, for four long and lonely months of my life in a foreign country, the best community I could have asked for. It gave me hope in so many things, not least of all being the video-games industry itself. It made me believe that smart, funny, talented people with a vision could engage with their community in such a way that it produced an incredible game—a game that will not only stand the test of time, but pave the way for more games like it, and actually give credence to projects that begin as nostalgic fancy.
The nostalgia market is palpable, no doubt there, but too often it runs the risk of pushing out products that rely too heavily on the material it is referencing without offering anything new or interesting. Shovel Knight blows that convention out of the water, and provides a new model that will hopefully inspire games of a similar caliber in the future.
Playing video games can be a deeply isolating experience, and yet, through the stories they tell and the communities they build around them, they can engender in players a feeling of belonging to something greater than themselves: a feeling that there is hope for the collaborative and the creative.
For so many reasons, then, Shovel Knight is not only inducted to the canon, but it may well stand as the paragon of the kind of game I look for when trying to construct the canon. It is a game that brings creators, innovators, and players together in a way that looks to the past so that it can be remembered in the future.
Finally, we’d like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Nick Wozniak for a delightful interview, Shannon Hatakeda for setting up that interview and reviewing an earlier version of this article, and the entire Yacht Club Games team for not only making a great game, but also fostering a community that allows for these kinds of articles and interviews in the first place. From all of us at With a Terrible Fate, thank you all so much!