Shovel Knight

I’ve never been one to get caught up in hype. Do so and you might as well pencil “feeling disappointed” into your evening schedule. I usually try to avoid it at all costs, but you fuckers just couldn’t stop raving about Shovel Knight, to the tune of more requests than I’ve gotten for any-other game. The press seemed to just further egg it on when every publication in existence (I think even Runner’s World got in on the action) nominated it for Game of the Year. So fine. After using a leaf-blower to remove the fourteen pounds of dust my Wii U had accumulated since the last time I used it, I fired up what was sure to be the most overrated game I had played in a while.

A few days later, as the credits rolled and a final cut-scene caused an actual tear to roll down my cheek, I have to suck it up and admit you all were right. And I hate it when you are. It makes you all so smug.

And the winner of the laziest caption goes to.......... me! For this. "Talk about a hot head!" Thank you, everyone. First off, I would like to thank the writers of NBC sitcoms. It was your uninspired dribble that made me the hack I am today.

And the winner of the laziest caption goes to………. me! For this. “Talk about a hot head!” Thank you, everyone. First off, I would like to thank the writers of NBC sitcoms. It was your uninspired dribble that made me the hack I am today. I would like to thank my family, none of whom are remotely funny. You set a good example for me. To the writers of South Park, thank you for teaching me the skills to run a joke into the ground, sort of like I’m doing right now. And finally, Brian, the love of my life. Thank you so much for being utterly devoid of humor. We did it baby! Top of the world!

Paying tribute to Capcom-style NES games from days of yore, Shovel Knight casts you as a guy named.. well.. Shovel Knight. His main-squeeze Shield Knight is turned evil and he has to go try to save her. God, I hate it when that happens. This one time, Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my house, and I had to go on a daring quest to the liquor store and back just to save my father. Anyway, Shovel Knight’s main luring point initially seems to be its 8-bit coat of paint. As a child of the PlayStation era, that works about as well on me as tofu does for catching cannibals. Without nostalgia factoring in, Shovel Knight needed some truly exceptional gameplay (it does) to keep my attention (it did).

Shovel Knight’s strong play control is undoubtedly its strongest point. While most people raved about the graphics, story, bosses, writing, etc, the first thing that caught my attention was the stuff that it wasn’t doing. Like causing me to die cheap deaths. The jumping felt damn near perfect. Not too heavy. Not too loose. It’s not quite “Goldilocks” as sometimes landing and going into an attack felt unresponsive, not to mention the pogo stick stuff occasionally feels awkward, but it’s still very well done. Shovel Knight should really be an example for anyone else attempting to make these kinds of games. If the controls had been sloppy, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all the other stuff that people have been raving about. It would have all been irrelevant, because the game would have been no good.

The level design gets high marks too. Shovel Knight does the Duck Tales / Mega Man stuff here, with each stage having a unique theme and accompanying booby traps. This was another thing that made me certain the hype train must have had it all wrong. Fire stages, air stages, castle stages, and the ever dreaded ice stages all were present, because of course they were. Shovel Knight is a love letter to games of yesteryear. The same games that created these clichés I’ve come to loath. But somehow, it works here. Barely a stage went by that didn’t in some way make me nod my head with the slightest hint of a smile, as if to say “okay, I didn’t expect that twist. It worked!” Now, in my case, thanks to the Epilepsy Thing, I had to hand off the controller for large portions of the castle stage, which I’m told was not the most exciting of levels, but I highly doubt that one stage would have soured my views on the game as a whole. There’s just no way. Everything here is just too inspired.

Well, fine, the bosses aren't really that inspired. In fact, thanks to the fact that you can carry two full health + magic refills with you, the bosses are too damn easy. It was only the final one that had any sort of learning curve to it. Thanks to the refills, I could just ignore boring shit like pattern recognition and strategy in favor of just mashing the attack button until one of us was dead. And it was never me who died.

Well, fine, the bosses aren’t really that inspired. In fact, thanks to the fact that you can carry two full health + magic refills with you, the bosses are too damn easy. It was only the final one that had any sort of learning curve to it. Thanks to the refills, I could just ignore boring shit like pattern recognition and strategy in favor of just mashing the attack button until one of us was dead. And it was never me who died.

Sure, there’s an ice level, which meant I still had to regretfully roofie the developers and drop them off in a Turkish prison for a few months, because rules are rules. But, of all the ice levels I’ve ever played, this one was the least, how do I say it? Icelevel-ish. In fact, I think I died less on that stage than any of the other back levels. It sort of makes the tantrum I threw when the stage was revealed (took three state troopers to take me down) seem kind of childish in retrospect. If it seems like I’m making too big a deal about a single level, it’s because the way they handled this tired (so very, very tired) gaming cliché defies convention in such a rousingly successfully way that I just want to give the developers a big hug. You know, as soon as the embassy files the proper paperwork to free them.

Shovel Knight dresses NES, but it sure as hell doesn’t rub your face in it. There’s no lives. Instead, you drop money you’ve accumulated and have a chance to retrieve it, Dark Souls style. Had it not been for this, yea, Shovel Knight probably would have been more maddening. Some people like that, though. You can even decide how much you want to challenge yourself on the fly. There are checkpoints sprinkled liberally through-out, but you can choose to break those if you wish for a cash reward. Once broken, they don’t work anymore. Being a coward, the only time I ever broke one was when I figured out the mechanic the first time. Maybe I would have been more tempted to do so if any of the checkpoints had something more meaningful jammed in them. I feel an opportunity was missed to put some nice collectible stuff in the checkpoints immediately preceding boss fights. A new music sheet? Some kind of key to a bonus stage? That would have made me ponder breaking it. A $500 gem would not, especially when there’s a very abusable mini-game in the town that, if you put enough time into it, can easily slow-grind an unlimited supply of money your way.

Also, I hate how Shovel Knight does that Legend of Zelda “hey look, there’s a spot on the wall! I wouldn’t hit that spot with your weapon if I were you. There’s most CERTAINLY no hidden stuff behind it! Pay no attention to my knowing smirk and shifty eyes!” thing. Yea, it’s a classic game tribute, and classic games did that kind of stuff. Classic games also had slowdown if too many moving objects were on-screen at once. Shovel Knight doesn’t do that. Classic games had lives. Shovel Knight didn’t do that either. Why not take this opportunity to say “you know what? We’re going to do time in a Turkish Prison for the ice stage as is. Isn’t that cliché enough?” and made hidden rooms, you know, ACTUALLY HIDDEN, God forbid.

This was the only stage that I really died on. And it wasn't the stage that got me, but my attempts at retrieving the money I had dropped from my previous stumbles. After choking away over $10,000 in my rescue efforts, I decided maybe this is one I should just suck up and walk away from. And I did. Another $5,000 later at least.

This was the only stage that I really died on. And it wasn’t actually the stage that got me, but my attempts at retrieving the money I had dropped from my previous stumbles. After choking away over $10,000 in my rescue efforts, I decided maybe this is one I should just suck up and walk away from. And I did. Another $5,000 later at least.

As for the graphics. Not being someone who feels the teeny tiniest bit of nostalgia (and outright rejects retro-gaming elitism as the lowest form of gaming snobbery), I do have to tip my hat to the developers here. Shovel Knight is beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of 8-bit stuff and can take it or leave it. Here, all enemies, platforms, items, traps, and characters look distinctive and well conceived. And it’s only because everything else in Shovel Knight is so damn good that I could sit back and appreciate what Yacht Club Games accomplished here. Artistically, I mean. What makes it so special is that so many gamers of the 8-Bit era dreamed of making games that looked like this. Very, very few actually pull it off. Shovel Knight is probably one of the rarest of all breeds: just look at it. If this didn’t exceed the wildest dreams its creators had as little kids while playing their NESs, I would ask them what on Earth gave them the right to be so ambitious at such a young age. Who knows, maybe they did, the arrogant little shits.

You know, I honestly can’t believe what Shovel Knight did for me, as a gamer. As a fan of indies. If you had told me 1048 days ago, as I wiped the tears from eyes while the credits to Journey rolled, that the game that would eventually replace it as my pick for the single greatest indie game I’ve ever played would be an NES inspired 2D action adventure game, I would have said “there is no way.” But it has happened. I didn’t even realize it right away. I didn’t realize it as I wiped a tear off my cheek during the final cut scene. I didn’t realize it when I sat back and started to quietly reflect on what I had just finished. No, I realized it while I was writing this review. When I finished Journey, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t find that I do want to go back and discover some day. But I can wait for that. With Shovel Knight? A game that took me roughly three times as long to finish as Journey? I actually had to go back for more right away. There’s so much more content than I could have ever wanted, or even needed, and in a game that never once let me down from an entertainment perspective, that’s almost humbling. That alone proves the sentence I’m about to say is unquestionably true: Shovel Knight is the greatest independent video game I’ve ever played. And I don’t even have to wait for a sequel to go back for more. Shovel Knight Logo

Shovel Knight was developed by Yacht Club Games
Point of Sale: Wii U, 3DS, Steam IGC_Approved
$14.99 had friends point out that it’s not cool to be on a first-name basis with your state troopers in the making of this review.

Shovel Knight is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Duh.

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SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig.  It sounds like the way a Beatnik would describe visiting Valve’s offices.  “I’m heading to SteamWorld, ya dig?”  But actually, it’s a 3DS game by indie studio Image & Form.  I was told about this game (well, warned would probably be a better description) from a few readers.  “Hey, if you like Miner Dig Deep, you’ll love SteamWorld Dig!”  Others compared it to Terraria, which is an epic-sized bad comparison.  Terraria is a world-building game with time-sinky elements.  Miner Dig Deep forgoes any semblance of story or point and focused on the time-sink stuff, for maximum narcotic effect.  SteamWorld is more like that, only with some minor Metroidvania elements thrown in.  Of course, I like Metroidvanias more than world-building games, which meant that SteamWorld had the possibly to hook me in like a 19th century sailor in my first opium den.

Set in a robotic version of the old west, you play as a dude whose father died and left you his mine.  You go into the mine, dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, which you use to dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, repeat this about one hundred times, and that’s the game.  The core gameplay is so close to Miner Dig Deep that I’m really curious if the developers of SteamWorld had played it or not.  We’ve got a bet going over here regarding that, with bets taken on the following responses.

A. “Yes, we loved it.”

B. “We’ve never heard of it.”

C. A dismissive smile followed by walking out of the room like a boss.

I’m not allowed to say which one I’ve got money on, because apparently my chums consider that cheating.  Hopefully the developers will C to it that we get a proper answer.

Yul Brenner is like "Psssh, whatever, already done it."  Shut up, Yul.  Get back to showing up in my dreams and telling me not to smoke.

Yul Brenner is like “Psssh, whatever, already done it.” Shut up, Yul. Get back to showing up in my dreams and telling me not to smoke.

Anyway, the comparisons to Miner Dig Deep can safely end now.  Image & Form have greatly improved the formula by adding platforming and rudimentary combat.  I was skeptical how well this would work, since the controls in Terraia for jumping and combat were a bit flaky.  I guess that’s why I was so blown away by SteamWorld.  It has some of the best platforming mechanics that were not made by Nintendo that I’ve seen in quite a while.  The jumping elements become second nature, making distances easy to get a feel for.  You never feel like you have to course-correct to avoid under-jumping/over-jumping.  And the wall-jump mechanic couldn’t be easier.

The controls aren’t perfect.  You can’t jump and dig, so getting minerals above you is a chore.  Also, for a game that has a lot of enemies, the combat is flaky and lacks appropriate oomph to it.  The pick-axe is a fairly-unsatisfying offensive weapon.  It can be upgraded into a more combat-ready one, but to be frank, I thought the upgrade was too expensive and I never acquired it.  Midway though the game, you pick up a “steam-powered punch” that I found to be a much better way to take on baddies.  But, for the most part, I just avoided fights and stuck to mining.  The time-sinky, hypnotic simplicity of digging up various types of minerals and resources, plus the arbitrary upgrading of my items, is what kept me going.  And it kept me going with a smile on my face.  And drool collecting around my lap.

I’m also not convinced they made the best use of the whole Metroidvania thing.  The game is separated into three “worlds”.  Tippy-top upgrades are found by digging until you stumble upon a door, which leads to a platformer/maze section.  And the end of each of those, you’ll find an upgrade to the robot that allows him to jump higher, fall further, throw punches, etc.  It’s all very linear, with backtracking only necessary at the end of the game.  Part of this is the whole mining thing only lends itself well to going one direction: straight down.  It’s hard to do the open-world thing this genre is famous for when your chosen theme presents fewer options than a light switch.  And SteamWorld takes no risks, which is a shame because all the mechanical parts are in place to have allowed some experimentation.  I guess I should offer kudos for resisting the temptation to have all the platformer/adventure clichés such as an ice level, a fire level, etc.  But, when I reached the end of the game and realized things were being wrapped up, I was genuinely shocked.  “Wait, that’s it?  Three mother fucking levels?”  Not one of which was the slightest bit inspired.  It’s kind of surprising to me that they plan on sequelizing this in short order, because it sure seems like they ran out of ideas quickly here.

"#5 on the Leaderboard? And my agent told me I was a fool for turning down Pixar. HA!"

“#5 on the Leaderboard? And my agent told me I was a fool for turning down Pixar. HA!”

I certainly don’t mean to imply that I disliked SteamWorld Dig.  It’s, as of this writing, the fifth-best indie game I’ve had the privileged of playing for Indie Gamer Chick.  For all it does wrong, it sure does a lot right.  Fluid platforming controls, satisfying play-mechanics, and a sense of progression despite the grindy, time-sinky nature of it.  I would probably still give the Best 3DS eShop game nod to non-indie Pushmo, but SteamWorld Dig comes close.  Probably the highest praise I could offer it is this: if someone had handed me this game, and I knew nothing about it going in, and I was asked who made it, I would have said “Nintendo” without hesitation.  I can think of no greater complement for an indie developer, that a title of theirs could be mistaken for a first-party Nintendo game.  Well, actually, nah.  I probably wouldn’t guess this was a new first-party Nintendo game.  I mean, Nintendo coming up with a new IP?  Ha.  Snort.  Chuckle.

Steamworld Dig logoSteamWorld Dig was developed by Image & Form

IGC_Approved$8.99 (not sure if that’s a sales price or not) wonders how long until Namco digs up Dig Dug for this whole new mining-game crazy in the making of this review.

SteamWorld Dig is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. 

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