Shovel Knight, Kickstarter, the Wii U Gamepad, and Magic

Shovel Knight is an adventure-platformer about a knight errant (who is, yes, armed with a shovel), rendered with the vivid pixel art and infectious chiptune fanfare of a late-period NES release. Critically, Shovel Knight doesn’t just look and sound like an NES game; it feels like an NES game. The levels have the fussed-over structure of Mega Man, the carefully choreographed enemy positions of Castlevania, and jam-packed nooks and crannies of Kirby’s Adventure.

Just as critically, the game doesn’t slavishly retread the stupider conventions of the NES days. There’s no lives system, for starters, and in its place is this Dark Souls sort of thing: the penalty for dying is that you drop some of your gold, and when you get back to the place where you died, the gold is hovering there in little winged moneybags. Die on the way back, however, and your beloved loot is gone.

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Shovel Knight occasionally feels like nothing more than a loving, catch-all tribute to a bygone era of game design. The spells have an Adventure of Link feel to them, and à la DuckTales, you can bounce around on enemies indefinitely, using your shovel as a lethal pogo stick. The more NES games you’ve played, the more parallels like those you’ll notice. (Am I imagining the similarities between Shovel Knight and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers? Is that just affection talking?).

That being said, the game more often feels like an actual NES game made in the the actual 1980s, but with the help of some alien futureperson, unhindered by 1980s technology and cognizant of the good parts of game design circa 2014.

There’s a special kind of magic, by the way, to booting up a game like that on the Wii U. You press the directional pad, and it feels like a Nintendo directional pad, and Shovel Knight moves like an NES hero (and the idea of a knight with a shovel, it occurs to you, is just the sort of agreeable nonsense that thrived in NES games).

You see that familiar font—they really got the fonts right—scrawling Shovel Knight’s oddly touching tale across the screen of of the Wii U Gamepad, and you think, this gimmicky piece of hardware contains all the same wonder that my NES did, and then some. Things are going to be just fine.

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Given all that, Shovel Knight is excellent news for anyone who wants to believe in the Kickstarter model.

We’ve known at least since FTL that truly great games can begin in that weird new world of crowdsourced funding and wild expectations, of fans-as-investors and carnival barker salesmanship. But it’s tricker when a project is sold at least partially on the strength of nostalgia—on the promise of some old form or genre or style being recovered, revived, revitalized.

It’s tempting to think of nostalgia-steeped Kickstarter pitches as shortcuts, and indeed, if you’re looking to rack up pledges quickly, tapping into your backers’ fond memories is a reliable way of doing so. But it’s a bit of a monkey paw wish. Once the dust settles and the kicks are started and all, developers are left with an impossible set of expectations: make it exactly like that older thing, but also make it totally new and fresh and exciting.

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What we think we want is for these new games to simply be just like those old games (which were better, we half-think). But on some level, what we actually want is new games that are the old games they’re recalling. We want Broken Age to bottle what it was like to play Grim Fandango for the first time.

It won’t. It can’t.

But what it can do—and still might—is feel like an adventure game built by an alien futureperson. It can bring new insights to old conventions, fresh eyes to hoary tropes, new worlds to old modes of world-building.

That might be what a generation of Kickstarted genre revivals has been aiming at, without quite knowing it.

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