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In the summer of 2014, after successfully crowdfunding via the increasingly popular Kickstarter platform, Yacht Club Games released its ode to ‘90s gaming: Shovel Knight. In recent years, as major studios continue to push the limits of realism, the market for independent games has become extremely tough to break into with widespread success, but Shovel Knight was a rare anomaly. Lauded by critics and gamers alike, Shovel Knight was one of highest reviewed games and best selling digital titles of the year.
On the heels of their first splash into the vast waters of modern game publishing, the future of Yacht Club Games promises to be lucrative. Yet the developers aren’t ready to move on. It’s clear that they’re as enamored with their creation as players are. And instead of taking the route that most developers and publishers these days choose—releasing downloadable expansions and asking players for more money—they made Shovel Knight’s first expansion, “Plague of Shadows,” free.
The magnitude of this selfless action is better understood by looking at the pieces that form this remarkable puzzle.
NOSTALGIA AS A WEAPON
Many small studios releasing budget titles hinge on nostalgia, the sentimental glory days of two-dimensional gaming memories as a kid. One glance at the pixelated graphics of Shovel Knight is enough to instantly reference early Super Mario Bros., Mega Man and Castlevania on Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems. However, where others have failed to provide more than blatant rehashes of beloved franchises, Shovel Knight stormed onto the scene and captured the very spirit of that era.
Just like games it pays homage to, Shovel Knight has one difficulty level: less than forgiving. Despite as many as six checkpoints in each level, death is a frequent occurrence for our hero, donning rickety armor and bearing, as the title suggests, a shovel as his main weapon. While games like Mario and Donkey Kong featured enemies that were defeated by simply jumping on their heads, the computer intelligence here is far more advanced. Placement of foes intertwines within the level design, requiring preemptive thought in a way that can only be described as ingenious. Each of the twelve levels required to beat the quest feature a final boss battle as challenging as those seen in games like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Metroid. So after wading through levels lasting up to half an hour, the stakes and difficulty rise simultaneously.
Throughout the main adventure, clocking in at just under six hours, I perished 195 times, losing invaluable currency each time, but always eager for another attempt at vanquishing the opposition. With progression comes skill, and although grueling at times, Shovel Knight never feels unfair. It rewards conscientious players while tossing aside the careless. When the credits eventually roll, the increasingly fleeting aspect of contemporary video games, the feeling of accomplishment, is pronounced.
Since many gamers played the main adventure more than a year ago, it may be easy to think that Shovel Knight is a distant memory and too played out for most players to be excited about this development. Not a chance!
After toiling with the option to replay the game at a harder difficulty level, and probably failing miserably, Shovel Knight was likely set aside but not forgotten. Luckily, Yacht Club Games’ end of summer treat, “Plague of Shadows,” invites fans to jump back into the beloved world with the promise of a fresh experience.
The new content, which casts you as one of Shovel Knight’s antagonists, Plague Knight, is meant to be played when unlocked following the conclusion of the original campaign, though there’s a way to bypass that. The process, a menu screen button combination provided by the developers, is reminiscent of deploying cheat codes in ‘90s games.
But I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Some games introduce new playable characters as an aesthetic bonus; but Shovel Knight isn’t like most other games, and playing as Plague Knight is actually a game changer.
QUESTIONS OF MORALITY
Tasked with learning explosive attacks and a complex, differing jump system, the old levels gain new challenges. Playing as a villain has its perks and downfalls. New areas are accessible, but the village that served as the center of commerce for player upgrades is off limits to Plague Knight, requiring new strategies. Reworked dialogue and boss fights for the “Plague of Shadows” saga further adds to its promise.
Deja vu moments occur during incidental run-ins with Shovel Knight, off on his own valiant adventure. The role reversal advances the backstory of the treacherous Order of No Quarter, bringing it to life for an interesting dynamic of good versus evil. By the end of the expansion, some may favor the plight of Plague Knight, procuring questions of morality in a genre not particularly well known for thought-provoking storytelling.
When compared to a sizable portion of the modern video game industry, Shovel Knight’s impressive resume coupled with its reimagining in “Plague of Shadows” is amplified to a greater decibel. At $15, a paltry quarter of the price of major retail releases, and half a dozen hours required to finish the main campaign, which is more than a fair number of full price games sport, this is next level value bin material. Throw in the five to ten hours needed to complete optional missions and challenges and uncover all its secrets, and the independent title quietly boasts one of the best values in gaming today.
“Plague of Shadows” is like the secret levels and worlds found in nostalgic titles of the early to mid ‘90s, but instead of being hidden for attentive gamers, it has been broadcast to its loyal fans in what comes off as a sincere thank you. Yacht Club Games has rewarded gamers who spent their time and money on a game so against the modern grain by literally doubling the offering without asking for anything in return. Shovel Knight is the closest modern representation of the games from arguably the most influential and defining period in video game history. At the starting gate, it gazed up at the towering giants who influenced the rise of gaming in popular culture, but after crossing the finish line, the eyes are level.
Steven Petite attempts to divide his time between freelance and fiction writing, reading far too many novels, and playing half a dozen games simultaneously. He is a lifelong Cleveland native, and consequently a tortured sports enthusiast. He is a staff writer for Fiction Southeast and The Rock Office. He has frequently written for The Huffington Post and his fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine.
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