A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
So whilst getting into sessions at PAX might have been something of a bum steer this time around there was one thing that it really excelled at: getting people together to play games, any kind of games. I don’t mean this lightly either they catered to essentially every time of gamer you could think of with their massive games libraries and spaces dedicated to playing. By far the best time I had there was stumbling into the free play PC area late at night when there were a bunch of PCs free and our group of friends just playing, like the good old days of LANs. It’s also an opportunity for gamers like me, who spend the vast majority of their time on a single platform, to experiment with others and strangely enough I found myself behind the controls of a WiiU.
The game we played was Nintendo Land, a kind of lavish tech demo ala Wii Sports which did the same thing for the original Wii back in the day. Most of the games are incredibly simplistic in nature but are centered around playing together and demonstrating what’s possible with the Wii U controller. My friend who introduced us to this game insisted that we play one which was essentially a game of one person trying to run/hide from everyone else. Catch is the person who’s being chased has the Wii U controller and can see everything that the people trying to hunt them down is doing. I was a little skeptical at first but I figured that I had some time to kill while our friends finished up their game of Puerto Rico.
Then something weird happened, I started having fun.
It’s a simple premise but the game play that comes out of it is really quite fun as you team up against one person to try and chase them down. The other games in Nintendo Land are based around similar premises, like one where you’re a ghost that has to scare all the other players, and they all have that simple joy of co-operative/competitive play which makes them great for both kids and adults a like. I didn’t end up playing all of the modes since we were meandering off to the PC area but I walked away with the feeling that whilst the Wii U might not be the crazy success the Wii was there’s definitely something to it, even if that thing won’t potentially sell.
Honestly I think the problem here is one of market saturation and the value proposition that the Wii U brings to the table. The Wii was successful because it went after the largest target market: people who don’t traditionally play games. This helped spread the console to places where it never would’ve gone before, to the point where just getting one seemed to elect you to an exclusive club. This was at the cost of alienating some of the more hardcore/dedicated fan base, something I’m sure Nintendo was willing to wear for the sales it got. The problem with this is that the difference between the Wii and the Wii U isn’t big enough for those kinds of users to see the value in upgrading, indeed when I told my wife (an avid user of our Wii) about the Wii U she wondered why we’d bother getting it and, at the time, I was inclined to agree with her. After playing it I can see that there are some cool uses cases for that giant controller, ones that I’m sure current Wii owners would appreciate, but I don’t think Nintendo has done a great job of selling that so far.
Did this convince me to buy one? Not particularly as there’s no games that are drawing me to the platform and I can’t see myself getting a group of people together to play Nintendo Land very often. This could change, indeed it might almost be worth it for a HD Zelda game, but there’s little more than that novelty aspect going for it currently. I’m not exactly sure how Nintendo can overcome this, they’re in a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment with developers and titles, but there’s no denying that there’s something to the Wii U concept.
Even though in my heart I’m a PC gamer I was never without a console growing up. For the most part I was a Nintendo kid, seeing every console from the NES upwards making its way into my family’s living room. That changed when I had my own job and enough money to buy a PlayStation 2, secluding myself away in my room to play Gran Turismo for hours on end trying to justify the $700 odd sum I had spent on this magnificent piece of hardware. Nowadays you’ll find every major console lining up beside my TV so that I can indulge myself in any title regardless of its platform.
The past couple decades has been quite an interesting time for consoles. They really came into prominence after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985 (2 years later for us Australians) and Nintendo continued to be highly successful with it’s successor. Their reign as the king of consoles came to an end with the release of the original PlayStation back in 1994 which saw Sony catapulted to the top of the console kingdom. Microsoft, seeing a great opportunity to compete in the gaming market, released the Xbox back in 2001 and whilst it didn’t dethrone Nintendo or Sony it enjoyed some mild success in the market, even if it wasn’t a success financially. The release of the PlayStation 2 kept Sony at the top for quite a while as neither the Xbox nor Nintendo’s GameCube could hold a candle to it.
The current generation of consoles saw another shift in the king of consoles crown, but not for the traditional reasons that gamers had come to expected. Whilst the PlayStation 3 was a technical marvel the Xbox360 hit the trifecta of price, performance and catalogue of good platform exclusives that helped build it up to the success it is today. Neither of them however could hold a candle to the success that is the Nintendo Wii. Aiming at their largest untapped market Nintendo created a console that appealed to non-gamers and gamers alike. The result being that they couldn’t manufacture the things fast enough, seeing wide spread shortages for the console that only helped to sustain the fever pitch surrounding it. With a grand total of 90 million consoles sold to date it’s well on its way to be the most successful console ever released, although it still has a long way to go to match the PlayStation 2 (coming in at a whopping 153 million).
The next generation of consoles is still some ways off however. Traditionally you’d see a new console generation every 5 years but the only ones with any official plans so far are Nintendo with their Wii U console which isn’t slated for release until sometime next year. Granted the current generation of consoles has aged far better than any of their previous generations what with developers finding all sorts of optimizations to squeeze extra performance out of them but even the best programming can’t hide the aging hardware that’s running in these consoles. It is then up for debate as to what the next generation of consoles will look like and there’s speculation that it may be the last.
Richard Garriott AKA Lord British, games industry celebrity and space tourist, has gone on record that he believes that the next generation of consoles will be the last:
IG: It’s always tough to completely change the way you look at things. The bigger the company, the more conservative they tend to be. Do you think consoles as we know them are doomed, or are we going to get a new generation, or is it just becoming irrelevant?
RGC: I think we might get one more generation, might, but I think fundamentally they’re doomed. I think fundamentally the power that you can carry with you in a portable is really swamping what we’ve thought of as a console.
IG: If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.
RGC: Yes, exactly. That’s why I think there may be one more round of consoles left, but not many.
The idea of consoles going away isn’t a new one, hell there was a time when everyone thought the PC would be the dominant platform for all time, but them being replaced outright by mobile devices is a new one on me. For starters whilst you can get current Xbox level graphics on a handheld it’s always going to be a game of cat and mouse as to how far ahead the consoles are. Realistically current smart phones capabilities are only catching up to what was possible 5 years ago, not what’s possible today. Indeed once the next generation of consoles is released the smart phones (and other portable entertainment systems) will again be behind in terms of technology. The fact of the matter is you can’t shoe horn current generation technology into a portable form factor so I doubt we’ll see the loss of consoles after the next generation.
Although there is potential for the console market to be shaken up somewhat by the portable industry. The Wii showed that a console can succeed without having cutting edge technology in it (the Wii is basically a GameCube on the inside) and it’s that same market that gobbled up the Wii that will turn to other places for their gaming fix. Whether this will make the transition into some form of home based entertainment like consoles currently do remains to be seen however, but there’s definitely potential for it to happen.
As for the the future of console gaming? More of the same I believe. Whilst we may have seen some technical marvels in the form of the Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect the bread and butter of these consoles doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even in the face of challengers like the iPhone. For the non-gamer market however there’s a strong possibility that they’ll shift away from their Wiis in favour of their smart phones or tablets but there’s still a massive market that will crave the better graphics and performance that can only come from a console.
I’ve been a Nintendo fan for well over 2 decades now, my first experiences with them dating all the way back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System which I believe is still in a functioning state in a closet out at my parent’s place. I have to admit though they kind of lost me when they released the Game Cube as by then I was hooked on my shiny new PlayStation and there weren’t any games on the Game Cube that appealed to me as a burgeoning hardcore gamer. That trend continued for a long time until my then housemate bought a Wii on the release date but even then I didn’t really play it that much, instead favoring my PS3 and Xbox360. Indeed the Wii I got using some credit card reward points has been mostly unused since we got it, even though I thought there were a couple games on it I was “dying” to try.
For what its worth it’s not really Nintendo’s fault that I haven’t really been a massive user of their last 2 generations of platforms, they made it clear that they were hunting for a different market and I wasn’t in it. Sure there were some nostalgia titles that tugged on my heart and wallet (Zelda and Mario, of course) but they weren’t enough for me to make the leap and I’ve stuck to my other staples ever since. Nintendo had firmly cemented themselves as the game console for people who don’t identify as gamers, broadening their market to unprecedented levels but also alienating the crowd who grew up with them to become today’s grown up gamers. At the time it was a trade off Nintendo appeared happy to make but recent announcements show that they may be thinking otherwise.
Nintendo recently announced the console that is to be the successor to the Wii which has been worked on under the title of Project Cafe and will be officially known as the Wii U. The console itself looks very similar to its predecessor, sporting the same overall layout whilst being a little bit bigger and preferring a rounder shape to the Wii’s highly angular design. Nintendo is also pairing the new console with another new accessory, a controller that comes with an embedded touch screen. At first it looks completely ludicrous, especially if you take into consideration that the Wii’s trademark was motion controlled games. After reading a bit more about it however it appears that this tablet-esque controller will function more like an augmentation to games rather than being the primary method of control, with the Wii nun-chucks still being used for games that rely on motion control.
The console itself is shaping up to be no slouch either, eschewing Nintendo’s trend of making under powered consoles in favor of one that is capable of producing full 1080p HD content. Whilst the official specifications for the Wii U aren’t released yet the demonstrations of the release titles for the console do not suffer from the low polygon counts of previous Wii titles with the demos looking quite stunning. With enough grunt under the hood of the Wii U Nintendo could also be making a play for the media extender market as well, something Microsoft and Sony have covered off well in the past. Couple that with a controller that would make one nice HTPC remote and I’m almost sold on the idea, but that’s not the reason why I’m tentatively excited about what the Wii U signals for Nintendo.
Nintendo has said during the E3 conference that they believe their new console will target a much broader audience than that of the Xbox or PlayStation, which taken on face value doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Wii sales numbers speak for themselves as both gamers and non-gamers alike bought the Wii and it outsold its competitors by a large margin, so if Nintendo can continue the trend with the Wii U it will be obvious that they’ll hit a broader market. However the announcement of the Wii U also came a video showing launch titles, many of which would have never previously made it to Nintendo’s console. It looks like Nintendo is trying to lure back the hardcore gaming crowd that it shunned when it re-imagined itself and that makes a long time fan like myself very happy indeed.
Of course the proof will be in the putting for the Nintendo Wii U and with the console not scheduled for release until sometime in 2012 we’ll be waiting a while before we can judge their attempt to claw back that niche that has slipped away from them. Whilst my Wii may sit next to my TV feeling woefully underused I get the feeling that its successor might not suffer the same fate and I’m excited at the possibility of Nintendo coming full circle and embracing those gamers who grew up with them. The possibility of it being a little media power house is just the icing on the cake, even if I might only end up using the controller through Bluetooth on my media PC.