Welcome to the end of the decade; the end of the 2010s; Al at Decade’s End. This is a miniseries where I celebrate the past ten years in video games, starting by talking about my favourite games from each year, and ending with the end-of-year extravaganza for 2019! The games I talk about here might not necessarily be the best of the decade, but they sure left the best impressions on me for one reason or another. And so, without any more delay, we begin our look at 2014!
In 2014 the concept of crowdfunding for video games was still relatively new. Back then we were seeing quite a few high-profile campaigns to fund games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, or Mighty No. 9. Ignoring how the games themselves would eventually be received, Kickstarter was a hotbed that promised a great wave of all the games we had always wanted but would never be backed by AAA game publishers. One of the greatest successes to come out of crowdfunding would be from an unknown studio called Yacht Club Games, and would star but a humble knight packing only a shovel. For my best of 2014 we’re going to take the time to talk about the now legendary Shovel Knight.
Everyone who knows about Shovel Knight also knows about the main draw it was marketed on: innovation off the platformer genre while also drawing inspiration from old-school Mega Man and Castlevania. It aimed to be simple and easy to understand while also setting itself apart as a truly unique experience. A friend of mine gifted it to me back when it launched, but I would never play it until the following year when I was at a loss for a university project. The class was part of my media studies major, and it was studying technology and identity. The objective was to engage with new media in a way that would be all but guaranteed to cause discomfort. As this was a time before the Al Unlocked project was even conceived, I figured the best thing to do was to do a full video review of Shovel Knight (no, this will not see the light of day). At that time I was so scared to make any sort of public creative work that I dropped out of a fiction writing class when I realized there would be peer review, and yet I thought playing through Shovel Knight, recording the footage, and editing it down to a 15 minute review not unlike The Completionist was a good idea.
Like I said before, Shovel Knight is a classic styled side-scrolling platformer featuring special items and sub-weapons, somewhat nonlinear level design, and of course, shovels. Shovel Knight really puts a lot of focus on the fact that your main weapon of choice is a shovel. There’s piles of dirt to dig for treasure, blocks of dirt to dig through to get past obstacles, and you have the ability to bounce off enemies and hazards using your shovel like a pogo stick, similar to what’s possible in DuckTales or Zelda II. It’s simplistic in its main mechanics, but the level design really takes full advantage of Shovel Knight’s moveset and arsenal. Crossing a chasm by pogo jumping off a group of enemies before digging sideways through a block of dirt is just an example of how the level design combines individual ideas you learned before, and it looks and feels amazing in motion. There’s a load of collectibles in the many stages that also challenge your knowledge of the game, rewarding you with a new musical score to play in the hub town or a new sub-weapon to take with you. Some of these segments are quite challenging, and you may die a lot, but there’s one really important feature of Shovel Knight that allows the player to make the game as forgiving or as punishing as they like. Despite how many times you die, there’s no lives. Instead, you just lose a fraction of the money you had saved up and go back to the last checkpoint in the level you reached. Do checkpoints make things too easy for you? Do you want that feeling of harsh punishment when you die? Then just destroy the checkpoints. You have the ability to destroy checkpoints in any level if you feel like it, and you get quite a bit of extra money with each one you destroy, so there’s an incentive to play risky.
One absolutely insane thing about Shovel Knight is the amount of stretch goals the Kickstarter campaign reached. The Shovel Knight Kickstarter campaign earned far and beyond the requested $75,000, and the folks of Yacht Club implemented a series of rewards; things to add to the game if the Kickstarter campaign earned a certain amount of money. Shovel Knight went on to earn over $300,000, and Yacht Club went on to promise a number of extra DLC campaigns for the game. Amazingly, Yacht Club has actually stuck to their word. As of writing this they have released two extra, free, campaigns in Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, with a third campaign titled King of Cards, and a multiplayer expansion titled Showdown set for release any day now. All of this has turned Shovel Knight into one of the best valued games on the market. Also, I just have to throw in that Shovel Knight has one of the best video game soundtracks on the planet, and I argue that the game is worth it just based on that alone.
Shovel Knight is not only a phenomenal game in a phenomenal package, it’s also a game that encouraged me to challenge my comfort zone. That alone gives this game a special place in my heart. I’ve gone on about the package deal of Shovel Knight, but it’s important that I should be clear on what I mean. If you buy Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove you get everything the game has to offer. Or you can also just buy each individual campaign by itself, those being Shovel of Hope, Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Showdown. This game is a must-own on any current platform, and is my pick for best game of 2014.