I’ve always believed Shovel Knight is the best thing ever to come out of Kickstarter in 2014. Now, 3 years later, I have to give props to Yacht Club Games. They’ve been generous enough to give Shovel Knight buyers ALL of the game’s expansions for free. The first game, now dubbed Shovel of Hope, was inspired. The next installment, Plague of Shadows, was ambitious and creative. But the newest game, Specter of Torment, is a masterwork that I can only describe as …elegant.
As a prequel to Shovel of Hope, Specter shows us the story behind fan favorite Specter Knight, in addition to answering questions like Shield Knight’s disappearance. Story-wise, it takes an unusually dark, poignant approach that I really enjoyed.
But just as Plague of Shadows tweaked the original level design to suit a new gameplay style, Specter made even more changes and managed to be even more graceful. The core gameplay involves scythe dashing (used against enemies and certain set pieces) and short-distance wall-climbing, both new mechanics. Yacht Club’s specialty has always been designing good gameplay around specific mechanics. Their stage design is not only consistently clever, but challenging, particularly in Specter.
For example, an early level challenges the player to use a stationary series of hanging lanterns as dash targets to cross an open pit and reach the end. Early on this task takes getting used to, but by the time you reach Propeller Knight’s stage, the same challenge is given to you with moving targets. By the time you reach the Tower of Fate, you have to be able combine air dashing with climbing to reach the top. There are plenty of times when the game acts in a way you don’t want and kills you, sure. But you can overcome it with practice, and the controls work amazingly well overall.
What impresses me most about Specter of Torment, though, is its streamlining and refinement. Most importantly, every new item you get comes with a very brief tutorial. This naturally teaches you all the item’s uses, a genius move. You obtain these items by finding Red Skulls, with a total of 100 (a nice round number) spread across 9 levels and the hub castle. The hub castle is also where you reach every level, conveniently replacing the overworld. There you can find every seller and challenge, as well as my personal favorite, the Cold Shoulder, which allows you to cross your arms defiantly at any point in the game.
There’s so many more tidbits about this game I just love. I will admit that it’s fairly short, but it’s the best expansion I’ve played for a game. Basically, if you haven’t played Specter of Torment, do it now. This is the series at its very best, and a master class in platformer design that oozes personality.
If you ask me, Shovel Knight is one of the best games of this decade, and most certainly the best indie game of the decade. It’s full of clever mechanics, great levels, and loads of personality. But another one of its greatest strengths is how it teaches its players intuitively.
A lot of what I say in this article is covered by a major inspiration of mine, snomaN Gaming, in his series “Good Game Design.” I encourage you to check it out below. But for the sake of a thorough breakdown, we’re going to look at the first steps into this wonderful world of shovelry and examine how it’s put together.
We enter the first level of the game, “Plains.” On the first screen, it’s just you and a small, glistening pile of rubble on the far end. Starting out, you only use two buttons: a button to jump, and a button to attack with your shovel. This first screen uses a common 2D level design trope. It puts you on one side and a stand-out object on the other. Jumping does nothing to this pile of rocks, but digging at it reveals treasure. Already it’s clear that your shovel is how you interact with each set piece. It also allows you to collect treasure, which hints at some kind of money system. This comes into play later, so we won’t talk about it here.
Immediately after digging up the rocks, you find your first enemy. This thing is slow-moving and pretty powerless, so it’s not hard to figure out that a whack of the shovel does the trick. Plus, you have plenty of health, so if you try out the SuperMario Bros. logic of jumping on an enemy and find that it doesn’t work, you’re still good to go.
Now we have our first platforms — a cluster of three with another slow-moving beetle on the tallest one. This teaches the player to jump and slash at the same time, and lets them get a feel for the timing. Immediately afterward we see our first dirt block on top of a platform (a key element in the rest of the game) and two beetles underneath. In this case you can break the dirt block and ignore the beetles, go under to fight the beetles and get some treasure, or do both. Whatever you do, you’ve dealt with a new scenario.
Then we come to a wall of dirt blocks in the way of progression, just past a bottomless pit. Most players will know to break through the dirt and not try to go down the pit to progress. Even if you make that error, the stakes are low and you can still recover your gold. Let’s move on.
The game then teaches you another core mechanic of the game: downward attacks. This is the first time we see a dirt block that we can’t hit from the side. But they’re clearly breakable because there’s stuff below them and there are no other paths. The only thing to do here is experiment with the buttons and movement. Eventually you find out that jumping and holding down on the control stick allows you to bounce on certain blocks with your shovel. The bouncing is also shown off by the fact that there are two blocks stacked on each other. Right away you have a pretty complete sense of how this mechanic works.
This is important, because your next obstacle is a gap that can only be crossed by shovel-bouncing off of a respawning bubble. This may take a couple tries, but after getting past it, you know how to use the shovel bounce to do tricky platforming.
Next up we find our first checkpoint and our first moving platform, which is again teaching without telling. The placement of these elements is key, because we then see a moving platform over spikes, and spikes are the only thing other than falling that kill you instantly. If you hit the spikes accidentally, it’s no big deal because you just hit a checkpoint. If you die, you go back to the previous screen, and now you know how checkpoints work if you didn’t already.
Next we see our most interesting enemy yet: a big, yellow, cat-like dragon whose weakness is bouncing on his head. Now we know that certain enemies have specific vulnerable points. And once we defeat him, we see certain special enemies drop lots of treasure and even health.
Go down the ladder to fight another new enemy: the skeleton. The skeleton reacts to your attacks and movements in a way the beetles didn’t. Therefore, you have to be smarter about how you fight him. On the next screen, we learn about secret walls. The game drops you into a situation that looks like a trap, but there’s a clear spot you have to reach. Right in front of you is a wall with a little notch, and striking it reveals a new pathway. These pathways can hide enemies, though, so be cautious!
By this point, every basic mechanic of Shovel Knight has been taught to you: the rest of the level teaches you to look for different paths to get interesting rewards and to bounce off enemies to get to gems. Some rewards are hidden behind secrets that are even harder to notice. You even learn how to cancel out a line of shovel bounces to go after a gem.
Everything the player learns about combat then culminates in a stage boss. Thisalso allows you to learn about reflecting projectiles and countering specific attack patterns.
Shovel Knight is a testament to good tutorial levels built around simple mechanics. It doesn’t just teach controls…it teaches instincts. By the time you reach the end, you know how to play the game, yet it doesn’t actively point out a single control. This keen level design isn’t just a one-off, either. Shovel Knight is more than personality, and its design is ruthlessly intelligent. If you designers out there take nothing else from this game, it’s the importance of teaching without telling.
Toys and collectibles were separate from video games for a long time. But now, since the turn of the century, companies have found ways to overlap these kinds of entertainment. This is still a relatively niche corner of the industry of course. But that doesn’t stop adults and kids alike from collecting toys-to-life products. Specifically, I want to talk about amiibo.
Anybody who knows anything about video game figurines will tell you they hit it big with the advent of Skylanders. The idea that a plastic figurine in real life could translate to a character in a video game was mind blowing. And true to form, Activision hasn’t hesitated to capitalize on it (surprise, surprise). As of today, around 300 million Skylanders figurines have been sold so far. Disney Infinity, another toys-to-life franchise, has sold millions of figure packs of various Disney properties, from Marvel to Star Wars. Clearly a market has developed for these things.
Regardless, a lot of people were surprised when Nintendo announced they were getting in on the toys-to-life trend. Whether their fan base approves or disapproves is still rather undecided. Amiibo can never seem to win with the public. Some people love them dearly, some people think they put Nintendo as low down as EA or Activision. Then again, many are indifferent. For people who haven’t really followed to amiibo scene, their biggest failing is that Nintendo hilariously underestimated their popularity at launch.
The likely reason is because Nintendo decided to get ambitious in their production goals. They created figurines for every single one of the over 50 Smash Bros. characters, a line for Mario Party 10, and a few for Splatoon, with more and more coming all the time. This was a lot to take on, and people were all over these things when they came out, which only made matters worse.
Amiibo ended up with an issue from the very start, stemming from how Nintendo decided to market them. They started out with a small line of around 10 Smash Bros. characters, but a tier of “rarity” immediately emerged. Nintendo assumed that more well-known characters like Mario or Link would be in highest demand. However, people gravitated towards characters who had never gotten any real merchandise before. As a result, you saw characters like Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Wii Fit Trainer is still not available in stores anywhere in the U.S., even after more than a year.
For better or worse, a culture has developed around amiibo. Certain amiibo have become more desirable, and ironically, demand for them has increased because they’re not in stock anywhere. Twitter accounts like Amiibo Alerts work constantly to put figurines in the hands of fans, gaining almost 40,000 followers in the process. Now even when figurines are restocked, people think of them as rare. However, logically, no single amiibo should reasonably be harder to get than another. Tons of videos now exist like this one where people show off extensive collections of amiibo. Many of them are still impossible to find in stores.
Fans have argued that amiibo are everything from a cash grab, to a waste of time for people who take games seriously. My argument is that they are something of a cash grab, but that doesn’t make them a bad thing. Plenty of things in the world are for the sake of making money. The question of how we receive them comes down to quality. In the case of something like amiibo, we have to ask what they add to their games.
Functionally speaking, amiibo are a mixed bag. In my opinion, the two best uses of amiibo so far are the Smash Bros. line and the Shovel Knight amiibo. Smash amiibo are trainable figurines that serve as sparring partners for players. The Shovel Knight amiibo unlocks co-op play for the game. These are because they add to their games without being necessary to enjoy them.
The worst offender, on the other hand, is Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival. It’s built specifically to try to sell amiibo. It would be more excusable if the game involved some kind of motor skill like Mario Party. It would be even more excusable if the game itself didn’t sell for a full 60 dollars. As it stands, though, the game is pretty much just a money pit.
Nintendo is still figuring out how to implement amiibo in a way that makes them worth buying. Although they’ve had missteps, they’re onto something. The best figurines don’t act as a paywall. In fact, a lot of people are concerned about the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, which is to come with a figurine that unlocks a new dungeon. The future is uncertain for these things.
After a year of experimentation, many have written off amiibo as a misguided attempt by Nintendo to expand its product lineup. But to answer my own question, I don’t think they’re a scam. I personally love the little things. I think they have value in that they’re not only software compatible, but collectible. Lots of figurines are characters that don’t otherwise come with merchandise. Therefore, they’re more interesting than simple collector’s items, without being particularly expensive. I never thought I’d ever have action figures of characters like Shulk from Xenoblade or Ness from Earthbound, yet here they are. And the fact that they play a role in actual games is something I think can have lasting appeal if done right.
As long as supply of amiibo in the future can meet the public’s demand for them, I think they have a bright future. Developers just need to balance them so that they’re important, but not necessary to the experience of a game. Granted, I don’t plan to buy that many more, but who knows? I never planned to buy amiibo at first, until the right ones came along. Now I have, well…a couple…
With Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS getting its final dedicated broadcast on December 15th, the game’s entire community, including myself, is convinced that it will focus on the Smash Ballot, a poll running through the summer and ending in October that let the fans vote for who they most wanted to see added to the game. One of the most popular picks for this Ballot, as well as my first choice for a new character, is Shovel Knight, the main character of his eponymous game made by the small indie developer team Yacht Club Games.
Early on in the voting, Shovel Knight’s inclusion was almost a sure thing as he took the ballot by storm, but recently, we’ve been given indications that with the ballot’s close, there have been no movements toward Shovel Knight’s inclusion. Now, although I fully acknowledge that my opinion may be biased towards hope for my man Shovel Knight, I genuinely feel like he still has a shot at being included.
First of all, people have discounted the possibility based on Yacht Club’s Twitter page, where seemingly every mention of the ballot by eager fans has been met with the tone of a gracious loser, with the company saying that they haven’t been contacted by Nintendo in any capacity. I think this may have been true for a while, but I feel that at this point, it’s unlikely. Yacht Club continues to make this same denial over and over, but this can’t be taken as concrete evidence because if indeed they were involved with Smash in any way, they would not make any suggestion of it on social media. Total denial is the only true way for them to preserve the mystery, so I would not be surprised if Yacht Club ultimately chooses to say “Grass…I lied about the wheels.”
Secondly, Yacht Club would have a definite stake in Shovel Knight’s inclusion in Smash; not only are they constantly developing new downloadable quests for the original Shovel Knight game, they’re also developing the first ever third party amiibo figurine of Shovel Knight to be compatible with the game. People were, of course, eager to find out if the amiibo had any compatibility with Smash Bros. It didn’t, but since then, we’ve seen the amiibo delayed again and again – the North American release date has been moved to January 8th according to VineReport, with the excuse being things such as refining the prototype or ensuring ample supply. I have no doubt that they are indeed developing the amiibo for the original game, and considering the tension over amiibo supply failing to keep up with demand, it’s understandable that they want to nip that issue in the bud. However, the prototype is no indicator of the figute’s final capabilities – who’s to say they aren’t implementing compatibility with Smash Bros. software? All things considered, I think this is perfectly likely.
I understand if anyone wants to disagree with me, but after Cloud Strife’s inclusion in the game, it’s about time for us as Smash fans to start singing Who Can Say Where the Road Goes. There is very little room to draw conclusions about exclusion or inclusion of even the most improbable characters at this point. Personally, I think an indie rep like Shovel Knight would mean incredible things both for Smash Bros. and for gaming in general, but I don’t know. I just think it’s still a definite possibility.
In an announcement from Nintendo, the final Nintendo Direct Broadcast dedicated specifically to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS has been revealed to be taking place on December 15th. While this likely doesn’t mean the end of all new content and updates to the game, this will represent the last game-changing set of content added to it.
Reportedly, the major highlight of this broadcast will be more details on Cloud Strife, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, who was recently revealed as the newest third-party addition to the game. If you’ve seen Cloud’s reveal trailer, however, you can see that he appears mostly complete – every one of his moves was showed off, suggesting that development of the character is done, beyond possible debugging to prevent possible issues with downloads and online play. Given this, I have zero doubt that we’ll be getting a release date for the character, and I’m betting it will be soon – possibly right after the Direct, if we’re lucky. I do wonder, though, about the fact that Cloud is seemingly touted as one of the highlights of this Direct when there isn’t a whole lot left to talk about anymore – it seems as though the two main possibilities are that Mr. Sakurai will take the opportunity to discuss Nintendo’s relationship with Square Enix, creators of Final Fantasy, which is apparently much better than we thought, or that there won’t be as much time spent on Cloud as we’re being led to believe. Personally, I wouldn’t mind the latter possibility, because this will leave more time for the meat of the Direct – especially the new characters.
What we really can’t guess for sure is how many new characters will be revealed, although we can be sure that there won’t be none revealed. My expectation is two, since detailed examinations of the game’s code by some talented data miners have shown three available unnamed character slots, one of which was presumably taken up by Cloud, leaving two wild cards. Yet, plenty of rumors and speculations have gone around predicting everything from one new character to five, which goes to show how little is known for certain.
What we do have is a pool of characters who are most likely to be included – chances are that the top three candidates based on unofficial polling are Shovel Knight, the outbreak indie icon and star of his eponymous game that got its start on Nintendo consoles, Shantae, the half-genie hero of Nintendo handheld fame for the past decade, and King K. Rool, the oldest and most well-loved Donkey Kong villain. Other names have been tossed around recently like Wolf O’Donnell, Super Smash Bros. Brawl veteran and Star Fox villain, Isaac from the Golden Sun series, Rayman from…well, Rayman, and Banjo-Kazooie from…well, you get the idea. Whether or not a character is more or less likely to be included considering being from a third party is hard to say – third parties are often highly requested, but Nintendo has already said that popularity doesn’t guarantee inclusion – corporate barriers can still stand in the way of our wildest dreams at the end of the day. Yet, with Cloud’s inclusion, many preconceptions about a certain addition being “possible” have gone out the window. For me, I hope Shovel Knight and Shantae are our new stars of the show, but anything can happening, and I’ll be happy to see new faces in the mix.
Apart from these, there may be other major changes incoming – some fans have speculated about the possibility about the addition of an equivalent of the Subspace Emissary singleplayer campaign from Brawl, where characters from the game teamed up and/or butted heads through beautiful CGI cutscenes and a lengthy series of story missions. Given the magnitude of such an undertaking, though, I wouldn’t expect something like this – if anything, I would expect a few more stages, probably brought in along with whatever fighters are revealed. Whatever happens, the one thing I know is that I am extremely excited for Tuesday, and I’ll be right there with everyone watching at 5PM EST to see how the landscape of gaming changes that much more, compliments of the great Masahiro Sakurai and his merry band of developers. To quote the great Desmond Amofah, better known as Etika of EWNetwork, let’s get ready to ride this hype train to the sun!