A love letter to 8-bit gaming
It has been nearly 30 years since the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in North America and no other console since has so dominated the culture, aesthetics, and market share of video gaming in its respective era. The NES not only had scarce competition, but its distinctive capabilities – and modest specs – ensured that it would leave a mark. After all, what other console in history could exert such influence and be so recognizable as to appear in a Ghost Busters movie?
As the children of the 1980s and early 1990s have come of age, 8-bit nostalgia has flourished. A while back, I looked at Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U, a delightfully straightforward, unabashed throwback platformer. Nintendo’s current generation consoles have become ecosystems for genres and styles seemingly from other times, whether pixelated side scrollers like Mutant Mudds Deluxe, HD games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that reprise the retro difficulty of the NES and SNES, and visual novels such as the peerless Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
And now we have Shovel Knight. The platformer brought to Wii U and 3DS via Kickstarter is a gorgeous, endlessly playable love letter to 8-bit gaming.
Shovel Knight digs the details
Shovel Knight has almost scholarly attention to the aesthetics of 8-bit gaming. The NES’s color palette is instantly recognizable in the game’s gorgeous underground caverns, crisp blue skies, lush forests, and lively towns. Players may find themselves thinking of classics such as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Mega Man, and especially the Wizards and Warriors games.
Speaking of Mega Man, composer Manami Matsumae contributes music here, along with Jake Kaufman. The soundtrack is pitch perfect, both on its own merits and as a nod to the annals of 8-bit gaming. I found myself endlessly humming the theme from the first stage in my head.
The tunes are nice microcosm of Shovel Knight’s overall approach: Exceptional, encyclopedic 8-bit vocabulary, yet an experience that rises far above mere homage. Its modernity can be felt in the control scheme, especially the jumping, which is much crisper than in most NES platformers. The cutscenes, dialog, and exploratory sequences in the towns, while indebted to games such as Ninja Gaiden: The Dark Sword of Chaos, have a cohesiveness and theatricality that is of more recent vintage.
The cerulean knight
The basic gameplay is inspired. Shovel Knight is a knight who starts with a shovel rather than a sword. The shovel can unearth diamonds, swipe enemies, or be used a pseudo-pogo stick, a la Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales for NES.
It takes a little while to get fully accustomed to the ins and outs of Shovel Knight. The pogo behavior was tricky at first, since it’s required to cross some chasms (a classic NES pitfall) but doesn’t quite work like it does in Duck Tales or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latter of which imitated the former’s trademark feature. However, the controls are tight and simple overall.
Difficulty is well calibrated. It masterfully emulates the platforming perils of its NES predecessors, but gives the player a break through Shovel Knight’s impressive jumping abilities and robust health meter (no one- or two-hit deaths a la Ghosts and Goblins). The boss battles are tough – I really enjoyed learning the ropes against the Death-like Specter Knight.
Finally, the game is deep, with plenty to collect and explore. Playing the Wii U version, I appreciated how it grouped items neatly on the Game Pad and used Miiverse to provide a community diary of each room. A must-have for any Wii U library.
Many iconic games can be grasped in just a few seconds, yet can fascinate players for years, either because of their novelty (Super Mario Bros., Ocarina of Time), their difficulty (Ghosts n’ Goblins, Castlevania), or their seemingly endless skill curve (Tetris, Dr. Mario). Flappy Bird hits those last two categories hard. Some redditors have scoffed at Flappy Bird’s difficulties, referencing one of the very games I mentioned above as evidence of a truly hard, bygone era in gaming, but they’re wrong – this is a tough game for the ages, in large part because it’s imprecise. You never quite get a good feel for how high your bird is going to flap, and as such you bump into a pipe lip and it’s all over.
All games used to be hard – because of hardware
Before the advent of precise controllers – which relay took off with the analog stick of the N64 – games were super hard not just because of how they were designed, but because the hardware was working against you. Picking up an NES/SNES controller now is quaint – the buttons are stiff, and I’m all the more impressed that games such as FF3/6 could pull off things like Sabin’s Bum Rush requiring a 360 rotation (you HAD to hit those diagonal directions!).
But once controllers became great big dual joysticked bear claws for Xbox 360-playing bros, games went soft. Unless the game was just sadistic, the precision of having tons of trigger buttons (for hairpin reactions to enemies) and analog sticks would let you just grind through until you finally cleared the area/completed the task. Elaborate save systems gave each game its own de facto save state/cheat mechanism (a la an emulator), but in a way, all these software changes were a result of fundamental hardware changes.
It’s odd then, that it’s taken this long for a mobile game to reprise the truly rage-inducing difficulty of the early home console era. After all, nothing could be more seemingly primitive than having no buttons at all – just a touchscreen. But rather than force you to do tons of difficult tasks with just your free hand (something akin to Ryu Hayabusa’s wall jumps), mobile games have been content to let you fling birds or clear away saccharine sweets.
Flappy Bird is a revelation is in this respect. It makes you jump, so often in vain, to clear lots of pipe pairs. There’s nothing to the control scheme other than tapping anywhere to jump, and letting go to fall at a surprisingly rapid rate. And yet the control scheme, like the ones in those old NES/SNES games, is clearly struggling to keep up with what the game needs you to do.
The arcade effect
Flappy Bird is a lot like an arcade game, and not just because of its side-scrolling Gradius-like action and old school graphics. Arcade games were understandably hard as hell – how else could they get you to keep spending quarters? – and their legacy exacerbated the insane difficulty of early console titles such as Ninja Gaiden. Flappy Bird is like something from 1989.
The only thing that makes it seem like it came from 2014 instead is the presence of an ad network. It’s a free game, but has to make money somehow – mercifully from ads, then, and not increasingly annoying in-app purchases.
There’s been a bit of debate about the effect of IAP on games recently, with some saying it’s destroying the industry and others quipping that arcades were the original IAP and kids these days don’t appreciate that. I think the latter article misses the point by focusing too much on economics rather than quality of gameplay (plus it trots out the old falsehood that Nintendo requires brick-and-mortar offices for indie developers).
Moreover, many arcade titles gave great value for only a small upfront investment, and their successors such as Flappy Bird let you skate by with only handing over your details to an ad network. Today’s IAP games will barely let you breathe without nagging you to buy more donuts, gems, or gold.
Fortunately, gaming is still a young industry, and with more consoles likely on the way from Amazon and Apple, business models are sure to change. I just hope it’s more like Flappy Bird – both in gameplay and economics – than Clash of Clans.