Birb Friends Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the sixth 3D installment of Nintendo‘s beloved Legend of Zelda franchise and a follow up to 2011’s Skyward Sword. Releasing on the Wii U and Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, Breath of the Wild sparked the same kind of joyous fervor that every new Zelda game musters. Heralded as a return to the “open air” design sensibilities of the original Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild is an open world adventure game with environmental puzzle solving elements. Contrasting with its most recent predecessor, Breath of the Wild is almost entirely free of linearity, giving the player the freedom to approach problems however they want. That being said, the story and meaning behind the game seems ambiguous and empty because of it.

To detail my experiences with Breath of the Wild, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Logo
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Zelda site)
Technical Proficiency: 83/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 89.25/100

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • Style Score: 87/100
  • Animation Score: 90/100
  • Purpose Score : 90/100

Breath of the Wild’s visual style is very reminiscent of Skyward Sword albeit cel shaded and less saturated this time around. Low color saturation coupled with very basic textures and high quality lighting effects causes many areas and materials to appear claylike in game. This is far from a bad thing however, and sets the tone for many of the playful and creative interactions to come. Beyond that, Zelda’s style is faithful to the previous installments with intricate gothic designs flooding the Zora Domain with cool colors, mysterious yet utterly human adobe structures rising from the Gerudo’s sands, primitive and searing stacks of stone radiating beneath the Gorons on Death Mountain, and towering wooden huts spiraling up rock spires for the Rito. Even beyond the four races, each linked to an aspect of Hyrule through both their divine beast and specific stature (water, earth, fire, air), there are many beautiful Hyrulean vistas inspired by real life locales. Marshes, forests, snow capped mountains, plateaus, and more exist in this game. Filled with stunning lighting and particle effects that could only live in a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild receives a 87/100 for visual style.

From leaping Lizalfos to slumping Hinoxes, galloping horses to flying herons, every animation in Breath of the Wild shows an incredible attention to detail that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Many open world experiences of its magnitude have countless animation bugs and glitches but during my playthrough, I not only failed to encounter a single one but also spent far more time watching animations than I ordinarily would have. Guardians in particular entranced me with their multiple legs moving in unison and flailing as they burst in blue flames. Nothing in Breath of the Wild feels stiff or lifeless, and for that it receives a 90/100 in the animation category.

There was never a time while playing Breath of the Wild that I felt the game hadn’t told me what was about to happen. From enemies reeling back to swing, shoot, and lob, to lines of electric energy on the ground, everything the player needs to know is visually related to them. Each collectable item even has a helpful sparkle small enough not to cause frustration but visible enough to help you find every bit of loot at your disposal. Map pins and markers are also available to give extra clarity to the location of places seen easily from a height but impossibly on the ground level. Leaves, cracked rock, the classic red barrels, and lustrous metal clues the player into the options they have when approaching any given situation. For this, Breath of the Wild receives a 90/100 in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 79.33/100

  • Music Score: 79/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 90/100

After the fully orchestrated soundtrack of Skyward Sword, fans of the Legend of Zelda’s memorable and soaring themes might find themselves disappointed with Breath of the Wild’s mostly minimal piano riffs and entirely synth based soundtrack. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild’s music is full of memorable themes such as the swelling and anticipatory main theme, the frantic brass piercings of the Hinox battle theme, and the ponderous and heavy movement of the Talus battle theme. Despite this, Breath of the Wild’s musical strength comes from its sensitivity to the player’s actions. If Link is trying to keep quiet, the music will die down to add tension to the moment. If Link is approaching battle, the music will shift to a thematically appropriate theme for that enemy. Because of Breath of the Wild’s lackluster music (in comparison to previous Zelda titles), it receives a 79/100 in the music category.

Similar to the quality of animation in Breath of the Wild, sound effects abound with such a high attention to detail that I’ve yet to play a game that rivals them. From horses panting and clopping with each clop ringing in your ears at the exact moment a hoof strikes Hyrule, to shattering weapons and ticking guardian lasers, every sound effect you hear lets you know about your surroundings. Breath of the Wild develops a world so realized that each animal has a specific set of sounds as the leaves rustle and fall from the trees. Ambient and gameplay sounds are only one half of the equation though, and the voice acting is monstrous. It seems that a mostly talented voice cast working with less than direct translations received sub-par directing for their lines. Misplaced emphasis, awkward tone qualities, and much more could have been eliminated from the performance with a simple request for another take with different directions. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

In terms of variety in sound, Breath of the Wild is on very stable footing. Short piano riffs coupled with swelling brass movements and airy flute melodies meant that newer digital styles and older traditional Japanese styles could exist side by side. Most tracks present a different theme, from pentatonic desert meanderings for the Gerudo, to ethereal and soothing piano pieces for the Zora, soundtrack variety was not relinquished from the Zelda formula this time around. Coupled with the wide variety of sound effects for any occasion, Breath of the Wild earns a variety score of 90/100.

Overall Controls Score: 80/100

Guardian Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Controller Score: 80/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 68/100

Breath of the Wild is playable with a Wii U Pro controller or the Wii U Gamepad but the Gamepad is required for some gyroscopic gameplay sections within shrines. This fact coupled with the frustration of an odd control scheme and no remapping options gave Breath of the Wild a bit of a learning curve and a pressure for the player to play on the Gamepad exclusively. I played on the Wii U Pro controller for the majority of my game, but I would suggest the Wii U Gamepad if gyroscopic aiming seems beneficial to you and you don’t want to have to switch controllers during play. Despite that, the Wii U Pro controller worked flawlessly after the initial learning curve. Breath of the Wild receives an 80/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Breath of the Wild, though this may differ if you intend to play on the Nintendo Switch with the Joy Cons disconnected from the system. Dodging, firing arrows, jump attacking, and much more all felt smooth in my playthrough. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

Breath of the Wild’s menus are odd to say the least. While most menus use a bumper systems to move between tabs, Breath of the Wild opts to force you through each page within a tab to get to the selection you want. Another frustration with Breath of the Wild’s controllers is the lack of a drop weapon button (this is particularly true for shields and bows, as melee weapons can be thrown), which forces you through the menu any time you want to pick up a new item. Receiving the notice that your inventory is full from a chest and not being given an immediate option to drop items is flabbergasting in this day and age. Another qualm with Breath of the Wild’s functionality comes from its wavering frame rates which drop for unknown reasons in many of the early areas and stutter when fighting Moblins or lighting large fires. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 68/100 in the functionality category.

Promotional Artwork Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
Artistic Proficiency: 74/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 89.67/100

Lizalfos Concept Art - Breath of the Wild
Lizalfos are one of the most common enemies in Hyrule. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Agency Score: 84/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 96/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Breath of the Wild is a game largely about exploration, but that does not necessarily mean it has a lot of choice within it, or that it gives the player agency within its parameters. In this case, the journey is far more important than the destination as “all roads lead to Rome” which for Link is the final boss, Calamity Ganon, inside Hyrule Castle. To take on the many enemies now patrolling Hyrule, Link has a variety of damaging abilities to choose from, but some, such as bombs, quickly become obsolete when enemies have higher resistances in harder areas. Collecting and seeking out the many ingredients that grow in Hyrule allows the player to explore cooking and create dishes and potions to further customize their playstyle. Player agency is at its greatest in the many shrine puzzles that line the landscape and in the four divine beasts that serve as Breath of the Wild’s main dungeons. There the player can think laterally to solve puzzles in ways the designers may not have intended, and are encouraged to do so. Sadly, the most interesting story in Breath of the Wild took place before the events of the game, so the player has little agency or interaction with it. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 84/100 in the agency category.

Breath of the Wild holds within it many separate gameplay loops that can be undertaken at any time during play. The first is the exploratory loop: find the map revealing tower, reveal a region of the map, use the Sheikah Slate sensor to find shrines in the area, find a new map revealing tower, repeat. The second is the main storyline loop: find a city belonging to one of four major races (Rito, Zora, Goron, Gerudo), complete a preliminary quest in which you are introduced to the new champion of that race, go to the divine beast, activate all the terminals in the divine beast by solving puzzles using its unique movement mechanic. There are other loops as well, such as the Great Fairy clothing upgrade loop, the cooking loop, the breakable weapons loop, et cetera, but these two are the most important. The shear scope of these intertwining loops gives Breath of the Wild an inviting, constantly changing, and rewarding gameplay cycle full of reflex/timing driven interactions and thoughtful but intuitive stat assignment. For this Breath of the Wild receives a 96/100 in the core gameplay loop category.

Games typically consist of one central gameplay theme or dabble slightly in many. Breath of the Wild is a perfect balance between those two styles. While it has fully formed puzzles as clearly presented and thoughtfully designed as (but more free than, in terms of possible solutions) those in Valve’s Portal series, it also contains rigorous combat against 18 unique enemy types complete with dodge, parry, knockback, freeze, shock, and burn mechanics that will keep the player on their toes. This is not to mention the horseback riding, gliding, climbing, and much more. Coupled with side quests of all shapes and sizes, from finding the hiding places of the forest Koroks, to recruiting people of all kinds to join together in a new village, Breath of the Wild offers a lot of variety to work with. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 58/100

Champions Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
The former champions of Hyrule stand ready. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Characters Score: 60/100
  • Plot Score: 50/100
  • Coherency Score: 64/100

The characters of Breath of the Wild are archetypal at best and never develop past that base level of nuance. The four previous champions, Revali the Rito, Daruk the Goron, Mipha the Zora, and Urbosa the Gerudo, are all the simple archetype of their race; in the previous order, each Champion’s primary trait would be arrogant (skillful), worried (diligent), selfless (compassionate), and controlling (vengeful). We seldom interact with them and all the meaningful interaction Link has with these characters takes place before the events of the game and out of our control. I would like to say that the defeat of each character at the hands of Calamity Ganon was due to the deficiencies of their archetypes but we are never presented with the events surrounding their demises. As for Link and Zelda, Zelda feels she is incompetent in her destined mode and so seeks her own way to contribute, eventually realizing the constraints she must work within to succeed. Link, alternatively, worked within his constraints and so is the true hero of the story, albeit a mute and blank one. Despite this each have interesting visual designs and many homages to previous games raising the character score to a 60/100.

Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that has seen Ganon rule in a pure calamitous form for 100 years. The Great Calamity, the event in which Ganon rested control of the many mechanical Guardians and the four divine beasts that were meant to defend against him, took the life of Hyrule’s King, the four Champions, and nearly took the life of Link who was put to sleep in a resurrection shrine until he could fight again. Now that he has awakened, Link must complete the shrines dotting the landscapes to increase his power, free the four divine beasts from Ganon, and recover his memories before putting an end to Ganon in a final confrontation. Link’s memories run the pre-Calamity storyline in which the Champions, Zelda, and Link prepare for the return of Ganon. Zelda struggles with envy at Link’s acceptance of his destiny until she gains her own power through protecting Link. I could break down the symbolism behind both storylines but each is a form of the hero’s journey most would be familiar with, either from old heroic tales and myths, or the religions of many cultures. No particularly nuanced or creative statement is made with the story so Breath of the Wild receives a 50/100 for its formulaic offering.

Sadly, there is a major disconnect between the story of the game and the story of Zelda’s memories. Not to say this wasn’t purposeful, but I personally would have preferred if the pre-Calamity storyline took place within a linear progression so that we could see more character progression within the champions and get to know them personally. Then whenever we are truly alone in the open world environment of the game, the feeling of freedom can be a frantic and crushing experience as well as an empowering one. That change, coupled with a less successful Calamity age Hyrule would have greatly improved the game as a coherent product. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild is slightly above par what most would expect in terms of polish and understanding of itself and for that it receives a 64/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild Wii U product page)

Despite a less than perfect storyline, lackluster music given the series’ fame, and some UI and frame rate issues, Breath of the Wild stands out on the merit of its gameplay systems  and attention to detail alone. With gorgeous visuals and sound effects, each romp in Hyrule’s vistas will be a spectacle to behold and lead the player to something new. In the future, I hope that Zelda stories can take on the mechanical and narrative complexities they’ve held in the past while retaining the benefit of the open ended design used in both Breath of the Wild and the original Legend of Zelda. For $60, Breath of the Wild may not be the best game on the market, but at $40 or less it’s a great adventure that puts the player in the role of the Hero of Hyrule as they grow in power to a satisfying end. Open your eyes… adventure awaits.


78/100 – Great!

Add Naseum

After a few hours of playing Undertale and Shovel Knight with my friend Noah, something interesting came up in conversation. “Have Nintendo taken longer to release games recently?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to respond with the information I had, so I made a series of hypotheses. The first and most obvious thought was that yes; if you feel they have slowed down then Occam’s Razor trims our assumptions down to that feeling when no other evidence is present. The second and less obvious solution was that Nintendo have only slowed down their game releases in comparison to the rest of the industry which, through recycled game engines and assets, moves at a breakneck speed. In order to put these theories to the test, I created a spreadsheet that shows all North American release dates within the Legend of Zelda and platforming Mario series in chronological order. If you would like to view this spreadsheet it’s been made available here. A number of intriguing thoughts emerge from these release statistics.

Most prominently, Nintendo has NOT slowed its development of new Mario games and in fact has only increased the pace of its releases since 2005, which marks the beginning of my data for the “modern” Nintendo era. In fact, with staggered releases between consoles and handhelds, Nintendo have released Mario games within 3 to 9 months of each other relatively consistently. Despite their tendency to lag behind other companies in terms of hardware capabilities, Nintendo have picked up the oldest adages in corporate business, “If it ain’t broke, keep selling it.” and more importantly, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” My conservative and outlier free estimates place the increase of pace at about 6 months faster while those estimates that include the outliers place it at a staggering 10 months faster! Either way, there’s more of Mario to go around these days, which may not sound as great to Princess Peach as it does to Nintendo’s core audience. An audience, I might add, who were even happy to purchase what could easily pass as a development tool being used by Nintendo to craft the games they were already buying. The Legend of Zelda game releases are quite a bit different.

Super Mario Maker
To play or to make, that is the question. (Image credit to Nintendo’s official Mario home page)

It’s not surprising that entries into a crafted, artistic series like the Legend of Zelda take longer to make than Mario’s platforming escapades, but how long is too long? The Legend of Zelda poses a problem to this particular analysis because of the exclusion of the Phillips CD-i releases. These exclusions seem to be the cause of anomalously elongated release waits of up to 65 months! Including these outliers, it would appear that the Legend of Zelda games have seen marginally faster releases, only by about 2 months, in the modern era. Without these outliers, the metric I choose to utilize for the sake of this analysis, modern Zelda releases have slowed down by an enormous factor of 6 months. The results in terms of speed are arguable, but either way they fail to support a hypothesis of consistent stagnation in Nintendo releases. The anomalies in the Legend of Zelda series are of much more interest to me.

Both lags in release marked the first Zelda game on a new console and a brand new direction for the series as a whole. A Link to the Past was released on November 21, 1991 and featured a much more centralized story, an alternate world, and many other mainstays in the franchise. It is widely regarded as the best of the 2D Zelda games and perhaps the best game in the series as a whole. The second lagging release, and the longest wait for Zelda game to ever take place, happened before the first groundbreaking 3D Zelda title: Ocarina of Time. Both games released after considerable Zelda dry spells, on the same day, and to thunderous critical and commercial applause. While I’m not suggesting these two games aren’t the masterpieces many claim them to be, it might be wise to consider the environment, marketing, social condition, and fan base at the time of release. Perhaps those dry spells allowed these particular titles to flourish, or perhaps the extra development time truly did go a long way. Either way, Nintendo is still profiting off of titles like these today, and I personally find it doubtful that their newer, swiftly developed Mario titles with discover the same nostalgic power in their own old age.

Ocarina of Time Logo
Widely acclaimed as one of the best Zelda games, and games, of all time! (Image credit to IGN’s board discussion of Ocarina of Time VS A Link to the Past)

What do you think? Is a quicker development pace good for the industry and gamers alike or do the best titles require careful, lengthy, and deliberate planning? Do you enjoy getting hyped for a far off game release, or would you rather have the fun within your reach pronto? Let us know in the comments below!

First Look: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild (Wii U, Switch)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been in development since 2013 and was, for many, the deciding factor in purchasing a Wii U. Its release on March 3, 2017, will mark the end of Nintendo game releases for the Wii U and the beginning of the Switch’s lifespan as Nintendo’s flagship console. Marketed as a return to the design sensibilities of the original Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild is a new, enormous, and voice acted adventure in the Legend of Zelda universe. Ganon returns as the looming and spiritual darkness known as Calamity Ganon, and Zelda appears to reprise the powerful and central role she’s taken in the series along with characters of many familiar races such as the Zora and the Gorons.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time catapulted the series into the third dimension, Zelda games have taken the same basic form. The player progresses through a mostly linear story with cleverly designed dungeons full of puzzles and enemies of every sort. Through this progression, side quests make themselves apparent, occasionally but rarely venturing beyond simple fetching mechanics or time consuming minigames. Some 3D Zelda games, such as The Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask, offered a different approach to this basic formula but did little to truly revolutionize it, falling back to old design strategies when the bulk of the game reared its head. Breath of the Wild is clearly different than the 3D Zelda games of the past in terms of philosophy and design.

Even in name, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild breaks tradition and forges a new path for the series. Instead of being named for an item or character like every other 3D Zelda game, Breath of the Wild lets you know it’s something different before you even open the box. For years Nintendo has commercially cultivated simple yet careful reconstructions of their classic designs, but now they’re ready to give us a taste of something new, a breath of fresh air. The many innovations we’ve seen so far in Breath of the Wild’s press releases include intelligent horses, a wide open world design, upgradable and exchangeable equipment, environmental hazards, a fully realized physics engine, crafting/cooking elements, and the Sheikah slate.

“Real horses don’t run into trees very often” was the phrase Eiji Aonuma, the producer of many Zelda titles including The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, used to help those present at the 2014 Game Awards understand how horse riding would work in the upcoming Zelda title. In Breath of the Wild, horses serve as a much faster way to traverse the enormous landscape, and the intelligently automated animals should make going from place to place and participating in horseback combat far less cumbersome than in previous titles. Another difference between Breath of the Wild and other Zelda games is that you can tame and ride a variety of horse of varying strengths, not just Link’s trusty Epona. From recent footage, it appears that five horses at a time can be assigned and called to Link through stables that double as inns and are spread throughout Hyrule. There has been no word as to whether the true Epona is available in the game, but all the horses we’ve seen so far can be named and Epona is more than a worthy title for your equestrian comrade.

The world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is said to be twelve times larger than than the map of Twilight Princess. This isn’t an incredible feat, Twilight Princess has a corridor-like map that it would be criminal to call expansive, but it does bode well for an open world experience. Climbing mountains, exploring caves, crossing bodies of water on rafts, riding through open fields, and hunting in dense forests are all possible in Breath of the Wild. According to Eiji Aonuma, this exploratory design isn’t simply smoke and mirrors; players are free to attempt the final boss of the game right from the beginning! The ability to play however you want to is definitely a fine addition to this Zelda title and a freeing addition at that.

Link is normally constrained to a few choice weapons, spells, and tunics, but The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows Link to pick up the weapons of fallen enemies, similar to the mechanic present in the Wind Waker, and keep them for his own. This also means that weapons deteriorate, or at least ordinary weapons do because the most recent Breath of the Wild trailer revealed the resting place of the Master Sword. As for armors, we’ve seen a variety of different ensembles for Link to wear such as a full suit of armor, his blue tunic, and a chill resistant tunic.

The Sheikah Slate is set to replace Link’s traditional spells with runes that bestow different powers. The runes that have been revealed to us so far are magnesis, which allows Link to move metal objects with a magnetic power, remote bombs, which do exactly what they sound like they do, stasis, which freezes an object in time, and cryonis, which creates ice pilars. All of these runes are significantly less restricted than the magic in previous Zelda titles. This should allow the player to customize Link to their personal preferences as they explore Hyrule.

The environment of Hyrule is full of nourishing ingredients that Link can combine into helpful foods at certain campfires. These foods replenish just about anything when used through the inventory menu. Some can even help you withstand the cold and hot regions of the map Link has trouble surviving in without a certain set of clothes for protection. Other crafting and upgrading elements haven’t been confirmed although they might be in the game. One thing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does include is a bonafide physics engine that lets baddies and Link alike flip, flop, and fall. Environmental puzzles involving pushable boulders, flaming grass, the classic exploding barrels, and rolling bombs are all also present in the game.

With all of the new additions to the Zelda franchise it’s important for fans to voice their opinions on the changes and what they want to see in the future. What do you think? Is there something you want to see in this Zelda that hasn’t been revealed yet? Will you attempt the final boss available for battle right at the beginning? Is voice acting the right decision for a Zelda game? Will you miss the linear designs of the past or are you eager to jump into Nintendo’s new Western gaming inspired masterpiece? Let us know in the comments below!

Birb Friends Review: Shovel Knight (Wii U)

[EDIT: Shovel Knight is being transformed into a collection of three games and now includes multiplayer on multiple platforms with no amiibo requirement! Anyone who buys the base game before the shift will get all the new content AND avoid a price markup so it might be in a Mega Man fan’s best interest to jump on the yacht RIGHT NOW! For more info, visit the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove Q&A.]

Shovel Knight is a retro-styled action platformer by Yacht Club Games for nearly all modern systems. It was released for sale in late June of 2014 and immediately made a name for itself. At a time when game development has been repeatedly pushed into the most marketable and profitable forms, such as pay-to-win mobile games and $60 AAA titles with less depth than a budget kiddie pool, Shovel Knight glistened like a diamond in the rough. Launching development from a Kickstarter fund, the game promised to hearken back to the simpler times of classic design structures and audiovisual restriction. From my experiences, it more than delivered on those promises. Shovel Knight gives fans of Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, DuckTales, Castlevania, and many more classic titles a new take on cherished formulas and an entertaining experience in its own right.

To detail my experiences with Shovel Knight, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and the numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

shovel_knight_1016x302
Shovel Knight box art featuring Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter as well as Shovel Knight himself. (Image credit to Yacht Club Games, retrieved from their press kit for Shovel Knight)
Technical Proficiency: 83/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 73.75/100

  • Style Score: 80/100
  • Animation Score: 65/100
  • Purpose Score: 75/100

Shovel Knight uses a wide color palette with plenty of room for experimentation. Its pixel art may hearken back to a bygone era, but the degree of detail and care that went into crafting that art does not go unnoticed. Level upon level of scrolling background art gives depth to any environment and creates a sense of scale to the world Shovel Knight inhabits. Each area adheres to a unique and fun theme whose shape and color evokes memories and emotions fondly associated with times lost long ago. Along with absolutely stunning character design that will ensure you can recognize each boss (also known as the members of the Order of No Quarter), Shovel Knight’s careful theming, fun color play, and depth defying parallax raise its style score far above the average to an 80/100.

Beautiful animation was clearly not an important goal of this project. After all, if you seek to imitate the decades old classics of the NES and SNES era, you carry part of their graphical limitations with you. That being said, every animation in Shovel Knight functions to telegraph information to the player about a given enemy or attack and those specifically given to the bosses of the game add welcome characterization to their design. Beyond that small addition to characterization, Shovel Knight’s animations are only passable giving them an animation score of 65/100.

Visuals also serve the mechanical purpose of telling the player what is solid or immaterial, background or foreground, and enemy or friend. This is the meaning of design clarity and also what is rated as the purpose score. While Shovel Knight uses many tools in its series of levels to inform the player of their surroundings, there are moments in which it fails. Backgrounds and foregrounds that blend together, enemies and characters with variable solidity, and seemingly grounded areas in which Shovel Knight immediately dies are failures in visual purpose and clarity. That being said, there are moments of brilliance in how Shovel Knight relates obstacles to the player and outstanding level design props up poor visual decisions more often than not. That’s why Yacht Club Games’ debut receives a 75/100 in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 78.11/100

  • Music Score: 85/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 74/100
  • Variety Score: 67/100

The soundtrack of Shovel Knight is a beautiful contribution from the well known and talented composer Jake Kaufman, with guest additions by Manami Matsumae of Mega Man fame. Both are experienced in working under the limitations of the Famicon’s sound card and additional VRC6 chip which lends authenticity to the chiptune tracks in the game. Despite its aged quality, the music is intricate, exhilarating, and perfectly matches the required tone of each level of the game. Just as visual style was heightened by adherence to theming, music is lifted to a rating of 85/100.

Anytime a game crafted in a retro style uses audio cues and little sound effects in an attempt to communicate to the player, it can only go one of two ways. The effects can flounder, beating at your ears like a professional pastry chef whisking in an empty bowl; or the effects can soar, enhancing the aural experience beyond just musical fancy. Shovel Knight’s sound effects fall about halfway in between those two experiences. While they cue many happenings effectively and are often a welcome addition to the sound design, there are moments during which you’d almost wish they didn’t exist at all. Shovel Knight’s sound effects are above average in their tact and usefulness to gameplay, but leave something to be desired. For that reason they receive a sound effects score of 74/100.

Variety is the spice of life, and it can help liven up a game’s sound design, too. Sadly, most of Shovel Knight’s tunes suffer under the restrictions of an ancestral age and far too often sound eerily familiar to tunes the player’s already heard in the game. That’s not to say the music is bad, just that its exploration of styles leaves something to be desired for anyone with wide music tastes. Despite that, the fact that each level’s song fits its theme effectively raises the variety score of Shovel Knight to a 67/100.

Overall Controls Score: 96.11/100

Shovel Knight - Moonshot
Shovel Knight posing courageously against the moon and the dark forces that bask in its glow. (Image credit to Yacht Club Games, retrieved from the Shovel Knight press kit)
  • Controller Score: 90/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 95/100

The Wii U version of Shovel Knight has a few version exclusive luxuries such as the inclusion of a multiplayer mode that’s activated by the Shovel Knight amiibo, cooperative challenge levels, and the second screen functionality of the Wii U Gamepad. Using the Wii U Gamepad to play Shovel Knight feels great and works well to swap between relics (special abilities) or to use as the primary screen for a more comfortably portable experience. Of course, the Wii U Gamepad isn’t the only controller supported by the game and because of the game’s retro sensibilities, it doesn’t require analog control sticks, motion sensors, or other nonsense to function. The heft of the Wii U Gamepad, and the awkwardness of a few other control schemes on Nintendo’s platform bring this score a short ways down to 90/100.

Overall, the controls were responsive and held the weight of an older game. Issues with lagging inputs, disconnections, incorrect responses, etc. were never felt in the game. Because the game’s programming put very little strain on the Wii U’s hardware, issues like those were practically nonexistent as far as this playthrough was concerned, so Shovel Knight scores 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

While Shovel Knight controlled like a dream and most gameplay was as fluid and perfect as any action platformer could hope to be, there was one minor gripe to be had with the system Shovel Knight uses to swap out relics. The player should not have to pause in the middle of a difficult level or boss battle to switch to the power they were given to complete the task at hand. A simple trigger cycling could have eliminated this issue but, because the menu pauses the game, it caused little difficulty earning Shovel Knight a 95/100 in functionality of controls.

Shovel Knight - Wide Box Art Banner
The forces of darkness plume around Shovel Knight and his eternal companion Shield Knight. (Image credit to Yacht Club Games, retrieved from the Shovel Knight press kit)
Artistic Proficiency: 83/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 83.33/100

Shovel Knight - Foreboding Skies
Shovel Knight attempts to hop onto a prepared enemy. (Image credit to Yacht Club Games, retrieved from the Shovel Knight press kit)
  • Agency Score: 75/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 92/100
  • Variety Score: 65/100

Shovel Knight gives the player a variety of relics to use in the conquering of each level and that’s where most of the player’s choice and agency lies. Level design is so perfectly formulated that each relic’s use is specifically taught and clued to in every aspect of a level. Effective and steady difficulty curves encourage the player to experiment with lateral solutions to normally linear problems. Even the order of certain levels’ completion can be changed by the player if they so desired. Despite all the freedom and rewarding mechanical choices Shovel Knight gives the player, it holds with its predecessors’ failings of restricting meaningful narrative impact. The inability of the player to affect the story is a large enough failure to drop Shovel Knight’s agency score to a 75/100.

The core gameplay loop of Shovel Knight is as follows: Select a stage, analyze the screen of the stage selected, experiment, learn, conquer, return to the analyze step, and then continue following the previous steps until the stage is completed. There are larger gameplay loops surrounding that core, level-based one, such as the loop of completing levels to unlock more, and there are also small loops of upgrading items, buying relics, and improving Shovel Knight’s health or magic. The secret weapon of Shovel Knight is the feedback of progression given in each step of its core gameplay loop. As the player improves their health bar, circles are added. As the player improves their magic reserve, their numbers go up. As the player hits further checkpoints, they see their progress making it difficult to be discouraged by death. Even the map fills with Shovel Knight’s glorious helm as he frees the land. The experimentation and visible progress that defines Shovel Knight sets it among giants in terms of classical game design which is why it receives a 92/100 in that category.

Shovel Knight hits a perfect stride when it comes to the amount of content in each level, but leaves the player wondering if stages were left out. Not every relic is utilized to its full potential, and some seem to have no real use at all. That, of course, is really no fault of the relics, but a failure in design. There wasn’t enough variety in level structure to merit the use of those relics and some relics seem ridiculously useful and overpowered because of it (I’m looking at you, Phase Locket). For those reasons, Shovel Knight receives a 65/100 for its variety score.

Overall Story Score: 82.67/100

A collection of villians not even you could pay to see… The Order of No Quarter!
  • Characters Score: 80/100
  • Plot Score: 68/100
  • Coherency Score: 100/100

Where Shovel Knight truly shines as a story is in its development and display of characters. Cheesy, cute, odd, and caricatured villains display their varied attitudes in both their design, animation, and mechanics. Plague Knight’s frenetic fear and deadly haphazard assault shine light on the excitable nature of the character underneath. Tinker Knight’s wailing and flailing incompetence tells the story of motivation for his mechanical monstrosities. Memorability and likability are incredibly high for the cast of Shovel Knight, so much so that the silly epilogue that plays after the completion of Shovel Knight’s campaign seems absolutely necessary to the final product. Shield Knight herself is sadly made little more than a reward, which is particularly frustrating given the usefulness and character she possesses when she is allowed an active role in the plot. If only the cast had more screen time so that the player could interact with and learn about them even more, Shovel Knight would receive a perfect score. Sadly, that is not the case so its character score holds steady at 80/100.

Very little of artistic significance happens in Shovel Knight’s plot. There is a companion that needs saving, there is a darkness spread across the land, and only you can stop it and save that companion. Every element of Shovel Knight’s plot has not only been done before, but done to more interesting effect. That is not to say that the story of Shovel Knight doesn’t serve its purpose, it does that phenomenally well, it just doesn’t have much new to say about the world or the way we approach it. To confound things even more, the game rushes past characters and threads that could have been beautiful if truly fleshed out. A few redeeming shifts in narrative, moments of fine interplay between the story and gameplay, and emotionally charged payoffs require me to lift Shovel Knight’s plot score slightly, but only to a 68/100.

As a finished product, Shovel Knight fulfills its complete vision and pulls the whole thing off with aplomb. It looks like a retro game, it plays like a retro game, but most importantly it doesn’t feel like a retro game. Shovel Knight is a new experience crafted on the backs of giants but they hardly feel its weight on their shoulders. If anything, Shovel Knight elevates the notoriety of games like Mega Man and Castlevania to a new, and younger, audience. Showing developers that there has always been a beautiful way to meld stories, characters, and mechanics is something desperately required in the modern gaming industry, and something Shovel Knight does in spades. Shovel Knight always seems to be the game it wants to be and not a speck is out of place, even it there aren’t enough specks to go around. Coherency and tonal continuity is far and away a huge asset to Shovel Knight, giving it a 100/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Shovel Knight - Front of Box Art
(Image credit to Yacht Club Games, retrieved from their Shovel Knight press kit)

Shovel Knight is a brilliant throwback to the classic games of the past, an accomplishment in game design that should be looked to in the future as an example, and a genuinely charming and enjoyable game. There isn’t much artistic power and meaning to Shovel Knight, but the way it weaves what power it has into its gameplay and design showcases just how powerful video games can be when their potential is reached. As video gaming grows as an artistic medium, my sincere hope is that more important stories are told in this fashion and renowned as the accomplishments they are. At the price of $15, Shovel Knight is well worth the money for 2D platformer fans looking to find challenge and design intrigue worthy of your time in the modern age. In fact, it’s full value hasn’t even been realized yet, as three free additional campaigns of content are due to release in the coming years. The first new campaign, Plague of Shadows, is available now as a free update to Shovel Knight and could resolve some of the issues I had with the base game. Regardless, Shovel Knight is still a wonderful experience full of quirky humor, inspired design, and engrossing gameplay.


83/100 – Wonderful!

Ooo! Shovel Knight!

Fascination with Shovel Knight comes from a seemingly bygone age. Nostalgia for the first two generations of consoles’ restrictive innovations spurred the funding and creation of this modern mashup game. A charming pixel art aesthetic, precise controls, and classic platforming sentiments make Shovel Knight a joy to play. From DuckTales-esque hopping on the titular shovel, to activating your phase locket at just the right moment in a boss battle, even the chip tune soundtrack of Shovel Knight seems inspired by previous video games such as Mega Man. Regardless, it’s a fresh experience for fans of older video games and new ones alike.

In structure, Shovel Knight takes influence from more modern, non-linear experiences than the games of old. Despite this, Shovel Knight’s overworld design is nearly analogous to that of Super Mario Bros. 3. Moving from board to board in straight lines, Shovel Knight can enter any number of other Knight’s villainous domains to challenge and defeat them, not unlike the Robot Masters of Mega Man. One of the interesting things about Shovel Knight is that it discards the lives system for a more modern Dark Souls-esque approach. The player is bound to die while navigating the dangerous domains of the Order of No Quarter and often does while experimenting with the novel concepts at play within each screen. When Shovel Knight does take his last breath, a small portion of the gold you’ve acquired in your travels, scaling ever higher as your stash increases, is left behind for you to recover and you are sent back to the closest checkpoint.

468px-21
Shovel Knight prods the miniboss of the first level. (Image credit to IGN from their walkthrough and Yacht Club Games)

When I first played Shovel Knight, I felt the nagging sensation that I had played the game before. This didn’t seem too uncommon a response to the transformative use of elements from a variety of older video games, but it still stuck in my mind. Eventually, I discovered the connection I made was strongly related to its music. Jake “virt” Kaufman is the prolific composer behind both games’ stunning soundtracks. Even beyond that though, Adventure Time: Hey Ice King Why’d You Steal Our Garbage (HIKWYSOG) fits the spirit and style of Shovel Knight.

For those of you unfamiliar with the title, HIKWYSOG plays a lot like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. There is a top down overworld with mild random encounters, a series of dungeons to play through with interesting bosses, (all of which are personalities from Pendleton Ward’s breakout cartoon) and a linear progression with the development of special traversal and combat abilities. I’d strongly suggest fans of both Shovel Knight and Adventure Time try out HIKWYSOG for a well crafted experience of quirky characters and fun retro play. Just like the Bard that collects the music tracks of Shovel Knight’s journey, Finn and Jake’s BMO can recall all the songs you’ve heard in your quest to recover that stolen garbage. My personal favorite track is Party in the Clouds, but the whole OST can be found for free on SoundCloud.