Birb Friends Series: Thinking With Portals

A new video article series on Valve’s Portal is coming to Birb Friends!

Thinking With Portals
(Image credit to Valve Corporation, retrieved from’s Portal Press Kit)

      Hello Birbies! I know it’s been a long time, but new content is coming very very soon! I’m proud to announce a game design analysis series on Valve’s monumentally successful Half-Life spinoff, Portal! I’ll be taking a look at all aspects of Portal, from GlaDOS’s quips and the visual design to the implications of the portal gun itself, in Birb Friends’ first ever video article series: Thinking With Portals. Each chamber will have its own dedicated article so we can delve as deep as possible into the choices that make up the game and its design. While this will be a look at the original Portal game in isolation, assuming the player jumped in without playing the other games included in the Orange Box, which was a video game compilation box including some of Valve’s best titles like Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, there’s still much to be gleaned from its design both as a literary work and as a monument of game design. So stay tuned for more information in the coming week if you’d like to start Thinking With Portals!

Steam Sale Snatches!

It’s hard to escape the rush of the Steam Summer Sale. Every year thousands of gamers spend their hard earned cash on digital downloads in the hopes that they’ll find some diamonds in Steam’s mountains of rough. With only $8.00 in my hands, I may have found some hidden gems, but these games are only what you make of them. Enjoy!

Best of Show – FTL: Faster Than Light
  • Sale Price: $2.49
  • Current Price: $9.99

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. It’s not just borderline criminal that I’ve slept on this game for five years, it’s an intergalactically recorded hate crime that warrants an entire rebel fleet on my tail in the most faithfully science fiction and brilliantly realized Rogue-ish game on the market. In Faster Than Light, you’re the captain and crew of the Kestrel, or the Torus, or whatever spacecraft you desire as you flee the Rebel fleet with valuable information for the Federation. It’s like playing as the Tantive IV, if Darth Vader was a series of drones, invaders, and hull fires, and Leia Organa was a Starfleet captain. Filled with classic sci-fi set pieces like derelict spaceships brimming with fungus, distress signals from failing space stations, many other lifeforms including mantis and robotic peoples, and more, FTL is a science fiction experience unrivaled even by the likes of No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. Although minimal on the graphics side of the things, Faster Than Light delivers on great space adventures in a way no other game I’ve played has. If you haven’t heard of this game already, you must be living in the Outer Rim, and at $2.49 it was well worth the purchase price.

Underexposed Nostalgia Trip – Powernaut VANGARDT

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  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $1.99

I managed to find Alex Hall’s little ode to the Gameboy era of punishing platformers while scrolling through the lowest priced games in the Steam Summer Sale. Powernaut VANGARDT takes design, narrative, and visual elements from games as successful as Metroid, Mega Man, and Dark Souls and repackages them into an inconspicuous bundle of raw nostalgia. Spiky enemies, doors to each room, and spaceship bases should immediately remind players of Metroid, but the “lemon” and charged attacks coupled with the difficulty scream Mega Man to me. That’s not to mention the Dark Souls cloned DNA system (with DNA instead of Souls and home ships instead of bonfires) that allows the player to customize their abilities a bit for the road ahead and also helps them make sense of the open world the game is set in. From inputting game save passwords without the help of the keyboard, to nail biting but entirely fair platforming segments that made me die time and again, Powernaut VANGARDT took me many years back to playing Gameboy in my grandmother’s basement. The excited drive that leads to thumbing through cheat booklets for password codes and failing despite their aid rushed back, and I played Powernaut VANGARDT for hours until I beat it’s first boss: a big ol’ spider. P. S. Bring a can of Raid to Skaridurk Woods; you’ll need it.

Arcade Diversion – Handsome Mr. Frog
(Image credit to Cowboy Color, retrieved by Birb Friends via nVidia GeForce Experience capture)


  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $0.99

Handsome Mr. Frog was another bargain bin catch. It’s a Mario Bros. style arcade platformer with a Yoshi/Kirby gulp and spit mechanic that plays quite well with the jumping. To defeat the enemies you can pick up crates or other enemies and spit them towards each other, but the level design is underwhelming and at some points seems downright lazy. Regardless, there’s something undeniably charming about that handsome frog. You can collect hats along the way and there are little items that boost your score (there is a competitive leaderboard) but that’s about all. Handsome Mr. Frog was a cute and enjoyable diversion worth the $0.49 I paid for it, but I don’t think its revolutionary. In fact, most of the games on this list are derivative instead of inventive…

Platforming Meets Lateral Thinking – Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers
  • Sale Price: $0.99
  • Current Price: $9.99

Now this is inventive! Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers has a ridiculous Adventure Time-esque premise with a post-apocalyptic setting and a young inventor searching for his grandfather’s pants. The fun cartoon style doesn’t help the resemblance to Adventure Time and even the handheld gaming simulations felt a little too Beemo to me. Beyond that, the addition of a laser cutting tool to help you make platforms, a rope to pull them, and a rocket to push them means incredible physics/platforming challenges can await! I haven’t played much of the game just yet, but from what I’ve seen it’s at least worth the money I paid and maybe even the standard price! If you love 3D platformers, Adventure Time humor, and you’re looking for a new IP, this might be your game.

Walking Simulators, Now In 2D! – Beeswing
  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $4.99

Beeswing is a walking simulator set in the game designer’s rural home town in Scotland. The whole game is drawn on paper with what appears to be marker that, set against an often foreboding soundtrack, gives the game an uneasy atmosphere. I’ve played about 30 minutes of Beeswing and I still don’t know what to make of it. The conversations that take place in game are more revealing and psychologically angled than most other games which gives them a sort of depth uncommon, or perhaps more often unnoticed, in everyday talk. Walk around the place, read some flavor text, and solve some of the townspeople’s problems. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do! It’s a coming home story not too unlike Night in the Woods, and there’s definitely something to enjoy here for the right people.

What did you think of my finds? What did you buy this Steam Summer Sale? Let me know in the comments below! See you next time, Birbies!

Down The Donut Hole

Arcane Kids Banner
Garbled, interesting, and glitchy in aesthetic, the Arcane Kids’ site has quite the background image. (Image credit to Arcane Kids, retrieved from their official site)

Arcane Kids is an award winning internet gang based in LA… or at least that’s what it says on their website. I’ve been following the gang ever since I stumbled upon a little known and wildly eccentric musical artist who goes by the name bo en. Bo en, known by birth and in the video game composition world as Calum Bowen, released an album entitled Pale Machine through Maltine Records in September of 2013. With an awkward and laughable style that mixed elements of classical composition, trap beats, MIDI sound bytes, sampled video game effects, and heartfelt albeit inexperienced vocals, Pale Machine made me smile and come back to its oddball tracklist time and time again. When I discovered that bo en had commissioned the creation of music video games for his album, I was elated, not the least bit surprised, and ready to play!

You can visit bo en’s official site and play through all of the games expertly crafted for his debut album by clicking on the following links: (intro , miss you , be okay , every day , friend , winter valentine , pale machine , my time). [Sadly, I can’t seem to find “winter valentine’s” game, so if you click its link you’ll be taken right to the music.] Although the whale riding excitement of “my time’s” little game was my favorite experience of the bunch, I mean it is a rather enjoyable song, “pale machine’s” surreal, fully fledged, and painstakingly polished entry drew my attention the most. The creator of that game and the current developer of a new game entitled Donut County is the talented and humbled Ben Esposito (otherwise known for his hilariously absurd Tweets as @torahhorse).

Ben Esposito has been involved in the production of many indie games. Currently, he is working as part of the Giant Sparrow game development company. These folks were responsible for the mechanically intriguing The Unfinished Swan, on which Esposito contributed level design, and are now working on an narrative game filled with deadly vignettes of remembrance entitled What Remains of Edith Finch (set to release in spring of 2017) on which Esposito contributed prototyping and game design consultation. Individually, Esposito is a part of Arcane Kids and helped bring to life many of their most renowned titles. Without the Torah Horse, Room of 1000 Snakes, Bubsy 3D Revisited, Sonic Dreams Collection, CRAP! No One Loves Me, and Perfect Stride (when they finish it) wouldn’t have ever existed! Ben isn’t the only Arcane Kid though.

Tom Astle - my children are beautiful
my children are beautiful – Tom Astle (@thomasastle) January 19, 2017

My introduction to Arcane Kid Tom Astle was a bunch of glitchy, cartoonish, floppy doggos, and I think that’s how it was meant to be. Tattletail, the survival horror escapade about Furby-esque monstrosities and flashlight batteries, was Tom Astle’s introduction for the majority of the internet. A collaboration between Tom Astle, Ben Esposito, and Geneva Hodgson, Tattletail’s cute-turned-uncanny-valley style captivated YouTube audiences and thrust it into a reigning position in public likability on Steam. Comparisons to Five Nights at Freddy’s, however tenuous, bolstered Tattletail’s reputation and fan art is pouring in. Despite all this, I’m far more interested in Tom’s other pet project, Wobbledogs: a virtual pet game of dog breeding, vacuum tubes, and quirky animal behavior.

According to Astle, and thoroughly detailed on his Twitter and YouTube development logs, the dogs of Wobbledogs will be incredibly varied. Inbreeding to achieve drastic results, such as dogs as tall as giraffes, could have unexpected consequences. A dog that’s too tall might not be able to reach its food forcing the player to personally care for the animal. That being said, Astle encourages players to create the dogs of their dreams and chase interesting aesthetics like a dog would chase its tail. This is exactly what creators like bo en, Ben Esposito, Tom Astle, and all the Arcane Kids are doing for games! From music video games and walking simulators to virtual pet simulations, independent development is taking off with or without the consumer. What will you find down the donut hole?

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 Impression: Ratchet and Clank (PS4)

Ratchet and Clank (2016) is the bright and shiny reboot/remake of a PS2 classic. Despite never having played the original, one thing I noticed immediately after booting up the game was how stunning and true to the original character designs the game was. Everything looks spectacular in Ratchet and Clank, but I use that particular adjective with purpose. At least in the first few hours I’ve played, there is a lack of exploration and depth to gameplay. That’s not to say that the game is easy by any means, on the normal setting it’s a fair difficulty for a game of its style, but it does mean the game is rather bland. Every beautiful structure lining your linear path and interesting rock pile growing into the cliff is stagnant and useless. In the first 30 minutes, I found myself floundering against invisible walls in futile attempts to explore the lush environments I’d been placed in. Eventually, you get used to those restrictions and start to understand the game’s connection to its sister movie.

Ratchet & Clank™_20161203184512
Ratchet and Clank standing on the surface of Novalis. (Image credit to Birb Friends, captured with PlayStation Share)

I’d strongly suggest playing the original Ratchet and Clank games before starting this one just so you have an idea about all of the references that are constantly flying over my head. Fan service seems to be the name of the game, and that’s alright if you are a fan. I however, was left dead in the water by many of the gags used in the game and generally felt a bit unsettled by its writing. Even with spot-on performances from the voice cast, each line of dialogue made the lump in my throat grow a little larger. Describing exactly why I couldn’t jive with the game is a hard task. Was it the strong dissonance between its anti-corporate, peaceful, and environmentalist message and its weaponized, money flinging gameplay? Was it the stereotypical portrayal of every archetype known to man? Was it the constant, redundant quipping of Captain Qwark’s storytelling? Definitely a culmination of all of those things and more. Despite all those criticisms, there were genuine laughs to be had with Ratchet and Clank. My favorite so far is a throwaway line from a radio talk show about awful comment sections.

The music in Ratchet and Clank is necessarily stunning to hold up the weight of the off kilter story and dialogue. It’s strong display is sadly overshadowed by visual elements and thankfully overshadowed by gameplay elements. Smooth and fast action sequences dominate Ratchet and Clank, and it’s a good thing they do. All the controls move everyone’s favorite Lombax like a dream, and the camera angles will almost always have you drooling. Occasionally I’d set my camera looking too far down so that I was hurt by approaching enemies, but that was a personal mistake and easily rectified. There seem to be a variety of equally viable gameplay styles which is appreciated, but seems unimportant to overall enjoyment of the game. Perhaps selecting a strategy becomes important later in the game. The only issue I’ve had with gameplay so far is the slow paced, and far easier, ship flying segment that was shoehorned in early on and the general staleness of the whole package. Nothing miraculous, innovative, and interesting happens with Ratchet and Clank gameplay, but at this point that’s what I expected from a AAA title.

Ratchet & Clank™_20161203182004
Aridia is crawling with sandsharks and surfer dudes. (Image credit to J. J. Abr… I mean Birb Friends, captured with PlayStation Share)

Overall, my first impressions of Ratchet and Clank are relatively positive ones. This is a standard action platformer with some 3rd person shooting and stand out graphics. The humor is hit and miss, the characters are forgettable, but the character design and voice acting is top notch. If you can get Ratchet and Clank at $12 or less, I’d recommend it based on my short stay. Just turn the voice volume off, or be prepared to cringe. You’re in for the same old ride.

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 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.


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.

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.