Recently a friend and fellow Mega Man enthusiast encouraged me to check out Shovel Knight because it is awesome. Also because he is aware of my dream to make a retro-inspired video game of my own. The conversation eventually turned to how it is a fine illuminator of technology evolving faster than game design. Here was a game that by and large could have been done on twenty-five year old, possibly older, hardware yet it still felt fresh and unique.
Yes, I am aware that “Shovel Knight” isn’t an NES game so despite the graphics, there are things going on underneath that we can’t see the NES could never do. The Super NES or the Genesis might have been capable though. Other recent retro-inspired titles could also have appeared during the 16-bit era exactly as they appeared today even though they were released on the PS4. I’m talking about “Axiom Verge” and “Xeodrifter.” Both very good games that I highly recommend you check out if you have the appropriate hardware by the way. (Both are available on PC via Steam, while “Xeodrifter” is also available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop and the PS Vita.)
“Axiom Verge” is a healthy chunk of a Metroid-style platforming, shooter-explorer with a unique twist on the stranger in a strange land plot that informs the game’s design. The game’s protagonist is a scientist experimenting on bending spacetime when a disaster transports him across the universe. Eventually you unlock the ability to alter spacetime around you at will; this ability increases in strength as you progress.
“Xeodrifter” on the other hand is a bite-size morsel that takes a few pages from the original “Blaster Master” by offering only four levels that you’ll traverse across for the entire adventure. It’s still vaguely linear but feels less so. As you explore each planet you encounter bosses, many of them looking the same with just minor adjustments in color and ability, also like “Blaster Master.” Each boss possesses a unique upgrade that enhances your ability to explore. This in turn opens up more places to search on each individual planet where health and weapon upgrades can be found. What’s more, in another twist on the “Blaster Master” model, instead of a damage or range upgrade you’re offered the ability to assign them to six different beam types. The player is encouraged to mix and match; to create the perfect beam for any situation and save up to three different loadouts for quick recall whenever you need. A simple innovation in level design has added playable space in the background of each level, potentially doubling the size of the map without actually increasing the two-dimensional area. Interestingly enough whis was a gameplay feature in the Virtual Boy title “Wario Land” in the mid-Nineties. It just goes to show the importance of a hardware’s success in the adoption of new features but that’s a discussion for another time.
My point here, if there is a point, is that while these games are doing new and interesting things with established models, it’s not because they couldn’t be done until now. These games are doing new things because the big-time developers of the 80’s and 90’s were either required to make the games as quickly and cost-effectively as possible or they were already working on improving the graphics on the game for the next generation of hardware. The push for better graphics was always the priority, even then, because how else do you sell games then by making them look good, by making them look like something I really have to see.
These games are doing new things with old models because of the people behind them. Between programs like Adobe Flash & Flex, Game Maker, Construct 2 and others I’m sure I’m not aware of, anyone with the drive, the creativity, and the time can make a game. “Axiom Verge” was completed primarily by one guy, the choice to make it look like an NES game was driven partially out of nostalgia but also out necessity. If he had chosen to make the game in 3D, with something more powerful like Unity or Unreal Engine it might have taken him five more years to complete the game. Not to mention it might have required a level of artistic talent he didn’t possess. From a design and programming standpoint the “reality altering” gameplay feature is just another tool or weapon the player can wield. However, by suggesting it can bend reality the player is encouraged to approach puzzles in new ways; using weapons to eliminate obstacles is no longer the only option, now you can go around them, use “alternate dimensions” to sidestep them, or maybe even go through them.
The level design in “Xeodrifter” takes the same efficient approach. When graphics processors improved to the point of including fully-realized, scrolling backgrounds, levels started including massive additional amounts of detail in multiple layers behind the action itself. The level designers simply asked the question, “Why does the action have to take place strictly on the surface layer?” As mentioned above, by adding playable space to the background layer the map size is doubled. This encourages the player to apply three-dimensional thinking to what used to be a strictly two-dimensional environment or else you miss a few secrets or upgrades along the way.
Finally, “Shovel Knight” takes the reverse approach. The gameplay features were not new or unique but had never been assembled quite this way before. The setting and presentation were reminiscent of “Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link,” but instead of that game’s free-roaming overworld levels were presented on a grid-based map a la “Super Mario Bros. 3”. The boss and weapon systems were clearly inspired by the Mega Man series, evidenced by the number of bosses you would face (eight), and the naming scheme (each boss was named for his unique talent with “Knight” at the end), and the eight unique weapons you can collect, but instead of them the boss as he’s defeated, the weapons are found in secret rooms in the levels, or at the town marketplace if you couldn’t find the secret room. Like “DuckTales” (and the current gen 2.5D remake) each level is full of loot, some secret and some not-so-secret, that you’re encouraged to find and collect, but again, unlike that game the loot you collect doesn’t contribute to your score. Here, it’s the monetary system for buying reserve health tanks, the aforementioned unique weapons and other consumables. So, while the game didn’t strictly do anything never before seen, it was new. Additionally, in this case the old-school graphics and sound effects seem to be chosen specifically to evoke nostalgia. Though the developers could have made something more modern it seems apparent they chose to demonstrate that good game design can transcend graphics, and they would be right.
For someone who’s been playing videogames since the NES era, these games speak to me directly because they evoke a time when game development was restricted by technology. Restrictions that motivated the developers to find creative solutions for overcoming limitations. Many famous staples of the gaming industry are the direct result of technology limitations. Mario has a mustache and wears overalls and a hat because it was the only way Donkey Kong developers could give their protagonist a distinct head, face, and arms. Donkey Kong’s name came from his creator looking for the simplest way to relate the concept of “stubborn ape” across languages. Mega Man is blue even though his creator wanted him to be red, because the NES’s graphics processor could do more shades of blue than red, which was necessary for detail. Pac-Man was originally supposed to be called “Puck-Man” until someone at Namco realized that a P can be made into an F on the side of an arcade cabinet pretty easily.
The constant push for better graphics has brought us some pretty cool experiences over the years. I couldn’t imagine the Darksiders franchise without it’s very distinct art style, while “Heavy Rain” and “L.A. Noire” both used HD and facial mapping in innovative and compelling ways. On the other hand, it seems like artificial intelligence in non-player characters or enemies has barely advanced, enemies and friendlies alike walking into gunfire and traffic still. So-called major gameplay features in some games today almost seem like an egomaniac executive’s pet project that no one’s allowed to veto just as much as they were deliberate design choices to improve the experience. While greedy corporations continue to search for the next killer tech feature or buzzword, indie gaming is revisiting all of the old classics and asking the questions these corporations could have, should have, asked years ago.
With so many unexplored opportunities out there, I look forward to every new indie game announcement. I watch in anticipation as the people who started this hobby, the garage-based enthusiasts with the basic skills and a dream, take the industry back little by little from the greed-driven companies who still after all these years do not know how to monetize art.