I recently wrote a review on shovel knight and why it’s one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. There are hundreds of reasons I could list as to why you should buy and play this game but that is not what I want to talk about here. This article is a breakdown of the first level of Shovel Knight and why I feel it’s pure genius. Now it should go without saying that this is a bit of a spoiler alert warning. Yes, it is only the first level but the warning is out there now. Also I would like it to be known that I am in no way a level designer or game programmer, just a guy who has played many games all the way back to the NES. I noticed all this from watching my nephew (age 10) play this game for the first time with little to no knowledge of classic games or how they function. With that preamble out of the way, let us...dig in.
The first board the player is confronted with is a long seemingly empty section. The top of the screen shows everything the player needs plus what they will come across. This gives the player time to become acclimated with how Shovel Knight moves and controls. As the player moves right, they see a shiny mound, when the players strike this, gold and gems come flying out and this teaches the player just how Shovel Knight’s attack works. They are then confronted by a slow moving beetle. This beetle is very reminiscent of the first goomba in the original Super Mario Bros. At this point, the player has learned that 2 buttons work, jump and slash. Well let’s slash the beetle and kill him. As the player moves forward on the first board, the rest is a series of slow moving beetles and jumps the player must make. This further gets the player used to how Shovel Knight controls.
The next section is introduced by a screen transition similar to that of classic NES games. This is a great way to not only introduce the player to a new obstacle, but it also allows the player to understand that they have progressed. The first thing the player sees is a series of dirt blocks, blocking progress. The player will try many things to get around this before discovering that pressing down after you jump does a downward strike. The fact that this is taught to the player by discovery vs a prompt is something that I really enjoy. It give a sense of accomplishment without the player realising that they just had a quick lesson. After getting past that, the bottom of the board has a beetle and a shiny mound, if at this point the player didn’t discover that mounds contain gold, the beetle and the mound are so close together that it’s inevitable that they will hit both. Moving forward shows a new transition with a gap and a bubble rising from the ground. If the player hasn’t figured out what to do with this bubble upon seeing it, they will eventually because they were just taught about the downward strike. The player learns that they can move left and right as they are downward striking. Feeling victorious, they climb the ladder on the right to the next board.
This is the “moving platform” section of the lesson. This is also the first checkpoint that they have come across but this will come back later. After learning how to handle this platform and kill the beetle on the ledge, they will transition to a floor full of spikes and a platform. If they miss, it’s ok because they will just go back to the screen they were on previously at the checkpoint, this shows the player what exactly what checkpoints look like. When they died though, all of the gold they collected at this point will be floating where they perished. Here comes another lesson, as they make the jump to the platform, they will collect all the gold bags floating and regain their money. This is a fantastic lesson that teaches the player that death isn’t so bad. The next board has a Bubble Dragon! Two things are taught here, the first is that this is not the boss that the top of the screen is predicting to. The second thing is that minibosses exist and they have weak points. The dragons head is the weak point and after it dies, the player is rewarded with gems, gold and health. the next screen introduces a new enemy, a skeleton man with a sword. The player will more than likely attack with this new found confidence because they just took out a dragon. However, they will be hit and this is to teach them that some enemies will attack you instead of walking in a straight line. The next transition has a ditch that seems like the player is trapped, but the way the level is designed shows a weird visual. Grass can be seen on a block of dirt that you would normally be standing on. Well the only thing the player can do is jump and shovel strike, swinging the sword around with eventually hit the wall. After destroying the giant dirt block, they will see gems that fall from it. Getting to the top of this board, they will destroy another wall and walk forward with confidence and a desire to collect the gems that will be there, wait, enemies can be inside walls? They sure can.
The next section has a beetle, a spike trap and skeleton with a sword, these are no problem for the seasoned warrior that now lies before you. There is also a wall with the same markings as the walls the player destroyed earlier, this is a very visible secret to show the player that secrets exist so keep an eye out. In the wall is a piece “Sheet Music”, this is something that comes up later in the game. The next board doesn’t have much to teach except that there are what look like covered dinner plates with a whole chicken inside to replenish your health. From here on out is testing your newly found skills that you just learned. All of this leads to a boss fight, the boss fight teaches the player a few things as well. First would be that the health bar is now full to indicate that this is indeed, the boss of the level. The second thing that this teaches the player is that bosses have patterns, you must read the patterns to defeat them. The last thing this teaches the player is that your health and the bosses health work the same, 2 hits per dot. After defeating the boss, you are shown a scene which adds to the story with shovel knight dreaming about saving shield knight. After the dream sequence, the player has control and can move left or right on the screen, the over world map opens new areas to enter and the adventure begins.
This level is what is amazing about good game design, teaching the player by discovery and fun, versus having someone tell you what to do. Having an “AH HA!” moment in a video game is one of the most satisfying things that any developer can do for the gamer. People argue that modern games have a harder time doing this because things are too complex. I say thats a load of bull. Sometimes it’s ok to use a prompt to tell the player how to use a new thing, Shovel Knight does this with magic. After you get the first item, a prompt shows up to tell the player to press up and attack to use it. What makes this acceptable is this is the only time something like that shows up during the entire game. Lets take a very popular game like Halo for example. The first thing you do in the game is “Calibrate the suit”, what is happening here is immersing the player into the role of the character and breathing life into the world they are about to inhabit. Everything about that first stage is a giant lesson on how to play the game without a bunch of screen prompts. Portal is another example of how to teach the player without overloading them with prompts. As I said in the beginning of this article, I am in no way a developer or designer. Just passionate about video games and love to critically think about them.
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Screen grabs are courtesy of YouTuber notjustinbailey