On its release in 2014, Shovel Knight dug its way deep into many player’s heart (I thought I’d best get the obligatory Shovel pun out the way early on). Here was a game that wore its NES heritage proudly on its sleeve, yet wasn’t afraid to innovate on the formula of the games of yesteryear. Shovel Knight is rightly considered one of the most important independent games of the last decade time, paving the way for others to follow in its footsteps thanks to an astonishingly successful Kickstarter campaign and the critical and commercial success that followed.
So it makes absolute sense for Shovel Knight to be the focus of the latest Boss Fight Book. For those not in the know, allow me to let you know what you need to know to be in the know; Boss Fight Books is both a publisher and a series that provide detailed accounts on the creation and cultural importance of classic video games. Experienced laptop warrior David L. Craddock is the man responsible for delivering book 19 and he does so in an exhaustive – and exhaustingly – detailed read.
Here’s an excerpt:
Nine-year-old Jimmy Woods was the envy of every kid who developed a case of Nintendo thumb in the 1990s. Taciturn and introverted, Jimmy was one of the protagonists of The Wizard, a feature film in which the plucky gamer perseveres over childhood trauma to earn a spot in the finals of Video Armageddon, a video game tournament with a prize pot of $50,000. Moreover, he and his co-stars were among the first westerners outside of Nintendo to play Super Mario Bros. 3, the next instalment in Nintendo’s bestselling series of platform games for its NES console.
To adults, The Wizard was a glorified commercial for Nintendo games. To seven-year-old Sean Velasco, the film was mind-blowing.
“I was always into games, and always into Nintendo, from the outset,” Velasco said, citing Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, and Zelda II as early favorites. “I was right in time for the marketing of The Wizard.”
Nintendo. Parents pronounced the word slowly and carefully, as if creeping through a Super Mario Bros. 3 airship infested with Bob-ombs and cannonballs.
It’s thanks to Craddock’s clear and clean prose that this book doesn’t collapse under its own weight, crammed as it’s with plentiful interviews from all the key members of Yacht Club Games, the developers of Shovel Knight. Every aspect of the game’s creation is discussed, from the fascinating to the mundane minutiae. As such it’s a mixed bag. Some sections – the account of the development team’s Kickstarter campaign, for example – prove compelling reading, and other chapters long outstay their welcome. Frankly there’s only so much discussion of the many different ways a 2D platforming character can jump that I could take.
There’s a definite sense of Craddock having to stretch to fill pages, there’s also an inescapable impression that these interviews would have made for an excellent article, but aren’t really sufficient to maintain an entire book. Often Craddock will depart on tangents that, whilst magnificently detailed and well researched, would have been better left in the editor’s recycling bin. One particular discussion of the misogynistic behaviour of retro game characters feels like unnecessary fluff. Is there really a case to be made for Mario objectifying Princess Peach? Absolutely, but I’m not sure that they belong here and the wafer thin arguments of Shield Knight serving as an empowering female character seem hollow at best.
Where the book delivers is in the all-too-short moments in which we learn about the humanity behind the development team, where we begin to understand their fear, aspirations and trepidations. I was most engaged when the team spoke of having to overcome crippling personal debt to see this game through to its completion, this was when the book spoke to our shared human experience and truly became compelling reading. After all, what is more inspiring than a fellow Homo Sapien attempting to achieve their dream, despite all the obstacles – none more so than our own negative inner voice – that stand in the way?
There is too little of this emotional narrative to drive the story forwards however. Instead you’ll find detailed retellings of every conceivable facet of the games development, you just won’t find much incentive to care.
For those seeking a guide in successful indie video game development, Shovel Knight is a must have. For the rest of us, it’s a dry and stretched out read.