By BisonHero 20 Comments
So I've been thinking about Patrick's minor complaint that Shovel Knight is too easy, as I recently finished it, and I'm starting on some of the trickier achievements for beating the game without dying, etc.
Patrick's complaint seemed to be that he didn't like that it's relatively easy to finish a normal playthrough, and that the devs made the challenge "optional" by putting in achievements such as "beat the game without dying" or "beat the game without spending money". He has also made this complaint against the recent Mario games, in that finding the hidden star coins (or equivalent) in New Super Mario Bros. games or 3D Land/World were the only places where there was much challenge to be had. (Shovel Knight has this to a degree, in that the hidden areas in levels that contain relics or song scrolls are often more challenging than the main stage).
Is Shovel Knight really that much easier than Mega Man of old? I'd argue that they're very similar levels of difficulty, just with all the bullshit game design removed that gave the illusion of difficulty.
In many games of the NES era, if you lost enough lives to falling in a pit, you would run out of continues and have to start much farther back (possibly the beginning of the game), or at the very least fall back on a password save. This made you have to repeatedly play through sections of a stage that you have already demonstrated you can pass multiple times. This is tedious, and seems like a poor hold over from the coin-op arcade days. Games in general have veered away from this, and Shovel Knight is no exception. The checkpoint system removes any need to tediously keep replaying through 80% of a stage you've already mastered just because you happened to run out of lives on the final jump before the boss.
Shovel Knight also doesn't feature any trial and error sequences, that you'd never be able to beat on your first try without an extraordinarily lucky guess or flawless reflexes. Hell, even Capcom learned that lesson by the SNES era, as nothing in the X series or the later Mega Man games is as cheap and unfair to the player as something like Quick Man's stage. Quick Man's stage is infamous not because the enemies are huge dicks (or even that numerous), but because dodging the Force Beams has an incredibly narrow allowance for player error, and most players will likely sink 5, 10, 20 lives into that stage before they've memorized which direction to run to successfully dodge all of the beams. It's nearly inconceivable that you would pass that sequence on your first try, since you have so little time to assess each screen before you have to start avoiding the beams.
I'll admit that aside from the checkpoint system and lack of bullshit trial and error, Shovel Knight is still pretty generous in not putting enemies on incredibly inconvenient ledges, nor giving Shovel Knight himself silly amounts of hit stun and knockback, which Mega Man has in spades. And the game is pretty generous with giving you turkeys all the time.
Still, if reviewers like Patrick want to complain about a game's difficulty because it doesn't stand up to how they remember Mega Man being, they should examine their options more carefully. If you destroy every checkpoint, guess what, it plays a lot more like a Mega Man or Castlevania, and if you fall in a pit, guess what, you fucked up big. The game gives you a choice to challenge yourself like an NES game of yore, but no, it's not the "default" difficulty, because the developer realizes that not everyone is 25+ years old (anyone under that age likely started playing on the SNES/Genesis, or later consoles) and not everyone has the inclination to have to redo massive parts of levels because of one mistake. It's the right move to not force the player to beat stages without checkpoints, if they want younger players to actually like their game, and not just put it down due to old-fashioned game design that they can't relate to.
So I think Giant Bomb's general stance on just playing the game on the "default" difficulty continues to be problematic.