Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club has become one of my favorite 2D platformers since its release in 2014. The game is near perfection with great music, 8-bit art style, and level design that focuses on shoveling through dirt blocks and pogo jumping off enemies and obstacles. It is funny to think about how I picked the game up on a whim when it released. I hadn’t played many NES platformers at the time so there was nothing about Shovel Knight that I was nostalgic about. It’s also funny to think about how I couldn’t beat the game the first time without an invincibility cheat enabled. Since that first playthrough, I have beaten Shovel Knight a handful of times and I’ve come to realize that Shovel Knight might have the most perfectly crafted difficulty curve of any game I’ve played.

When talking about difficulty, it is important to first acknowledge that the term is completely subjective. People all have different skill set and levels of experience with games that lend certain games or genres to be more or less difficult. To use myself as an example: puzzles games are typically difficult for me, games like Fez and Grim Fandango I had to put down when I couldn’t wrap my head around certain puzzles, RPGs and action games like Person 5 and Bayonetta 2 always seem to click and I manage to play through no problem, and games like Bloodborne, The Binding of Isaac, and Megaman titles are second nature after playing through those games or similar ones, many times. Shovel Knight was extremely challenging for me during my first playthrough, but has become much easier after multiple playthroughs and playing other, similar titles.

Basically what I’m saying is Shovel Knight’s difficulty is hard to discuss. I can’t say what makes the game difficult for everybody overall. However, there are things in the game that make certain levels in the game more difficult than others. This is what creates a difficulty curve in a game.

Difficulty in a video game can be defined as how the game applies pressure on the player and Shovel Knight does this in two main ways. The first is by making jumps trickier. This is usually done by adding spikes or bottomless pits, which work as an instant death, around platforming challenges. This is most noticeable with the spiked ceilings in the Iron Whale, the many lava pits in the Lost City and the long sections of the Flying Machine over bottomless pits. The second way the game pressures the player is by restricting their time to be still and process their surroundings. This is done a lot in the Clockwork Tower with the conveyor belts and auto scrolling sections, but this method also appears in the Explodatorium in the section with the birds drop bombs on you and with the ice physics in the Stranded Ship.

A difficult curve in a video game is a tricky thing to get right. If things get too hard too quickly, players might not be able to keep up, but if it takes too long to increase the challenge, players may get bored. Shovel Knight’s difficulty curves raises at a perfect rate by starting with a tutorial level that teaches the player all the basic mechanics while lacking most hazards besides enemies until the end. Then the game increases the pressure on player a little more with each passing level. But Yacht Club games also did something very smart with the difficulty curve, that being they didn’t have the difficulty just consistently increase throughout the entire game. 

A standard difficulty curve equates to the difficulty of the game increases with every level the player completes, but Shovel Knight has what I call a wave curve for its challenge. The game is split into three main sections and once you’ve completed all the levels in one section, you move to the next. With this structure, the first level of a new section will be slightly easier than the last level of the previous section. The slight dip in challenge before raising it again does wonders to keep the player engaged because it gives them a moment of slight rest after a difficult level, let’s them feel that they are improving at the game, and makes the difficulty of the game feel more dynamic and less predictable.

Shovel Knight takes a lot of queues from the classic Megaman series. This show mostly in the level design, but also appears in its nonlinear structure when choosing level. Each new section of the game presents few levels that can be completed in any order. Most the time, nonlinear games like this have a tough time constructing a satisfying difficulty curve. Either the difficult is very erratic because there is no structure to what levels can be completed or it’s flat, with every level being on the same difficulty level. Besides sectioning off later levels until after the early levels had been beaten, the developers at Yacht Club utilized a very subtle and smart choice to silently guide the player. When each section is revealed, the clouds on the map screen wipes away from left to right. When this happens, the players eyes will be drawn to the top left of the map and they will scan across the same way the clouds move. This mean the first levels they see will be the easiest in the section: Pridemoor Keep, Explodatorium, and Clockwork Tower in their respective sections. These levels are also the shortest distance for the players to travel when entering the next section.

The last thing to discuss on the topic of Shovel Knight’s difficulty would be the bosses. Honestly, I find all the bosses to be on the same level of difficulty. Later ones add more mechanics to the fight, like Plague Knight changing up the terrain or having to dig through dirt in Mole Knight’s fight, but none of them are very challenging. The only time I died to a boss was when they introduced instant kill elements to their fights. Propeller Knight has bottomless pits, Polar Knight  has spikes, and the Enchantress, the penultimate boss, will destroy the floor beneath you and creates pits to fall into. I am not a fan of any boss with an instant death mechanic, but since Shovel Knight waits until the final few bosses to use them, I don’t find it that intrusive. It is the natural time a player would be expect a meaty challenge.

Shovel Knight excels at keeping the player engaged. The incredible soundtrack fuels them through levels with constantly new mechanics and obstacles that are all still tied to the central mechanic of the little blue knight and their shovel. The player keeps playing to see what the next level will introduce, but there is another guiding force working behind the scenes to engage the player. That is the perfectly crafted difficulty curve that knows the exact rate to introduce new challenge, what levels should be completed before players can access others, and even when to let off on the player to give them a breather. All this combines to a difficulty curve that make Shovel Knight one of the most consistently challenging games of its type, but also one of the most fun and rewarding ones to play through.

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