The core mechanic in Shovel Knight drastically changes the foundational, mainstay aspects of platforming that Platformers traditionally build themselves upon. The downward shovel mechanic is simple, but it has an ingenuity that has never been seen before in platforming. There is considerable potential for level design that centralizes around this single mechanic.
Welcome To The Plains
The first thing the player sees is a Dig Pile. A cardinal rule of gaming is to introduce mechanics in a safe environment and through gameplay; the game does both right out of the gate. The player discovers that the shovel can be used to dig Dig Piles before they apply the shovel to the beetle crawling toward them within the first five seconds of the game.
One major level design problem that many Platformers suffer from is solved with Shovel Knight’s downward shovel mechanic. The problem is regarding enemy placement on narrow platforms that expects the player to time their jump and attack the enemy (or sometimes kill the enemy if the game lacks knockback) before the enemy makes its way back to damage the player.
Yet to my surprise, the second enemy moves back and forth across a narrow platform before the player is introduced to downward shoveling. Either this was overlooked, or it was meant to push the player toward figuring out this mechanic.
I’m more inclined to believe the former than the latter since, after this stretch of beetle land, the player is placed in two situations that forces them to learn about the mechanic that would have trivialized the problem.
The player continues across the stretch of beetle land through a split path that converges, giving the player two possible paths and different ways to approach the beetles. The path splits again in a slight variation of the previous split path that leads to the next area.
Learn The Art Of The Shovel
The game continues to lead the player toward learning the mechanics through gameplay in a safe environment. The player tries to dig, but to no avail, so they try something else. The only real direction the player’s train of thought can lead to is how the shovel is intended to be used, and given how the only obstacle is below you, it’s hard for the player not to discover this new mechanic on the first try. This is a testimony to the brilliance of the simple mechanics in this game and how they are introduced.
The game follows up with the player in the very next room to ask a quick question, “Can you use the same mechanic we just taught you in order to reach the other side using an obstacle you will consistently see throughout the game?” Not only that, but it expands on the previous notion of downward shoveling straight through dirt with the notion that the player can traverse the environment using the exact same method. The environment is still safe from pitfalls, but now the object that the player must bounce on hurts them if they fail. If this was the introduction to the downward shovel mechanic then it would be fundamentally flawed because of the unsafe environment and potential confusion or frustration. However, this is not the case, and the game handles it brilliantly.
The Bubble Drake
After a couple of screens comprising platforming to soften the player up to the new world beholden to them, a surprising adversary lurks in the darkness of these caverns.
The Dozedrake is a slight spike in difficulty whilst testing the player’s instinct. The most efficient and effective way to deal with him is to downward shovel his head, which most players will instinctively do because it not only beats him quickly, but it takes the player out of the line of fire as well. The Dozedrake encounter also offers two alternative ways to deal with him: The first is the hit-and-run tactic, although inefficient (and ultimately ineffective as shown in my attempt to demonstrate above), and the second is to simply slip past him when he moves since downward shoveling his body is just as safe as any other object.
What first appears as an overwhelming or daunting task proves to be simple and a good way to empower the player (since they just killed a huge drake!).
Exploding Walls: The Art Of Secrets
Further along the level, the player comes across another roadblock. The purpose of this roadblock is to further develop the shovel as a mechanic by introducing another method of its use. The wall contains a block that stands out from the rest like a sore thumb, thus showing the player that these secret, destructible walls not only exist, but they stand out from the rest. The second wall encountered is another destructible wall, but without the differentiating block. Despite this, it still stands out as a sore thumb. The main purpose of this second wall is to show that unmarked destructible walls exist. The following room immediately utilizes this newly introduced concept which leads into a brand new concept: secret rooms.
Similar to its downward shovel mechanic introduction, Shovel Knight teaches the player incrementally, so the player has no other choice but to learn about the destructible walls and secret rooms in a comfortable and engaging environment.
A couple rooms later, the player runs across a room that contains two destructible walls – one of them marked (and already broken in the GIF) and the other unmarked. The unmarked wall is an unfair attempt at a secret by itself because it’s too obscure and unexpected (since it’s the second destructible wall in the room), but the fact that it hints at it in the next room makes for an interesting mix-up that ends up making the player feel good for finding it instead of taking the obscurity approach.
What’s interesting about this secret is that it’s the only occurrence of this type of secret in the entire game.
The most noteworthy enemy in the Plains is the Divedrake. The Divedrake is placed in several different locations where the player can downward shovel to reach treasure, secret areas, and the next room. Instead of being an active threat, the Divedrake is utilized in a way that makes for interesting platforming. The Divedrake is a perfect example of a way to put a relatively safe twist on the easy-going, mild platforming that comprises this introductory level.
The core mechanic in Shovel Knight puts such a unique twist on the platforming genre that it would be a shame if the level design wasted the opportunity. As for the introductory level Plains, it showcases everything that needs to be showcased in an engaging way that never outstays its welcome and only proves the vast potential that Shovel Knight’s core mechanics instigate. Plains is brilliantly designed.