As I Play, Dying: My Afternoon with Shovel Knight and 1001 Spikes

Spikes erupt from the ground and I am dead, all my progress erased. Sometime later I am impaled on a lance, my quest ended before I could complete it. I will die many times, each death a tiny pixelated tragedy. Dying almost hurts more in an 8-bit landscape than in a shiny open world.

At a recent Nintendo press event, I got some quality time with two upcoming retro-styled sidescrollers, Shovel Knight and 1001 Spikes. And when I say quality time, I mean a lot of jumping, a lot of attacking, and a hell of a lot of losing.

In Shovel Knight, developed by Yacht Club Games, you play as the titular warrior who brandishes a shovel either as a weapon to slay enemies or as a tool to dig up treasure. The game plays something like a mix of Mega Man, with its screen-by-screen action, and Castlevania, with medieval combat.

“We wanted to make an NES-style game. What we went to was Zelda 2, where we really like the downthrust. We wanted to build a game off of a downthrust,” said developer David D’Angelo. “It’s got a little bit of everything in it. Everyone that has played an NES game associates with it. ‘I played Duck Tales, that is what this looks like.’ Or, ‘I played Faxanadu, that’s what this is like.’ What?! No one played Faxanadu! But the most common are Mega Man and Castlevania.”

As I made my way through the castle on a quest to defeat King Knight, one of the bosses working for the evil Enchantress, I squared off against a variety of pixelated beasts. And I was killed by them, again and again. Armored opponents on mounts impale me on their lances, or flying rats try to hit me. Then there are the massive griffins, towering over my comparatively short frame. It burns me with its fiery breath at first, until I get a grip on dodging the waves of flame as my life nears zero. I rush in closer for the kill and then it suddenly rips me apart with its talons, my knight’s quest come to an end.

My storming of the castle is all happening in an 8-bit fashion, with dotty bricks and beasts illustrated with few colors. But it’s more than the colors that are old-fashioned. Like many other retro games of the last few years, the developers have also made the game mercilessly difficult, with a Demon’s Souls-like reward for reaching your fallen loot.

This process of clawing forward screen by screen adds up to finally reaching the level’s boss, if you finally avoid the enemy’s patterns just right and get enough health drops to cover your failures. Then you can fight and get killed by the level’s boss, until you learn its pattern and weakness. And if you fail? The crucible of the level remains to reforge you into a better platformer and battler, and throws you up against the boss once more. It is a pattern very familiar to those who played NES back in its heyday.

“Challenge is like eating a hearty breakfast to prepare for the day ahead; you need to be challenged early and often in the game world.”  

“We see challenge as a tool for teaching the player about the game, a device to make the player be more cautious, and fuel for more excitement. When confronted with consequences, the player becomes more invested, and overcoming a tough challenge will then be very rewarding,” said D’Angelo. “Challenge is like eating a hearty breakfast to prepare for the day ahead; you need to be challenged early and often in the game world, to prepare yourself for the trials that are found later in the game.”

Death is different in 1001 Spikes. And by different I mean: even more frequent. I died less in Shovel Knight than in 1001 Spikes, a by-product of the former having a lifebar and the latter relishing instant kills. 1001 Spikes is the sequel to 8bit Fanatics’ Xbox indie game Aban Hawkins and the 1000 Spikes. For this game, I controlled Indiana Jones stand-in Aban Hawkins. Marketing rep Gail Salamanca said, “It’s a very difficult, very challenging action platforming game. There are going to be comparisons to games like Spelunky, but I think we do things just a little bit differently.”

The title of the game is a good indicator of what you are in for. I run, spikes erupt from the ground and I fall. I run again, jump to avoid the spikes coming from below, and my head is skewered by spikes hanging from the ceiling. I mis-time my jump and I land in spikes. Sometimes I dodge the spikes and am greeted by flame spouts, whirling blades, flying darts, and lava flows.

But mostly: spikes. The goal of each stage in 1001 Spikes is to run and jump your way to the key, and then get to the unlocked exit. Run, spikes. Run, spikes. Run, jump, run, jump, spikes. Every time I die, a learn a bit more about the timing of the stage. When to pause before dashing through the section, when to leap to the next platform to avoid a spiky death, when to use a low jump and when to use a high jump, or when to push a block to have a makeshift platform to get to the even higher platforms, where I will find, obviously, moving spikes. I die a lot, learning more and more in little degrees. Luckily, the game outfits you with 1001 lives. I have plenty of time to learn.

Only the perfection learned from the continuous resurrections can let you move forward. 

Eventually, my succession of deaths and resurrections does result in a modicum of skill. I am Schrodinger’s Lazarus, succeeding by perpetually being both alive and dying, always coming back to live longer and die again. You only get to the end of the stage by embracing this. Then 1001 Spikes is a thrill, as you avoid the deadly traps around you and race to the end. Only the perfection learned from the continuous resurrections can let you move forward.

Salamanca said, “The developer likes that you are avoiding traps in one fluid motion, as opposed to taking your time. It’s always tense and you get through the level with one trap behind you and thinking about the next.”

All of this dying is frustrating, both as a knight fighting through a castle and as an explorer investigating some ruins. But those deaths give the playing meaning, giving you the thrill of defeating the enemy that killed you before and the excitement of seeing what lays further into the game. And it makes the accomplishment of surviving to the end of the stage and defeating the boss there that much more worthwhile.

D’Angelo said, “In the modern game landscape, it just feels like something that is missing. These simple games actually have a lot of depth to them. A modern game will give you a character that can do 8 bajillion things. That’s more often where the development goes, rather than the development being in the world.”

Whether these games succeed in creating a rich world or not remains to be seen. But they’ve got the death thing down pat.