How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

This is Shigeru Miyamoto. If you’ve played video games any time in the past 30 years, you’re probably familiar with his work, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Star Fox, and then, of course, this guy. When Miyamoto makes games, he always tries to do things differently than other designers. Here he is back in 1998 explaining why he wasn’t focused on online gaming.
Shigeru: It’s a trend. And I try to avoid all trends.
And why he wasn’t adding small in-game purchases to Mario for iPhone in 2016.
Shigeru: Everyone was saying I had to do it, but I’m the kind of person that doesn’t want to be told to do something because “that’s the way you do it.”
Miyamoto has helped define a lot of what makes a video game great. How does he do it?
Shigeru: I think that first is that a game needs a sense of accomplishment. And you have to have a sense that you have done something so that you get that sense of satisfaction of completing something.
In 1981, one of Miyamoto’s first assignments at Nintendo was to design a replacement for a game called Radar Scope. It had performed really poorly in the US, leaving the company with 2,000 unsold arcade units. This is what he came up with. Miyamoto based the story on the love triangle in Popeye, between a bad guy, a hero, and a damsel in distress, but since Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights to use those characters, Miyamoto replaced them with a gorilla, a carpenter, and his girlfriend. In later games, that carpenter became a plumber, and his name changed from Mr. Video to Jumpman and then to Mario after this guy, the landlord of a Nintendo warehouse near Seattle. This is one of the first times that a video game’s plot and characters were designed before the programming.
Shigeru: Well early on, the people who made video games, they were technologists, they were programmers, they were hardware designers. But I wasn’t. I was a designer, I studied industrial design, I was an artist, I drew pictures. And so I think that it was in my generation that people who made video games really became designers rather than technologists.
That change and approach came at a key time for video games. When Donkey Kong was first released in 1981, the video game market in North America was on the verge of collapse. It was saturated with a lot of different consoles, and the boom in home computers made a lot of people question why they would want a separate device just to play games. The storytelling in games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, which you could only play on Nintendos on hardware helped set them apart as bestsellers.

“…being able to feel like it’s a game you’re immersed in, that you’ve become a hero. That you’ve become brave. Even if you’re actually crying.”

Shigeru: When I approach the design of my games, what I have to think about is how I’m showing a situation to a player, conveying to them what they’re supposed to do. In Mario you keep moving to the right to reach the end goal. In Donkey Kong you keep climbing up to rescue the captured princess.
A lot of Miyamoto’s genius can be seen in the first level of Super Mario Bros. This is probably the most iconic level in video game history. It’s designed to naturally teach you the game mechanics while you play. If you look at a breakdown, there’s a lot of really subtle design work going on here. Though Mario is usually at the center of the screen, in this first scene, he starts at the far left. All the empty space to the right of him gives you a sense of where to go. Now this character’s look and movement suggests it’s harmful, but don’t worry. If you run into it, you’ll just start the game over without much of a penalty.

Next you see gold blocks with question marks. These are meant to look intriguing. Once you hit one, you’re rewarded. That then encourages you to hit the second block, which releases a mushroom. Even if you’re scared now of what this might be, the positioning of the first obstacle makes it just about guaranteed that you’re going to run into this thing. Once you do, Mario gets bigger and stronger. Just like that, you’ve learned all the basic rules of the game without having to read a single word.
Shigeru: What else is there? The last is the immersive quality of the game, being able to feel like it’s a game you’re immersed in, that you’ve become a hero. That you’ve become brave. Even if you’re actually crying.

Immersiveness in a video game has a lot to do with the controls. The more precisely you can move your character, the more you feel like you’re part of the story. Nintendo has always been a pioneer with controllers. It was the first to have the classic setup of the directional pad on the left and the buttons on the right, the first to have left and right shoulder buttons, the first to have a 360 degree thumb stick, and the first to bring motion control to the mass market. With 2016’s Super Mario Run, Nintendo for the first time made a game for a controller it didn’t design, the iPhone.
Shigeru: Over time, not as many people have been playing Mario games. And we ask ourselves: Why have people stopped playing Mario? And for people who played early on and then stopped playing, oftentimes it’s because the controls got too difficult.
The Wii U flopped when it came out in 2012, and Nintendo 3DS sales are far below those of its predecessor, but the number of American gamers playing on mobile phones has doubled to more than a 164 million between 2011 and 2015. You can kind of think of Super Mario Run as a shift from immersiveness to accessibility.
Shigeru: I think the end result is a game anyone can play, from first-time players to the most experienced ones.
That’s kind of been Miyamoto’s design philosophy from the very start. Make fun games that everybody can play. The rest is in our hands.
These controls direct the characters. The better your eye-hand coordination, the better you do.

The Secrets of Game Feel and Juice

The Secrets of Game Feel and Juice

The Secrets of Game Feel and Juice

This is an iPhone game called Random Heroes. It’s a run and gun platformer and it’s fine. It exists, but it feels kind of limp and lifeless, like the video game equivalent of a cabbage. It doesn’t even really look much fun, right. Now compare it to a game like Super Time Force, and it’s a completely different experience. It feels alive and responsive. It pops and crackles like electricity is surging through your Xbox. It’s just much more fun.

I think this is a good example of how of how one developer, Cappy in this instance, has maximized an elusive quantity in games that some call game feel. This is a mostly abstract, largely invisible art, but getting it right is essential when making a great action or platforming game. It’s something that players can immediately detect as soon as they start waggling analog sticks and jabbing at buttons. It mostly occurs in the fundamental action of the game. It governs the second to second play, and it’s felt in the very undercurrent of the game. A good way to test for this is to think “How does the game feel even when you strip out the points, the story, the graphics, the music, and the clever level design? Even without all those trappings, is your game still fun to interact with?”

“How does the game feel even when you strip out the points, the story, the graphics, the music, and the clever level design? Even without all those trappings, is your game still fun to interact with?”

The Super Mario games are. In Mario 64 the plumber is such a fun avatar to control with his bouncy jump, his wall kicks, his triple leaps, his long jumps, and his stomach dives, that you could lose hours just hopping around a blank room, and it’s said that for the first few months, that’s exactly what Mario 64 was like as Shigeru Miyamoto fine tuned every aspect of Mario’s movement before making anything else. The game feel here is about the friction and momentum and weight of Mario, and it’s the most important thing. In fact, the level design and enemies in Mario 64 exist simply to facilitate Mario. The levels let players express his movement, and challenge them to master his underlying move set.

Other developers have clocked this. Super Meat Boy, for example, feels fun a primal kinetic level, but plenty of platformers are hampered by loose controls and stodgy movement. Likewise, the best actions games would still be fun, even if your just blasting enemies in a blank room forever, but many others lack that vital energy. When it comes to the fundamentals there’s not j=much I can do to help right here. It’s going to be completely different for every type of game, and I’m sure that “Be Shigeru Miyamoto” is particularly helpful advice, but there are lots of little trick often used in the polishing stages that you can crib from great games to make yours feel a hundred times better. In the spirit of brazen theft, I stole most of these from talks by Vlambeer, Cactus, and Grapefrukt. I’ve linked to the full talks in the description below if you want more.

First up is Screen Shake, and Vlambeer is the king of this stuff. All it’s game wobble uncontrollably when you fire a gun or hit an enemy or saw through a fish. It feels satisfying and provides instantaneous feedback that the player is touching the world. Vlambeer also likes to pause the game for a split second when you hit or kill an enemy just to make those impacts more impactful. You see this in fighting games too. Watch how the action judders in Street Fighter to really make those kicks hit home. God of War does this also, and most Zelda games do it as well. To be honest, anything you can add to make it really clear that you’re damaging an enemy is worth it. I’m talking about making them flash white, get knocked back, spray blood, change animation, or make a satisfying sound. It all provides useful feedback and it improves the games feel.

Similar effects can make pliable characters feel like they’re really part of the world like tiny dust particles when you hit the ground and recoil when you fire a gun. Sound effects are key. Make them basey and loud. A gun shouldn’t sound like this, it should sound like this. You can use randomized sound effects to avoid repetition or steal the rising pitch idea from Mario and Peggle to sell the tenuous joy of nursing a combo.

Next, be creative with your camera. In Luftrausers, the camera doesn’t follow your plane, it intelligently moves to frame the action and reveal nearby threats. In Hotline Miami, the camera juts out far in front of where you are looking to help you know how your hero is orientated. Make stuff big, really big. Make the bullets as big as your face like a in Nuclear Throne. Maybe the explosions mini-atom bombs like in Super Time Force, and make the blood splatters into geysers of red goop like in Hotline Miami. Hotline Miami has a permanence that many other games lack. Bodies and blood sprays stick around when you walk back to your car to give you a little short term nostalgia of the chaos you’ve caused, and to make the battles feel really hard won.

Ultimately, this stuff, which some call juice, is all about doubling down on whatever your game is about. If it’s about shooting then make the guns kick and make the fire rate fast and have the camera shutter with each shot, but if it’s about jumping, give your character friction and keep the camera still so you can land each jump. Game feel is something that developers can spend months, if not years, working on, so I doubt you’re going to find the secret to making your game fell fun and satisfying in a 5 minute YouTube video, but hopefully there’s something to take away here about making the fundamental action feel good, and making every lick of polish speak to what the game is really about. Follow that advice and maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to play so many limp and lifeless iOS games for my job.

Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design

Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design

The 4 steps of level design in Super Mario's 3D World!

I want to talk about Super Mario 3D World, a game that is bursting at the seams with ideas. This is a game with conk doors and flip switch panels, double cherries and cannon boxes, switchboards, ant troopers, beat blocks, trapezes, grump lumps, foot lights, and piranha creepers. This game has innovation in abundance.

How does Nintendo manage to cram so many mechanics into the game without making it bloated or incomprehensible or stuffed with tutorials? You best ask this guy, Koichi Hayashida, who is co-director of 3D world and has, over the course of a few games, developed a level design philosophy that allows for rapid fire invention. Essentially, stages are four part, self-contained showcases for new ideas, where a mechanic can be successfully taught, developed, twisted, and then thrown away in about five minutes flat.

Each level starts by introducing its concept in a safe environment. Cakewalk Flip has panels that switch from red to blue when you jump, and you’ll see that as soon as you hop up to this platform. The first batch of panels are hovering over a lower level, so if you fall, you don’t lose a life. The concept is then established further. In this section there is no safety net, and here you’ll have to deal with the flipping panels as you climb up the cliff face.

“What it means is that Nintendo has developed a handy reusable structure that allows for inventions to be taught, developed, twisted, and thrown away.”

Then comes the twist. Towards the end of each stage, the concept is turned on its head in some way, to either challenge your mastery or to make you think about it for a fresh perspective. In this case we have to deal with the flip panels while also dodging the blast radius of this bumper enemy, which we fought a little earlier in the stage. Finally, we get the conclusion. Each level gives you one last chance to show off your skills with a suitable flagpole sequence.

Hayashida has explained in an interview with Gamasutra, that he’s inspired by a narrative structure called Kishōtenketsu, which is used in four line Chinese poems and four panel Japanese comics. Each of these stories introduces a concept, develops it, hits you with a twist that changes things, then offers a conclusion. Similarly, each Mario level has a satisfying arc of introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. Optional collectibles, like green stars and stamps, offer even more twists and even tougher challenges. Nintendo can swap out the flagpole conclusion for a boss fight, like in Bowser’s Highway Showdown, which introduces and develops explosive footballs in preparation for a battle against Bowser. It can also reintroduce mechanics from earlier in the game at a moment’s notice, confident in the knowledge that if you’ve got all the way to The Bowser Express, for example, you’ll know about swinging spikes, conk doors, bullies, and ant troopers from your run-ins in previous stages.

It’s interesting to see how this design changed over time. You start to see it form in Super Mario Galaxy, where Hayashida was level design director. The game’s galaxies are more often a hodgepodge concoction of gimmicks, rather than a single concept which is seen through from introduction to conclusion. Take Gusty Garden Galaxy’s Bunnies in the Wind, which is initially about these floaty fluffs, but then it’s about beanstalks and it concludes with a footrace with a rabbit. Don’t get me wrong, this game is brilliant in its unpredictability and offers a very different feeling to 3D World. But it also means that mechanics aren’t always given the time to mature, and you’re not always given the chance to learn properly. The game can throw too many concepts at you at once, like in Flip Switch Galaxy. It relies on standard DT mechanics, like in Bubble Breeze Galaxy.

In Mario Galaxy 2, on which Hayashida was director, levels are more often about single concepts and that familiar narrative structure can start to be seen. Beat Block Galaxy introduces the levels concept in a safe way, develops it over the course of the stage, and offers a twist with a madcap silver star dash. In Super Mario 3D Land, Hayashida seems to enforce his philosophy much more rigorously. World 2-2 is all about snake panels, 2-4 is on reversible platforms, 3-4 is about falling blocks, and so on. By 3D World, the philosophy is in full force, and the ideas are also used at times in the spin-off Captain Toad Treasure Tracker. Concepts can be introduced, developed, and twisted, though it’s often a little less focused because the stages can be more open-ended.

This is not the first time that Mario games have taught you in an organic way. In the first Super Mario Brothers, Shigeru Miyamoto needed to find a way to let you know that mushrooms are good, whereas the mushroom-shaped Goombas are bad. When you unleash the first mushroom and watch it bounce off the pipe and start to close in on you, even if you try to hop over it, you’ll hit your head, get bounced into the mushroom and see that it’s not an enemy after all. It’s definitely not the first time that Mario has had throwaway ideas and one time snippets of fun. Way back in Super Mario Brothers 3, the Goomba’s Shoe power-up only appeared in a single level. After 5-3, it’s was never seen again.

What it means is that Nintendo has developed a handy reusable structure that allows for inventions to be taught, developed, twisted, and thrown away. It’s something that you can use too, you’ve just got to come up with some clever ideas and interesting twists. Good luck.

The Mechanics of Movement in Games

The Mechanics of Movement in Games

The Mechanics of Movement in Games is important!

The year is 1996, you’re playing Tomb Raider on PlayStation, and you need to jump between 2 platforms. What do you do? First you have to line up the jump by walking to the edge. Then you have to give yourself a run up. You then sprint to the edge of the platform and hold the jump button knowing that Lara will leap after exactly 2 more steps, then in mid air you have to hold a different button to reach out and grab the other platform. You must keep this button held as Lara Pulls herself up on the other side. That’s a stark difference to the way Lara moves in her more recent games. She now has a media acceleration and an ultra-responsive jump, so you don’t need to run up anymore. You can move her in mid air, so you don’t need to line up the jump. She automatically reaches out for platforms and grabs them, so you don’t need to press another button.

To some, the old way will seem clunky and frustrating. The more modern controls, which were brought in when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the series with Tomb Raider: Legend, a much more palatable and accessible. Of course there’s a lot of truth to that. Tomb Raider 1 operated on an unrealistic grid system. It was designed for a digital input, and it was the result of a developer’s first unrefined grasp at working in a 3D space.

I think we also lost something in the transition to the ultra-simple traversal controls we see in games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted. The old system demanded expertise. You became a master of the controls, like how you learn to subconsciously flick-trick in and out a very grind and manual in Tony Hawks. You had to act deliberately and with intention, like dare I say it, Dark Souls. In Tomb Raider leap across a giant chasm is almost as terrifying and rewarding as it would be in real life. Whereas that exact same jump in the decade later remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary is so bereft of challenge that you barely even register that it happened.

“The old system demanded expertise. You became a master of the controls…”

The slow decline of mechanical sophistication in Tomb Raider is traversal. From adding annoying automated movements like monkey bars, to removing the need to hold grab, to removing the need for a run up, looks even worse when you compare it to the way the Franchise’s Combat has evolved. We’ve gone from wildly firing at bats, to doing stealth kills, making head shots, taking cover, readying arrows, making and throwing bombs, destructing enemies, pulling down structures, and juggling different ammo types. These mechanics make Combat and Tomb Raider dynamic and interesting. You have to consider your options and figure out which strategy to use on which enemy. You can improve your abilities by through upgrades and just practice. You need dexterity and to remember complicated control schemes, and it’s rewarding when you successful kill a bunch of baddies. Traversal has become practically automated. Jump at the colored ledge, hold her direction, press jump, hold her direction. Surely we can do something more interesting than this.

Thankfully we can. A number of smaller games show us that movement can still be as deep and involving as like murdering a dude. Perhaps the most obvious example is first person parkour game, Mirror’s Edge. This game is all about movement, and you have so much control of the way protagonist Faith moves through the world. She has acceleration on her run so she can jump further after she has built up speed. She can tuck mid-jump to clear high fences and roll when she hits the ground to avoid fall damage. Her large repertoire of moves gives you more options when moving through a space. In this alley section you can run up the stairs like a damn chump or you can bounce off the wall, and climb her up here, and volt over this bar to get to the same place in far less time.

For the most part the Assassin’s Creed Games heavily automate movement. The most recent entry Syndicate, you don’t even need to climb up buildings anymore as Evie Frye essentially pinched Batman’s grappling hook from Arkham City.

I’d be remiss not to point out the grasp mechanic in Assassin’s Creed II. While in mid air, Ezio can reach an arm out mid-jump to snatch at nearby ledges and ropes to avoid a nasty drop, or to take an alternative route. Experienced players can use this to give themselves more control when exploring the city’s rooftops.

Ubisoft’s experimental game, Grow Home, has got this great climbing system where the two triggers are used to grab with your two robot hands, and you must do that carefully and rhythmically to climb up these massive plants. As you get higher and higher, and nervously wobble along these thin branches, it gets genuinely quite tense. Compare that to climbing this massive tower in Tomb Raider 2013, which you heroically scaled by holding up on the analogue stick. Lara might look terrified, but trust me you won’t be.

One of the reasons Grow Home works is because hero BUD is animated in real-time instead of using pre-canned animations. That’s the secret behind the mad flash game Gurk II, because this game is all about building momentum as you tense your muscles to lunge yourself towards the next handhold. The shirtless ginger climber must be able to bend and flex in all sorts of directions. The game also benefits from an absurd control scheme, where you have to hold various letters on the keyboard to clime. Developer Bennett Foddy told Wired that he intentionally made players “Grip the keyboard just like you would cling to the cliff”, and says his games tap into “A kind of neurological magic which makes you feel like you are the character, rather than just controlling a little guy on the screen.

You can go even further than that with the genuinely, quite brilliant, and utterly exhausting Rock ‘N Roll Climber for WiiWare, which has you gripping and releasing different buttons on the remote and Nunchuck, and then physically reaching out to scale a cliff. Once at the top you play some air guitar, obviously.

If you don’t want to go quite so literal in your climbing metaphor perhaps look to a different Ubisoft game, I Am Alive, where your character has a stamina meter that depletes when you climb up buildings. You expend more if you jump while climbing, and if you use up the whole meter you go into a tense last ditch scramble that leaves a lasting impact on your stamina bar. This like the grip meter in Shadow of the Colossus, makes you think more carefully about how you’ll approach climbing in the game.

What all these games do is prove that climbing can be challenging and a nuance. By asking you to consider things like momentum, inertia, and grip strength, they prove that traversal can actually be a mechanic that’s very bit as deep as combat. They also give you options. Where the route for a room in Rise of the Tomb Raider is often linear and prescribed, these games ask you whether you want to take the slow and easy route or the fast and dangerous one, and provide a tangible sense of reward when you pull off the tricky combination of moves, and perfectly-timed button presses that the hard road requires. Many of them use their controls to make you feel closer to the action on screen, and use real-time animation to capture the dynamic and analogue nature of scrambling up a wall.

If Lara Croft wants to trade in climb ring for killing, that’s her business. You do you, Lara, I’ll find my fun in the Challenge Tombs. For a second imagine the Tomb Raider Game with the physics of Mirror’s Edge, the tense grip meter of I Am Alive, and the hand over hand climbing of Grow Home, and just try and tell me that it doesn’t make you a little bit excited.

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Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Blend Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Blend Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Why Shovel Knight Is The Perfect Dose Of Old School Gaming Nostalgia

Some games are all about nostalgia. They remind us of the good old days, the days before microtransactions and military shooters and massive updates. Maybe we should thank or blame, depending on your experience, Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform where we give designers millions of dollars not to make new games but to make distinctly old ones, games like Bloodstained and Ukelele and Thimbleweed Park. I hope all of those developers have played this game, Shovel Knight. It was also a Kickstarter project generating some three hundred thousand dollars for its developer and perhaps more than any other game successfully tapped into this sentimentality for the past. I’m Mark Brown, this is Game Maker’s Toolkit, and here’s how Shovel Knight did it.

With his blue armor plating and the way he battles similarly shaped boss characters all with similar names, Shovel Knight is definitely reminiscent of Mega Man, but he doesn’t shoot lemons out of his arm. Instead, he’s got a short shovel swipe that brings back memories of Ninja Gaiden’s stubby sword. His downward plunge is reminiscent of DuckTales. Shovel Knight’s special moves are cribbed from Castlevania, most notably the throwing anchor that works exactly like Simon Belmont’s iconic ax. Levels are picked from a map, like in Super Mario Brothers 3, complete with these enemy encounters, and the towns, where you level up and talk to other characters, look like the ones in Zelda 2.

Instead of trying to copy a specific game from yesteryear, Shovel Knight borrows liberally from the entire NES catalog to make a game that reminiscent of 8-bit games in general. That’s smart, because when you’re trying to evoke the memories of one game or one series, you’re not only trying to compete with the actual game, but also people’s nostalgic memories of that game. That’s something else entirely. Old games look better, sound better, and feel better in our heads. We misremember the size of the worlds and the lengths of the quests. Our memory is rose-tinted. We remember the epic moments, but we forget about the grinding. We remember the thrill of beating a tricky level, but block out the one-hit kills that had us breaking controllers.

“Instead of trying to copy a specific game from yesteryear, Shovel Knight borrows liberally from the entire NES catalog to make a game that reminiscent of 8-bit games in general.”

Shovel Knight dodges most of that, because it isn’t tied to the expectations and baggage of a specific game, but it does have to contend with our cognitive bias of what retro games in general were like to play. To do this, it first takes everything that make those games so good: the strict focus on a single mechanic and imaginative level design that conjures up dozens of ways to explore that idea, the precision and consistency that comes from chunky characters and grid-like levels, the secrets and the bosses, the way these games taught you stuff through level design instead of tutorials, and the way they let you start playing in a matter of seconds.

But, it’s not afraid to throw away the stuff that sucked about those games. Most notably, the punitive death systems that were a hold over from arcade game design and a way to stop you finishing these games in an afternoon. You won’t find yourself running out of lives, or witnessing too many cheap hits, or re-spawning enemies. The game might knock you back when you get hit, which is what sent you to your death over and over again in Castlevania, but Shovel Knight quickly gives you air control to get back to safety. Oh, and you also don’t have to blow on a cartridge to stop the game from glitching out.

When fixing those issues from the past, Yacht Club borrows from modern games when it makes sense. The game’s got a system where you lose your money when you die, and you have to make your way back to where you failed to reclaim your loot, a system ripped straight out of Dark Tales. It makes sense. It gives your deaths meaning and introduces a layer of tension, without forcing you to replay entire levels or start from scratch. The checkpoints also let you pick your own difficulty which is a more modern way of thinking about challenge. If you break a checkpoint, you will get a big load of loot, but you won’t come back to that area when you die. A clever risk versus reward setup and proof that Shovel Knight isn’t just ripping off other games, but coming up with ideas of its own.

Here’s the one that’s going to get me in trouble with the commenters, but Shovel Knight is also more progressive than most NES games. Many 8-bit adventures were about saving your girlfriend or your sister or a princess from capture, and while Yacht Club does reference this, it flips it on its head by making Shield Knight strong and capable.


In essence, Shovel Knight is tricking you. It makes you think you’re playing an NES game without you fully realizing that you’re actually playing one without the limitations of that console. Nowhere is that more true than in the presentation of the game, because, hey, no NES game looked like this. The most obvious change is the switch to widescreen to fit modern TVs and hand-helds. It also has full parallax scrolling which is where the foreground and background layers move at different speeds to suggest depth. The NES only had one layer, so games like Shatterhand, Return of the Joker, and Sword Master used animated tiles and backgrounds with distinct horizontal lines to fake the effect.

Shovel Knight totally cheats by using multiple layers, like on a Super Nintendo. The game can also render loads of sprites on one horizontal line without flickering, there are more particles on screen than the NES could handle, the game’s got a higher color palette, and there are more colors per sprite and more palettes simultaneously on screen than were allowed by the hardware. The music is more faithful, but perhaps not to western ears. It mimics Konami’s powerful Famicom only via C6 sound chip gave the Japanese version of Dracula’s Curse three more sound channels to play with. Here’s how that compares to the US release.

Plus, Shovel Knight ignores the limitation that score sound effects cut through the music on the NES, as sounds and music had to share the same channels. This game cheats and plays both simultaneously. To most people, they won’t even notice these tricks. It looks and sounds faithful to the NES, because this is what retro games feel like in our memory. When you play a game like Mighty Gunvolt which is more slavishly faithful to the 8-bit aesthetic, looks a bit too plain.

Shovel Knight presents us with four principles for successful nostalgic design. It borrows from multiple sources. It takes the best bits of its source material, and isn’t afraid to modernize what didn’t work, and it presents the games with a familiar retro aesthetic, but with a rose-tinted filter. We can use this to see why other nostalgic releases did or did not work. Hyper Light Drifter borrows not just from a link the past but also Mega Man Zero, Miyazaki movies, and Diablo. It’s challenging and oblique like a good retro game, but has smooth analog controls and liberal checkpoints. While it has 16-bit pixel art, it has a unique color palette and more things on screen that any Super NES game would dare show.

Mighty Number 9, on the other hand, is just trying to be Mega Man. It takes everything from those games, not just the frantic boss battles and themed levels, but the frustrating deaths and limited lives. Its visual style is just, what is this? This isn’t anything. It was supposed to remind us of the best bits of Capcom’s Forgotten Hero, but ended up reminding us of all its worst traits, even the awful, awful, voice acting.

There is, of course, more to Shovel Knight than nostalgia. It’s built by ex-Way Forward developers who have years experience making 2D platformers. The level design is top-notch, and it’s charming and funny, without relying on memes or groan-worthy references. But above all, it’s a fantastic example of nostalgia done right.

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