Knackered: A Review of Knack
Knack is an interesting game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s a good game. It’s loose in all the wrong places, about four hours too long, and incredibly punishing for its intended audience. Mainstream reviewers have already torn it to pieces for all these faults.
None of this stopped me from playing it and, almost in spite of myself, mostly enjoying it. I didn’t always like it–it never managed the casual ease of something like Ratchet and Clank–but something about it kept me going, even as my RSS feed filled with 5/10 reviews.
Many of the criticisms of Knack revolve around the way it treats death, specifically the distance between checkpoints and fragility of the protagonist. Checkpoints are often placed at the beginnings of long gauntlets of difficult battles. It’s not uncommon in Knack to clear three or four rooms only to find yourself dying endlessly to one single new enemy type right before the next checkpoint. To exacerbate matters, you can often only take one or two hits before dying, reminiscent of old school arcade titles like Contra. There are no invulnerability frames either, meaning that after taking a hit, you’re still open to getting hit again. It can, at times, feel a little like a next-gen meat grinder.
It wasn’t until around the fourth chapter, when I was clutching my still-pristine controller with barely contained rage, that I realized what Knack really was: a punishing character action platformer that had more in common with intentionally-vicious Ghost n’ Goblins throwback Maximo than director Mark Cerny’s beloved Spyro the Dragon.
I suddenly found myself going to that same dingy place that I inhabit when playing Dark Souls: a moldy war room where strategy and planning are far more important than reflexes and brute force. Every fight became a delicate dance, more puzzle game than arcade brawler. Break left, kill the goblin with the bow, double jump and stun the beetle, combo the goblin with the axe, then finish off the beetle. Save the supermove for the final wave before the checkpoint…just in case.
It might seem maddening, but only to this latest generation of gamers who’ve been weaned off the highly punitive Japanese style of gameplay that dominated the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era of games. Remember “lives” and “continues?” See, it used to be that you had a finite number of times you could restart after dying. Once you ran out of these “credits,” you would be sent back to the title screen…to start over from Stage 1.
While Knack doesn’t kick you to a GAME OVER screen with every death, it still demands a little something from the player in payment for their failure, something that Western developers seem to have become afraid to do. Even the gritty world of Bioshock is studded with countless Vitachambers, ready to spawn a new player as if nothing had happened.
That’s the thing about Knack–even though it’s Mark Cerny’s baby, it’s still very much a Japanese game. The people who did the grunt work on Knack were Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, the in-house team responsible for boatloads of titles across the Playstation’s lifespan. Remember Ape Escape? Yeah, that was them. Were you one of the three people who played Puppeteer? Also them.
Thing is, in the last few decades especially, Western audiences have lost touch with the Japanese game scene that drives places like SCE Japan. As development has drifted towards the PC and Western platforms like the Xbox, we’ve forgotten how hard Japanese games used to be. It’s a tradition that goes way back, with a supercharged Super Mario Bros. 2 not getting a US version because, surprise surprise, it was too damn hard. Final Fantasy II? Radically easier than the original Final Fantasy IV in Japan.
Take Dark Souls for instance: death comes swiftly and without warning, often sending you anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes back to the last “checkpoint.” For the average Western gamer, just the thought that the game would actively punish you for failure was a slap in the face. It demands that you play according to its rules, tossing the whole idea of ‘easy mode’ or ‘story mode’ out the window. If you’re going to play Dark Souls, you’re going to fucking play Dark Souls. Even the burgeoning Japanese indie game scene subscribes to this battle-hardened mentality, with the maniacally obtuse La Mulana being a standout example.
In the West, we’ve instead seen the popularization of narrative experiences that can be divorced from their mechanics, opening up titles to everybody from the most hardened warrior to your grandmother. Look no further than the recently developed reboot of Devil May Cry if you want to see this in action. Developed by British studio Ninja Theory, it took the maddeningly complex mechanics of the first four Devil May Cry games, created by Hideki Kamiya and Capcom, and distilled them down to their more approachable core, something that everyone who frantically failed at Devil May Cry 3 could appreciate.
Is it a better game? Who knows. Different strokes for different folks.
Once I realized that Knack was really more like Pixar’s take on Hotline Miami it started to make sense. It’s quick, brutal, and unforgiving in all the same ways that old school arcade-y Japanese games are. I can see why people don’t like it; it’s not anything like it was positioned as. I feel awful for all the parents who’re nursing the bruised egos of children who find themselves crushed again and again by the cruel fist of Yusuke Watanabe, the game’s producer.
Then again, I was one of those kids who spent hours throwing myself against stuff like Battletoads or Ikari Warriors. Finally beating Knack felt like an achievement, not like crawling through something like Bioshock Infinite on my hands and knees.
Sure, I may just sound like a curmudgeonly old man shouting about how gamers had character back in his day, but I think that’s the wretched black heart at the center of Knack. It’s a reminder of what games were like back before difficulty modes and quicksaves, when the cost of victory was mastery and endings were only for the truly devout.
Was it a better time? Who knows. Different strokes for different folks.