In defence of Knack, the review-proof game

Tuesday, 14 January 2014 13:12 GMT By Matt Martin

It’s the underwhelming launch title from the creator of the PlayStation 4 that’s still outselling Super Mario 3D World. So why, asks VG247’s Matt Martin, do kids love playing this turkey?

It’s easy to hate on Knack. The charmless characters, the repetitive gameplay, the lack of features. In a poorly supported kids market where only the excellent Traveller’s Tales Lego games have redefined what’s good and what’s possible, Knack looks like a throwback to a different, more primitive age.

But it’s a game that in the UK is still outselling critical darling Super Mario 3D World by a significant margin. Eyebrows were raised at that, partly due to snobbish suggestions that “people” don’t know a good game when they see one. But the thing is – and this is a blow to the egos of games journalists, marketeers, industry commentators, analysts and gamers – you can’t stop people buying whatever they want to buy, playing whatever they want to play, and enjoying it. Release a game and it’s at the mercy of the masses. But don’t be surprised when the masses take it to their bosom.

“Forget the whole ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ thing – that’s what the losers say. Children like winning and they win by using the same special move over and over again.”

Over Christmas my time was split between playing with the children and building toys for the children to play with. The Air Hogs helicopter was a pain in the arse to charge and the Playmobil camper van was missing a moulded wheel. While I tinkered with those I let my eight year-old son play on Knack. It’s harmless and he’ll soon get bored of it, I thought. Until I look up after he’s toyed around with it for a few days and he’s on level nine. He’s laughing at it and his little sister is shouting “concentrate, Dylan!”. Friends’ children come around to play it and they’re not bothered that we only have one DualShock 4 because they’re passing the controller around. It’s at this point I sit up and pay attention. What kind of a father am I?

You can’t tell a child what they should and shouldn’t play, whether pink girl toys or rubbish video games. You can try and influence them, sure, but they make up their own mind even at a young age. I believe they need to play some bad games so they know the good ones when they see them.

We play a lot of Lego Marvel Super Heroes in our house, I think it’s one of the best games ever made for children. I get jealous when my children play it without me. But as much as they enjoy smashing a brick Sandman, they seem just as happy to pick up that charmless robot dog thing in Knack and play though cliche after cliche. They’re only cliches to me because I played the same games on PSone, on Megadrive, on the Master System and the 2600. I’m an old fart.

Knack is repetitive. You don’t do a lot more than walk into an area, punch all the baddies and move on to another area to do the same thing. But children like repetition. Do you know how many times we’ve had to listen to Gangnam Style in the car? Our Batman Vs Scooby Doo DVD is almost see-through it’s been played that many times. The Knack disc is covered in scratches where it’s been kick around the floor and swapped in and out of the disc slot for better games. But when the children have gone to bed and I slump down for a nice hour of Battlefield 4 I’m soon cursing because I have to get up and swap the discs over again. That sodding Knack game is in the drive.

There are boss battles that would leave me seething with rage or bored with the inevitable three-hits-and-you’re-down mechanic. I can’t bare to watch them, yet my son is ripping enemies apart through rote learning. Patterns are identified and memorised and the boss is beaten. Forget the whole “it’s the taking part that counts” thing – that’s what the losers say. Children like winning and they win by using the same special move over and over again. They can’t get enough of it.

I used to do this back in the day, when I bought games based purely on the cover art. Now I have zero tolerance for it. I imagine many games reviewers face this problem too. I’m not saying games should be reviewed by a ten year-old, but a professional site’s 2 out of 5 score for Knack has no influence in the playground or to the parents paying for it. The day a designer working on a kids’ game stops listening to a 10 year-old he may as well give up. They are the perfect QA testers, playing the same part over and over again. I suspect this is exactly how Knack has been built from the very start. Those review scores were uncomfortable for Sony to see on launch day but they haven’t made a blind bit of difference to sales.The game is review-proof.

The thing is, children see the same problems with a game that reviewers do. They know boredom. They see weird bugs, they feel it’s unjust when death sends them back to a checkpoint miles away. That’s not a secret you learn in review school. There are difficulty spikes, but that’s what grumpy old parents like me are for. It’s two minutes of my time to get over a poorly designed hump in a game. It makes me feel good to save the day. There’s a co-op mode but we only have one DualShock 4 so we sit together and pass the controller back and forth, punching stupid goblins on screen and high-fiving at the end of another level. We’re laughing. Any game that brings people together is a good experience. Because there isn’t any shame in enjoying a bad game.

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