It’s not quite right calling Shovel Knight throwback, though it certainly borrows a lot from the games of yore. Instead, it successfully cherry-picks the bits that you like to remember, cutting the fat of the parts you’d rather forget, and injecting it with a few modern concepts. The resulting mishmash is something that aesthetically fits in the past but stands tall anywhere.
Developed by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight started out as a Kickstarter project with the absolute intent of paying homage to the historic 8-bit games of founder Sean Velasco’s youth (and, presumably, many other people’s childhoods as well). It blew well past its $75,000 goal at $311,502 and now we have the successful release of a 2D side-scrolling platformer featuring a knight with a shovel.
In any given level, your goal is to go from one side of the screen to the other, using your shovel to bash enemies in the face, dig up treasure, and bounce off the top of heads, pillars, and pretty much anything, really. This is where the game draws its most direct comparison to the NES DuckTales, the bouncing mechanic directly analogous to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick. (I suppose, though, that the eight bosses of the Order of No Quarter are rather Mega Many.
The difference, however, is that Shovel Knight makes it so much more than simply bouncing. It is your lifeline in many of the more difficult levels (read: any level), inspiring a puzzle game sensation as you try to figure out how to bounce over spikes, up bushes, and onto enemies in a single move. More often than not, however, you will be making these discoveries of survival tactics as you are doing them.
This is, without a doubt, a punishing game. The second level, for instance, has you already jumping against foregrounds only lit for 0.3 seconds when lighting strikes with single space columns to jump to while ghosts chase you as you try to shovel a skull over to a platform so it can sink enough for you to progress. You will die a lot, but it never quite feels dirty like many genuine 8-bit platformers can.
Much of that rewarding demand of precision can be attribute to the fact that the game handles just so god damn well. This is where it harkens back most heartily to yesteryear, an age of gaming where one button was dedicated to jumping and the other to attacking, and both had to work perfectly or the entire game was worthless. Shovel Knight can often be systemically more complex than any game from NES days and still it hits that level of mechanical quality.
It’s important to note that sentiment permeates the entirety of the game. It does not attempt to simply steep in referential humor or gameplay as its sole success but instead makes the key references as inspirations towards gameplay and design. This means it’s not afraid to mix it up with more modern considerations.
For instance, when you die, you are zapped back to the last checkpoint, but a rather sizable portion of your gold is dropped as big bags of collectable money. You have the chance to get it all back, but in a Dark Souls-ish twist, if you die again before doing so, it’s all gone. For good. And given that you likely died unintentionally, it’s going to be tough getting it back.
Of course, dying may just not be in your game plan, and in that case, you can simply destroy the checkpoints. It’s a brilliant scheme where the player more or less chooses his own safety net frequency. When you destroy them, you get a hefty reward, but the checkpoint is rendered inert. It’s absolutely brilliant, rewarding skill and punishing hubris.
The rewards, however, are quite worth it, earning new secondary weapons and upgrades. The weapons range from a fireball wand to a very Castlevania-esque throwing axe, each one deserving of a period of discovery, learning the what and how of their operations. It’s an old school notion of initial inscrutability, but it’s also part of the charm of the game, forcing you to explore both the physical and the mechanical spaces.
And then the surface-level success of Shovel Knight is also there. Its visual rendition of the nostalgic 80s and 90s is pitch-perfect, somehow surpassing those that settle for pixel art and nothing more. Granted, the animations and color pallet of the game easily surpass the NES’ capabilities, but the otherworldly combinations of purple and green and strident reds reminds you rather faithfully of what it was like when substitute colors took the place of natural hues.
Oh yeah, and the soundtrack is pretty killer. While we often say the core of a retro-inspired game is far more important than its skin, what we see and hear is vital to the experience as well. But in Shovel Knight‘s case, it succeeds both on the surface and far below where exemplary game design and modern innovations sit atop a choice best-of selection of what we’d prefer to recall from the days of single-digit bits. You should most definitely play Shovel Knight.
+ Takes a simple mechanic and expands it into an interesting and expandable set of gameplay scenarios
+ Fun world full of intriguing characters and villains
+ Difficult without being frustrating
+ An exceptional blend of old platformer ideals and modern design inspirations
+ Looks great and sounds even better
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Shovel Knight
Release: June 26, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling platformer
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Available Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U