Retro-styled indie platformers have become a common sight these days. It seems like every time an independent game is announced we hear about how it will let you re-live the glory days of the NES, and bring back all of those memories from your past. Unfortunately so few of these actually live up to the promise, culminating in a poor to decent product that does little to stand apart from the pack. Shovel Knight is quite a different story though. It not only lives up to the promise of bringing back the classic 8-bit style platformer, it exceeds it with both style and substance that truly stands up to today’s higher expectations.
Shovel Knight is the story of a knight who must go on a quest to defeat The Enchantress and her evil Order of No Quarter, who have taken over the land and wreaked havoc among the people. I was surprised how well done the story was. Using nothing but his trusty ShovelBlade, and various items found along the way, he will travel across the land to defeat all eight members of The Order of No Quarter, and confront The Enchantress herself in search of his girlfriend, Shield Knight.
Usually with 8-bit games the story was a simple, save the princess type affair. But with Shovel Knight the characters and plot are all fleshed out and full of as much depth as you could want from an 8-bit platformer. Don’t get me wrong, Shovel Knight is no Final Fantasy or Metal Gear, but it certainly has a world full of characters that you can care about more than the typical retro platformer. Memorable characters like The Black Knight, or The Troupple King will stick with you both due to their design and thanks to humorous writing and art.
You will have trouble wiping the smile from your face while playing Shovel Knight
The design and art of Shovel Knight is a complete nostalgia trip thanks to its 8-bit style. Everything looks and feels like an 8-bit game, but underneath you can tell that it was made in the modern day. Colors pop off the screen in full HD, and yet you’ll still feel like you just dusted off the old cartridge and jammed it into your NES. I had to assure a few spectators that the game had in fact been released this year, and I was not playing some classic from the 80’s. If you are all about slick, realistic graphics then stay far away from Shovel Knight. However, if you are looking for a game with a timeless art style that reminds you of all of your favorite games from the past then you will have trouble wiping the smile from your face while playing Shovel Knight.
And that smile will stick around even after the initial nostalgia trip wears off thanks to fine-tuned platforming that pays homage to the classics, while still using modern ideas to keep the game flowing. Using your ShovelBlade you traverse the various levels of Shovel Knight by running, jumping, and bouncing off of objects. These simple mechanics have been used so well in the past, and Shovel Knight is no exception. The game doesn’t waste much time before it confronts you with complicated platforming sequences that will test your patience, and your reflexes. Once you gather an assortment of items, such as the Dust Knuckles and Propeller Dagger, traversing these seemingly simple levels will become a true test of your abilities.
All of the excellent work that went into the world, its characters, and its design would have been for nothing had the level design not held up, but the developers at Yacht Club Games nailed that as well. Here is just one example of the frenetic action you’ll find in Shovel Knight. One area had me jumping over a fast moving cannonball, then pressing down to perform a shovel thrust which would propel me upward, moving along with the cannonball across an area littered with enemies, then hitting the one enemy I wanted on the head sending me skyward toward a secret area that contained my prize. These are the sorts of platforming levels that NES veterans dream about, the kind that leave you with sweaty palms, and a tightly gripped controller, and they are found throughout the entirety of Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight was a long time in the making, but it met and exceeded almost every expectation that I had built up for it
Those difficult, yet fun levels will inevitably lead to multiple deaths for the player. Dying is just one of those things that will happen often in Shovel Knight. Using a Dark Souls type of mechanic, every time you die you will drop a portion of the money you have on you at the time. If you make it back to that spot you can grab the floating money and be right back to normal. However, if you die on the way, or cannot reach the money bags then it is lost forever. Getting to the same spot you died at is an easy affair thanks to a well managed checkpoint system. Most level’s had well-placed checkpoints, but occasionally they would feel a bit off, such as having a dangerous section placed right before a new checkpoint. This could cause frustration due to repeatedly completing the same areas. This wasn’t an altogether common occurrence, but if you are easily frustrated by difficult games then keep it in mind.
Shovel Knight is available on Wii U, 3DS, and PC, but I played the Wii U version. Playing on the Wii U had its advantages, such as allowing me to switch items more easily thanks to the Gamepad. All of my items were shown on the bottom screen, and were a simple tap away. The 3DS version allows this as well, but the PC version requires you to pause the game in order to switch items. It isn’t a huge issue, but if you are deciding between versions it might be important to you. I also found the large D-Pad on the Gamepad to be a great way to control the game, especially compared to the Xbox 360 D-Pad I would have had to use on PC. On a few rare occasions the controls would have trouble during the more reflex heavy moments, such as pointing my character backward when I simply meant to press up, causing my thrown fireball to miss its target. Overall though the controls are extremely tight and responsive, so these were mere exceptions to the norm.
Shovel Knight was a long time in the making, but it met and exceeded almost every expectation that I had built up for it. If you are at all into retro-styled games then this is the game you have been waiting for. Everything from the art to the gameplay, from the controls to the amazing chip-tune soundtrack came together to form a total blast of nostalgia with enough modern twists to keep it fresh. My only big gripe with Shovel Knight at the moment is that it felt too short, but with the developer adding in new features, such as a New Game+ mode, and four player battle arena later on, that issue should be remedied soon.
- Available On: 3DS, Wii U, PC, Mac
- Published By: Yacht Club Games
- Developed By: Yacht Club Games
- Genre: Action Platformer
- US Release Date: June 26th, 2014
- Reviewed On: Wii U
- Quote: "Shovel Knight is a true masterpiece of retro platforming. If you ever enjoyed an NES title and wanted to relive those days then this game was tailor-made for you."