Platforms: PC, WiiU, 3DS
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Whenever I stumble across a game claiming to be “retro” these days it’s hard not to let out a heavy sigh, not so much because the current trend of producing such titles is becoming tiresome, although it most certainly is, but because the vast amount of games that aim to replicate the 8-bit days fail miserably in doing just that. They’re so clearly modern games attempting to ape the original 8-bit titles wrapped up in a sometimes convincing costume. But Shovel Knight is one of the very few retro games that actually feels retro, like it was something that could exist back in the day. More importantly, it’s just a damn good game.
It successfully taps into nostalgia by capturing all of the fun of the 8-bit days while managing to avoid most of the crap that we’ve pushed to the back of our minds, the memories that we don’t want to remember. That’s because ultimately whether we like to admit it or not, the actual 8-bit era wasn’t as good as we remember it being. That’s the tricky thing about memory, it can be so easy modified and reshaped without our knowledge or consent. But the highest compliment that Shovel Knight can be paid is that it plays and feels exactly like those rose-tinted memories.
The writing alone sets Shovel Knight apart in that there’s no self-referential humour or attempt to parody the very games it takes inspiration from. The developers have chosen to write this in a manner befitting their influences, and that in turn serves to make the fantasy of this being a game that could genuinely have appeared on the NES all the more powerful.
So, here’s the deal: you play as the titular Shovel Knight, a knight who wields a…er, shovel. Once Shovel Knight and his beloved Shield knight travelled the world together seeking treasure, standing side by side against whatever evil befell them. However, upon discovering a strange tower they fall into the power of a cursed amulet. Upon awakening Shield Knight finds himself outside of the tower, which has been sealed shut. Believing Shield Knight lost, Shovel Knight goes into a self-imposed exile. In his absence an evil called the Enchantress takes control of the realm. Upon hearing that the mysterious tower has been unsealed, Shovel Knights sets out to discover what happened to Shield Knight, and in order to get there he needs to first defeat the Enchantress and her eight knights.
If it all sounds incredibly cheesy that’s because it is. But the important thing is that in the context of what Shovel Knight is trying to be it works perfectly. The dialogue is full of hokey, dramatic speeches, and is frequently awesome. He may have the depth of a toaster but there’s something incredibly charming about Shovel Knight, while dream-like sections after certain stages where you must try to catch a falling Shield Knight, often while battling countless enemies, are simple, yet manage to make you care about these little characters and their plight.
Gaming has brought about many iconic weapons, from the vicious Lancer used to chainsaw enemies in half to the Asassin’s hidden blade. Shovel Knight, meanwhile, opts for a shovel. Yup, a shovel. While it can be used to swipe at the many foes you’ll encounter along the way and dig up treasure, its most interesting offensive feature is how it can be utilised as a pogo-stick, a skill that lies at the heart of the game as bouncing off of enemies is key, often being used to reach high platforms or make it across otherwise impassable gaps. This is frankly amazing, because whenever I try to use a shovel in this manner it just sinks straight into the ground, and leaves me with sore ankles.
Progressing through the 2D levels requires a combination of both combat and platforming, forcing you to leap, slash, bounce and attack through each screen. Rather than have levels simply scroll left to right, each area is its own single screen with the next loading in when you touch the edge of the first, allowing the developers to create almost self-contained puzzles that all click together thematically. Early levels just need you to hack a few enemies and jump across some chasms, but as the game goes on things become more and more complex, each screen needing deft finger work and a quick mind to defeat. Enemy types all follow patterns, their unique brand of attack easy to learn, but once mixed together with other foes or tricky platforming section they create a formidable challenge. You’ll bounce on massive cannon balls shot from a huge gun while trying to combat flying enemies or avoid incoming attacks, leap from platform to platform as gouts of flame lick at your heels and battle enemies while trying not to fall down a hole.
Each stage introduces a new twist into the mix in order to keep the simplistic central mechanics feeling fun and fresh, such as pitch black sections illuminated by lightening that forces you to either wait for the flashes or picture each jump in your mind. Constantly shifting wind that can pull you up into the air then throw you back down features in another level, while a different level places green blobs that could be whacked into lava in order to turn it into a bouncy substance, although the effect was short-lived. When mixed with moving platforms and things that need precision timing it becomes a devious but brilliant idea, demanding that you carefully time chucking in the green goop so that you can bounce just here and then here so that you’ll land just there just before the lava returns and burns off your feet.
The difficulty curve is well-paced, guiding you along until eventually you’re managing to pull off incredible feats of skill, dodging multiple projectiles and bouncing from enemy to enemy in a perfect state of flow. For such a simple mechanic as bouncing on a shovel there’s an amazing sense of satisfaction to be had from it, and the developers constantly keep it interesting with each new twist on the formula.
Alongside your shovel you’ll also gain access to a small variety of other abilities, such as a heavy anchor that can be thrown in a high arc and the power to briefly “phase” out of existence, rendering you immune to damage. They add welcome spice to an otherwise very straightforward set of mechanics and can be swapped between at will via a menu. Interestingly to earn these abilities you need to explore the levels rather than having them simply handed to you, thus it’s entirely possible to play through the game without ever adding one of these handy tools to your armory. There’s even certain hidden sections you can’t tackle without certain abilities, almost goading you into searching through levels for something you missed.
And indeed there’s quite a bit to miss. Plenty of hidden areas give you reason to remain ever watchful. These hidden areas may sometimes only be a chest with some extra cash, but other times they’ll contain challenging sections with bigger discoveries.
Boss battles are your end of level reward, again following the old rule of using a certain mix of moves that must be learned and combated. They can be annoying at first as you find yourself battered into oblivion, seemingly unable to move without being struck, but then you uncover the secret to success, at which point it’s a case of becoming fast enough and good enough to achieve victory. Shovel Knight is by no means an easy game, but because of that it’s also one that provides a constant sense of wonderful accomplishment.
Although it’s a bold claim Shovel Knight has almost perfected the concept of checkpoints. For starters checkpoints are damn nearly perfectly placed within the levels, each one ensuring that while death feels like a punishment you’re never sent so far back as to make you simply want to give up and try again later. But the truly clever thing is that you can choose to smash up a checkpoint, losing the ability to return to it in exchange for a relatively substantial chunk of money. It’s an ingenius, brilliant risk vs reward mechanic, one that left me pondering what to do at every checkpoint, contemplating just how hard the previous section had been and whether it was worth the extra gold. It’s like an in-game method of adjusting the difficulty in a game that otherwise has no way of making things easier or harder for the player. Indeed, there’s an Achievement for smashing up every single checkpoint in the game, turning every level into a nail-biting experience.
As for death itself the developers have taken a leaf out of the Dark Souls playbook, albeit with a more gentle touch. Die and a chunk of your hard earned gold, acquired by grabbing the various jewels scattered throughout a level, will be left at the point of your demise, floating through the air in three sacks. Successfully grab these bags and you’ll reacquire what you’ve lost, but fail and its gone for good, or worse die again and you’ll lose even more. It encourages you to spend your gold whenever you can between levels, rather than risking its loss. However, there are some problems with the system. cash can be used to buy things like Meal Tickets, which are in turn exchanged for health in the local village. New armor and bits and small weapon upgrades can also be bought to help you on your journey. It’s just a shame that you can buy the vast majority of the items available well before the game ends, unless, of course, you’re truly hopeless and constantly lose your hard-fought money. Jewels really aren’t all that hard to come by, though, and you can always replay levels to get more. This takes a lot of the sting out of death, especially later in the game when you already own everything useful anyway. It also means players might be less likely to smash up a checkpoint.
There’s also the small matter that quite a bit of the time your gold can’t be recovered due to the area you die in. Fall down a pit, for example, and you’ll return to find your sacks of gold floating half-way down the fatal drop, impossible to grab without falling to your doom once again. Or you might find the bags floating up against spikes that instantly kill you, again making them irretrievable. At these moments you just need to sigh and accept that the money is gone before moving on to the next challenge.
Between levels you’ll travel around a world map that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played Mario 3. Here you can revisit stages to acquire more cash and tackle roving NPCs, which sometimes take the form of boss fights and other times small levels. There’s a couple of towns to visit that are inhabited by a myriad of strange creatures, and it’s here you can spend gold on buying a new suit of armor, adding a couple of new abilities to your shovel and upgrading your basic health and magic stats. To push back the control of the Enchantress you must successfully defeat the various Knights who are in control of the different stages. At any given time you’ve got one to three stages to choose from, so if you get stuck on one you can always quite out and head over to another evil lair in the hopes of meeting with more success.
Getting through the game will probably take you about six to eight hours, but the adventure doesn’t stop there as you can take on New Game+ mode which drops the amount of checkpoints down to just two per level, decreases the amount of health pickups you find and doubles all damage dealt by enemies. On the flipside all gold and upgrades carry over, so at least you won’t have to start from scratch. Playing through Shovel Knight in New Game+ isn’t the hardest thing you’ll do in a game, especially as there is a combination or items that really damages the balance in both this and standard mode, but it still offers a stiff challenge and incredibly sense of accomplishment.
Graphically Shovel Knight really is a delight to look at. The developers have nailed the look and feel of an 8-bit in just about every concievable way, with an attention to detail that’s impressive, including the use of parallax scrolling. Naturally it’s a basic visual style, but enemy designs are universally awesome and everything is beautifully animated, making this a real looker. As for the soundtrack it’s nothing short of superb with a relatively impressive amount of tracks on offer. Each area has its own unique tune, as do the bosses.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Shovel Knight is going to be supported by a raft of free updates over the coming year that add in a four-player battle mode, playable campaigns for many of the boss characters and even a challenge mode. Naturally these things don’t affect the score attached to the end of the review or my current opinion of the game, since all reviews here are written based on what the game is at the time of writing, but it’s nice to know that Shovel Knight will be expanding in the coming months.
Pick apart the game and its easy to see the developer’s many influences, the souls of Ducktales, Mario, Castlevania and Mega Man are all present, continuing to live on in Shovel Knight’s fantastic design. In terms of what this game is trying to be it’s a hard title to find much to fault, aside from a few small grips in regards to the death system and economy. Its precise controls, fun gameplay and quirky charm make for a challenging piece of gaming that understands the 8-bit era, cherry picking all the good stuff to create something brilliant, and despite being built on the bones of other classic games Shovel Knight manages to feel unique. It is its own thing, and deserves your attention.
+ Looks lovely.
+ Plays brilliantly.
– Losing gold down a chasm.
– Not enough stuff to buy later in the game.
The Verdict: 4.5/5
Not just inspired by 8-bit games, Shovel Knight truly is an 8-bit game, capturing the beautiful glory of platforming action that lives within our memories.