Shovel Knight | Principal Platforms: PlayStation 4, Wii U (version tested), 3DS, Xbox One, PC | Developer: Yacht Club Games | Publisher: Yacht Club Games | Genre: 2D Platformer | Year: 2014
The comparisons between Shovel Knight and Mighty No. 9 are hard to avoid. Both are inspired by the same classic 2D platformers and both development teams clearly had their eyes set on bringing the past back up-to-date via an enticing modern release.
Whereas Mighty No. 9’s public opinion crashed and burned on the Kickstarter runway though, Shovel Knight was warmly received by its faithful backers and has gone on to become something of a classic in its own right.
Shovel Knight’s devotion to retro presentation is absolute. You can see it in the 8-bit pixel art, hear it in the chiptune soundtrack, and even feel it when newly rendered areas draw themselves on-screen. The game is keen to borrow gameplay mechanics too and chief among these is the Duck Tales “pogo” attack that allows our titular hero Shovel Knight to bounce on top of enemies and obstacles alike.
This fun ability becomes central to the game’s design as repeated bounces allow players to score combo points, reach hidden areas, and deal heavy damage to bosses. Those same bosses are especially memorable encounters and Shovel Knight’s quest brings him into direct contact with every member of this villainous Order of No Quarter.
Similar to Mega Man before it, Shovel Knight can be tackled in a semi-linear fashion and you’ll find a themed boss waiting for you at the end of every major level. Whether it’s the hulking Polar Knight or the diminutive Tinker Knight though, these encounters are a blast and are among the game’s highlights.
Such familiar design elements do well to mimic familiar NES-era classics and whilst the tribute in this sense is stunningly authentic, it does take some getting used to at first.
In true old-school fashion, Shovel Knight is a tough game. It’s important to stress that the difficulty curve is well balanced on the whole, but the game does have a tendency to frustrate on occasion.
Dying (and therefore losing your gold coins) to another floor trap can be demoralizing and there are times in later levels where the route ahead isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be.
The things that Shovel Knight tries to do differently aren’t always noteworthy either. The fishing rod that allows you to acquire bonus items from sparkling pits seems rather pointless for one and there are a few early NPC battles that seem similarly out of place.
These flabbier ingredients are likely the product of Kickstarter stretch goals; content more in policy than inspiration. So too do you have the languid haunted house level and the unnecessary upgrades that can be applied to your shovel weapon. The town area where Shovel Knight can explore, meet NPCs, and purchase power-ups also runs out of content following the halfway point and gold coins quickly become meaningless as a result.
In spite of this, Yacht Club Games’ biggest success here has been in knowing when to borrow material in the name of nostalgia and when to do their own thing. You can read a superb article on how they deliberately exceeded the limitations of their NES blueprint and it’s a mentality that’s had a positive impact on other areas of the design.
1-ups – a “lives” system that’s almost ubiquitous in games of this ilk – are ditched in favour of frequent checkpoints and within the item menu you’ll find potential for a spot of character building too. The developers clearly have immense fondness for their source material, but they haven’t been blinded by nostalgia so much as to ignore the more detrimental features that older games sometimes possess.
Shovel Knight is a generous package with a new game+ mode, integrated achievement system, and even more free content to come throughout 2016.
There are also a few extras for the Wii U release including Miiverse messaging and helpful quick-select features for the Gamepad’s second screen. Perhaps the most exciting prospect though is that of an exclusive cooperative mode that’s unlocked via the Shovel Knight amiibo action figure. Yes, please!
The retail edition comes at an inflated price point to avoid budget shelves, which sucks, but a pack-in code for Jake Kaufmen’s wonderful soundtrack is a nice inclusion that helps add a bit of value.
By now you’ve probably made up your mind as to whether Shovel Knight is for you or not, but there’s one more facet of the experience that I feel is very important to mention: the story.
The story is perhaps the most surprising element of Shovel Knight because of how downright excellent it is. What starts out as a routine adventure soon becomes more layered and interesting as the game develops. The narrative is never overstated and is engaging well beyond what you’d expect from the game’s pixel art and text-based cutscenes.
As someone who expected a typical ‘beat the bad guys, rescue the damsel’ sort of deal, the maturely-written dialogue and expressive characters really caught me off guard. All of the recognizable tropes are in place of course, but things like the ‘evil castle finale’ and subsequent boss rush gauntlet play out so well that you can’t help but appreciate them.
All of this culminates in what is perhaps the best ending I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. The climax is thrilling and the credits medley delivers exactly what you want to see whilst still surprising you in its own charming way. It’s impossible to feel unsatisfied at the end of play.
Shovel Knight is obviously a love letter to video games of a bygone era, but writing it off as mere nostalgia-bait (as I almost did) would be a big mistake. Here is a game that takes the best ingredients of past glories in order to craft a new and exciting tale for today’s players to enjoy.
It may not be a game of many unique innovations, but Shovel Knight is a mechanically sound and entertaining platformer nonetheless and it’s one that feels right at home on Nintendo’s hardware.