Let’s not mince words. Shovel Knight is a retro-modern masterpiece.
Prepare to taste justice. Shovel Justice!
Ah, the joys of nostalgia. If you’re someone lucky enough to still own an NES, then you already know the joys of firing up the classic system and basking in the days-gone-by joy of some original Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Mega Man. Sure, the graphics of the 1980s can’t compete with today’s eighth generation consoles, and those classic 8-bit tunes have nothing on today’s fully orchestrated soundtracks. Weapon options? Forget about it. The reality is that classic game systems can’t compete with modern technologies when compared 1-to-1. Today’s gaming offers a much broader palate of options. That’s just technological progress.
And yet, whether it’s novelty, nostalgia, or even just pure fun, you can’t deny that there’s something appealing about revisiting the classics of an outdated system. After all, they’re “classics” for a reason. And with a retro influence all across pop culture today, it only makes sense that that influence would eventually reach console gaming. Enter Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight. Funded via Kickstarter, the 8-bit-inspired platformer finally arrived in June after numerous delays. But don’t be dissuaded by the late delivery; Yacht Club wasn’t needlessly stalling, and Shovel Knight is well worth the wait. It’s the classic game that you get to play for the first time in 2014.
Gamers play as the titular Shovel Knight, a chivalrous adventurer once again taking up his shovel and dispensing justice years after a battle at the Tower of Fate left him separated from his beloved partner/assumed lover, Shield Knight, who was sealed away in the Tower by the mysterious Enchantress – the game’s final boss. Distraught, Shovel Knight wandered the world alone while the Enchantress’s henchmen, The Order of No Quarter, took over the surrounding lands. Now that the Tower has finally come unsealed, Shovel Knight reclaims his place as the land’s great protector and sets out to defeat The Order of No Quarter and uncover the mystery that lies at the heart of the Tower of Fate.
Shovel Knight’s influences are readily apparent. The map screen and eight worlds are direct descendants of Super Mario Bros. 3, and The Order of No Quarter is an obvious nod to the same game’s Koopalings, small bosses with a variety of attacks that, when taken together, teach the player the skills needed to defeat the game’s final boss. Shovel Knight’s fighting technique of bouncing on top of enemies with his shovel is a callback to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo-cane battle style in the DuckTales game. The level design is pure Mega Man, and the bosses also owe a debt to Castlevania.
I really think the game’s best sales pitch is its own trailer:
The game’s lineage is clear, but it would never succeed if it merely copied these other games. Shovel Knight thrives because it acknowledges its predecessors while forging a world all its own.
The main controls are simple: Move, jump, and attack with your shovel, but throughout the game Shovel Knight has the option to buy magical weapons, upgrade his shovel, and purchase different suits of armor. These different add-ons change the game by making your attacks stronger, increasing your defenses, or bolstering the magic supply needed to use your advanced weapons. I was surprised to find the variety of different advanced weapon approaches among other players when I looked around online. My first time through the game I stuck with the Flare Wand, one of the game’s earliest collectable weapons, for my entire journey. Other players swore by the War Horn. Some thought you were a moron if you didn’t use the Chaos Sphere. There’s a variety of choices. You just have to find what works for you.
The game features a slate of themed levels based on their bosses, familiar to anyone who’s played old side-scrolling platformers before. Polar Knight’s domain is an ice and snow level. Treasure Knight resides over an underwater world. The game runs the gamut from fire levels and machine-like moving platform levels to the obligatory flight level. Again, that isn’t to say this is all old hat. Shovel Knight is wonderfully designed, and the bosses and levels feel inventive and fresh. Particular praise goes to the scythe-wielding Specter Knight and the plague doctor costume-inspired Plague Knight, but there’s only one bad boss in the entire game.
One of the game’s most interesting features is the removal of extra lives in favor of a money system. Shovel Knight collects gold and gems during his quest, and when he dies some of that money is taken out of his coffers and left floating in the air at the location of his death. Make it back to that point and you can recollect that money and continue onward with no foul, but if you die before getting your lost treasure back then it’s gone for good. A smaller sum replaces it in the location of your most recent death. On one hand, this is pretty great. You could realistically play forever as long as you don’t mind diminishing returns on your lost treasure if you’re in a spot where you’re prone to die a lot. On the other hand, you need as much money as possible to buy upgrades throughout the game, and it can get very frustrating seeing your funds continually diminish as you die again and again.
Shovel Knight is fantastic, but it isn’t without a few problems, the sometimes frustrating money system among them. One of the worst things about early NES games was the inability to save your progress. How infuriating was it to be on a roll when you suddenly had other responsibilities to take care of, and you were left debating whether to leave the game running while you were gone or turn it off and lose your progress? Shovel Knight isn’t quite that bad, but you can only save your progress from the map screen. There’s no way to save from inside a level. You have to either defeat the boss and advance or start the entire level over again. It’s 2014. You shouldn’t have to make that decision.
There’s also some strangely disparate levels of difficulty for the bosses. Specter Knight is the first member of the Order of No Quarter that Shovel Knight encounters in the game, and he’s surprisingly difficult. With your limited health and small available variety of attacks he’s devilishly hard. However, Tinker Knight, one of the game’s later bosses, is stupidly easy. Tinker Knight is easily the game’s worst boss and he’s probably the only one you won’t have to make more than a couple of attempts at. It would have been nice to see the difficulty spread out a little more evenly. That said, the game is probably harder overall than you would expect it to be. Just because people can now beat the original Super Mario Bros. in 10 minutes doesn’t mean that all NES games were a breeze. Some (think Castelvania III) were crazy hard. Shovel Knight is somewhere in the middle. It has a modest level of difficulty, but even at its worst moments you’ll find yourself picking up the controller again after a few minutes away from the game (note: Early on I found myself incredibly frustrated and ready to throw my controller across the room. It was my own fault. If you gather the extra weapons like you’re supposed to and play the levels in the proper order it shouldn’t be impossibly hard). Every time you battle a boss you learn a little something new until you finally develop the skills necessary to beat him, and, when you do, there’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment at achieving your goal. It’s the kind of game you’d have dumped buckets of quarters into playing at an arcade as a kid.
Like I said, Shovel Knight wouldn’t work as just an interesting retro novelty. The soundtrack is excellent. The gameplay is fun. The bosses are varied and inventive. The art, even with its original NES color palate, looks beautiful. Even the story’s conclusion at the Tower of Fate is surprisingly moving, if a little bit predictable. All of the fantastic pieces add up to a great game. And it’s a great game available at a fraction of the price of today’s typical console offerings. While Titanfall will cost you around $50, you can download Shovel Knight for just around $15. It’s currently available for Nintendo Wii U and 3DS, PC, and Mac with more platforms possible in the future.
Some websites have called Shovel Knight a real contender for Game of the Year honors despite its independent production origins. That’s high praise, but I’m not personally enough of a hardcore gamer to be able to speak to that. What I can say is that Shovel Knight is a wonderfully developed retro game made with a knowing wink to the classics of the past, but a heart and soul of its own. It’s a joy to play, and a labor of love for its creators. In short, Shovel Knight is a masterpiece.