Shovel Knight is the most "Nintendo" game I've played in a long time.
I don't mean that as a disparaging remark and it's not a strike against the game. While many titles from indie developers rely on nostalgia to pull players in, using 2D sprite animation or classic gameplay tropes, Shovel Knight feels like it's a long-lost game from a specific era in Nintendo Entertainment System history. Specifically around 1987 to 1991, when Capcom's development team was cranking out some amazing platforming games like Mega Man, DuckTales, Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers, and Little Nemo: The Dream Master. It was a period where Capcom could seemingly do no wrong. If developer Yacht Club Games told me with a straight face that Shovel Knight was a forgotten title from that era that they dusted off and finished up, I'd believe them.
For Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games wandered through gaming history to pick and choose different bits to integrate into the final product. There's big hunks of Mega Man and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a bit of Castlevania, even a smidge of Super Mario Bros. 3. We've covered this before, but there's a difference between hearing about it and experiencing it yourself; despite drawing from all those different titles, Shovel Knight feels like a complete experience on its own.
You'll take up your controller - even if you're playing on PC, you'll want to play this with a controller - and guide the mighty Shovel Knight on his quest to bring freedom back to his homeland. Once, SK and his partner Shield Knight were the best adventurers in the land, but one quest went awry and Shield was trapped within a dungeon, never to be seen again. Shovel Knight retired to the countryside, leaving a vacuum that was eventually filled by The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter.
The Order is eight knights allied to The Enchantress' cause and this game's version of Mega Man's Robot Masters: King Knight, Specter Knight, Plague Knight, Mole Knight, Treasure Knight. Polar Knight,Propeller Knight, and Tinker Knight. Unlike Mega Man, you don't get to freely choose which Knight you want to tackle first; the game's map is laid out like Super Mario Bros. 3. You'll be able to choose between two to three Knights in an area, each with their own lair, and defeating them unlocks gates to the next area.
The design work on the Knights and The Enchantress is pretty amazing, recalling the more varied looks of Mega Man X's Mavericks over the earlier, simpler Robot Masters of Mega Man. Even in silhouette, I'm able to tell who's who, from the hulking Viking figure of Polar Knight, to the lithe grim reaper stylings of Specter Knight. Like those old Nintendo games, each Knight has its own set of mechanics you need to learn in order to defeat them. Unlike Mega Man, you can't rely on the right weapon to finish them off in a few hits.
The Knights themselves can be tough, but the real challenge is in navigating their themed lair. Here's where Shovel Knight design shines, with each level having unique mechanics you need to learn in order to proceed. There's the darkness of the Lich Yard, where you need to patiently wait for lightning strikes to light your way or the Lost City, where you have to master the timing of its many moving platforms. Levels earlier in the game only throw a few ideas at you, but like wading into a pool, eventually you're in very deep with tons of different mechanics vying for your attention. The levels don't throw everything at you at once, but it's certainly not easy and you will have to apply some brain power and reflexes to win.
The surprising thing is the flexible difficulty of Shovel Knight. Unlike many of those Nintendo games I mentioned in the beginning of this review, Shovel Knight isn't as punitive when you fail. Yes, spikes and pits mean instant death, but dying just means you drop some of your treasure. If you can make it back to where you died without dying again, you have a chance to pick up that lost treasure, meaning you've lost nothing but time. Unlike Mega Man, where you could lose a couple of lives in one section of a level and have to start all over again, Shovel Knight doesn't feel the need to rap you on the fingers with a ruler when you falter. Want more of a challenge? The checkpoints in each level can destroyed by expert players for more treasure.
That's not to say you won't run into areas where you'll lose a lot of treasure. You will. It's not just the Knights' lairs Shovel Knihgt has to tackle, there's also other assorted stages like the Hall of Champions or Knuckler's Quarry that will test your might. Random events also pop up on the map, leading to smaller levels with treasure or extra bosses like Reize, Baz, and the Black Knight. Everything's out to kill you. I lost nearly half of my treasure from repeated deaths in one extra level, the Forest of Phasing, before my timing was good enough to proceed. Luckily, even if you lose treasure you can actually revisit levels you've finished before to find hidden passageways and more loot.
You'll need to explore a healthy bit because each of the lairs hides the merchant Chester, who will sell you (see? treasure is important!) additional Relics. These items work like Castlevania's extra items, except once you've purchased them you can switch between them at will. Each item draws a certain amount of your mana with each use and you can replenish your stock by finding mana pots around each level. You'll probably stick to a few chosen items for most of your playtime in Shovel Knight, but using all of them is the key to making some of the encounters a bit easier and finding more hidden secrets, like music scrolls. (There are 46 music scrolls in the game and each one unlocks a song at the Bard, the game's version of the sound test.)
Treasure can also be used back at the villages to purchase new armor, upgrade Shovel Knight's health and mana, buy new Shovel abilities, or play mini-events. Each village is like the towns in Zelda II, full of a colorful cast of random off-beat characters like the Goatician, the Gastronomer, the Troupple Acolyte (don't ask), or Mary Sweets. Shovel Knight lives in a weird, weird world.
The entire gameplay experience is wrapped up in a story that's simple, but ends up being rather endearing. It won't completely surprise you, as you can see some ideas coming before they pay off, but you will feel for Shovel Knight and the rest of the crew. Well, not the Troupple. I have no clue what's up with that thing.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also spend some time talking about Shovel Knight's amazing soundtrack by Jake "Virt" Kaufman, with additional songs from Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae. Kaufman composed every song in a program called Famitracker, so the music is as close to the original NES sounds as possible. From the very first song, Strike the Earth, you get a soundtrack that recalls songs from NES classics like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy. Sometimes, I would just sit there and listen to the music, letting it take me back to memories of my childhood. I can't actually clap for the musical pair since this is just words on a screen, but imagine I am clapping, because the music is that good.
Yacht Club Games rounds out Shovel Knight with feats and achievements to unlock and a New Game+ mode once you've finished the game the first time. I played on Steam, meaning Steam Trading Cards were part of the deal, but Wii U owners have Miiverse support and 3DS players have the StreetPass Battle Arena. There's also other content planned for the game that was part of the game's Kickstarter drive, but isn't in at launch. This includes the Gender Swap mode (which I was sad to not find in my review build), Challenge Mode, Multiplayer Battle Mode, and playable campaigns for King Knight, Plague Knight, and Specter Knight. All this for just $15.
I'm reticent to give games a perfect score, but Shovel Knight never disappointed me. The closest I got was my issue with the use of Relics being bound to Up+Attack, but hiding in the options was the ability to change it to a single button press. My only real problem with the game is eventually... it ended. I can't say that with many games and Shovel Knight absolutely deserves every accolade heaped on it.
Now I just have to wait until Shovel Knight 2.
I've played plenty of retro remakes in the past five years, but very few have been as good as Shovel Knight. I would have to go back to 2008's Mega Man 9 to find a retro platformer that captures the spirit of the genre as well as this game. In some ways, I would even argue that Yacht Club's effort is even better.
Despite appearances, Shovel Knight is a platformer that is as willing to look forward as it is to look back. As we've covered in our Game Dev Recipes piece from a while back, Shovel Knight borrows a variety of concepts from games past. Its got Castlevania's items; Mega Man's themed stages and bosses, and Zelda II's attack mechanics. But its smart enough to play around with the genre's conventions a bit as well, and the result is a game that feels surprisingly modern.
To start with, it takes a notable risk in doing away with lives — a genre staple. Purists will no doubt be put out by what they perceive as a lack of challenge, but I like Yacht Club's thinking here. We're a long way from the days when games were forced to make up for a lack of memory space with pure challenge. By introducing the more modern checkpoint system, Shovel Knight encourages experimentation, becoming almost like a puzzle in its way. Which is not to say that its a cakewalk by any means. There were more than a few areas where I died repeatedly, with the Tinker Knight's stage being downright old-school in the amount of garbage it has flying through the air. But because I had infinite lives, I found that I had an easier time appreciating Shovel Knight's clever and varied level design, as well as its outstanding soundtrack.
What really surprised me though was how emotional Shovel Knight could be, which was definitely not something I was expecting from an 8-bit platformer. In one of its best sequences, Shovel Knight finds himself dreaming of his lost love - the Proto Man-like Shield Knight - by the campfire; and in his dream, you are implored to "Catch Shield Knight!" as you hack away at a host of enemies. Inevitably, there is a flash of light just as you're about to catch her and it's morning again, at which point Shovel Knight wordlessly trudges off to take on another member of the Order of No Quarter. It's a moment that reflects the medium's continued trend toward expressing emotion through gameplay, and its one that I have to say that I really like. I just wasn't expecting to find it in a retro platformer like Shovel Knight.
It's full of such moments though, and they are a large part of why I like Shovel Knight so much. Mega Man 9 was the perfect expression of what a pure Mega Man game ought to be; but because Shovel Knight isn't tied down by being an established franchise, I would argue that its able to go one step further. The best example of this in my mind are the boss battles, which are as wild as Mega Man's battles, but without the advantage of being able to kill a Robot Master in three shots. The boss battles in Shovel Knight are duels in the purest sense of the word, which makes it all the more satisfying to take down a particularly nasty boss like Polar Knight. Its one of many instances in which Yacht Club Games takes an existing ideas-themed boss battles-and makes it purer and even more enjoyable.
I don't know about everyone else, but I'm legitimately blown away by the thought and care that went into Shovel Knight's creation, which makes it one of the most enjoyable platformers I've played in years. I went in expecting good things because I have a lot of respect for the talent at Yacht Club Games, most of whom got their start at WayForward; but I honestly wasn't expecting a game that feels so modern while also being a loving tribute to the medium's past (not to mention hilarious). What a wonderful and unexpected surprise.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Yacht Club stayed mostly within the NES color palette and it shows. Even with the limited colors, every level and character looks distinct.
- Sound: The chiptunes are simply the best.
- Interface: It is an interface. It lets you select things and tells you when you're probably going to die.
- Lasting appeal: With a deep game to explore, New Game+, and the upcoming additional content, you won't be done with Shovel Knight soon. It's not a 100 hour monster, but it's good enough.