With waves of games “cashing in” on the current appreciation of 8-bit aesthetics, it would be easy to dismiss Shovel Knight as just another tribute game. To do so would be a grave error, however, as it not only captures the style and feel of the best classic platformers, it perfects them!
The story begins by introducing us to the Shovel Knight; a legendary adventurer who, alongside Shield Knight, attained many victories garnering much fame and fortune. Whilst exploring a cursed tower, Shield Knight sacrifices herself so that Shovel Knight may live. This act causes the tower to seal and drives our despondent hero into seclusion. During his absence, a new evil arises in the form of The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter. Upon learning they’d unsealed the cursed temple, Shovel Knight sets off to learn the fate of his beloved Shield Knight, which is where our adventure begins.
This story provides the somewhat traditional – but effective – framework for the game. Your goal is to fight your way to the Tower of Fate, battling the Order of No Quarter’s eight knights along the way. The game consists of side scrolling, 2D platforming levels, separated by a world map similar to that of Super Mario Bros 3. Each level is themed in accordance with its final boss, complete with unique hazards and enemies to suit: Polar Knight’s level is set in the icy mountains; Plague Knight has you traversing his slimy alchemical laboratory; and so on. Whilst this will seem familiar to anyone who’s played a Mega Man game, Shovel Knight’s level design and enemy/trap integration is executed to perfection. The basic mechanics of each level are consistent enough that you don’t feel you’re re-learning how to play every time, but the nature of the hazards make for a changing and engaging experience.
Each level is home to a relic – a magic item that grants you a special move or attack, giving you access to new areas or alternate ways to defeat foes. Unfortunately, whilst the idea is sound, not all relics are created equal. Some, like the Flare Wand, are powerful and useful in almost any situation, whilst others, such as the Throwing Anchor, have a unique pattern that only suits particular enemies. Whilst not a big problem, I did feel it threw off the balanced feel of the rest of the game. Another strange thing was that aside from a couple of bonus levels, no relics were strictly required to beat the game. Unlike Mega Man, bosses aren’t weak against particular relics, so in most cases they’re only useful in providing a different range for attacks… In fact, you can often beat the bosses just as easily by learning their moves and using your shovel, which is your primary weapon.
At it’s core, Shovel Knight is a fairly easy, standard platforming game. Levels are loaded with treasure for spending, roast dinners for health, and secret areas to discover. Checkpoints are frequent and game mechanics are clearly demonstrated. For example, there are some silhouette levels where you must navigate some platforms. Some platforms are solid whilst others will have you fall to your death. Luckily, it’s usually raining on these levels, so on closer inspection you should notice that raindrops splash on some platforms, but fall through others. As a result, Shovel Knight can be a “learn through death” experience at times, but it shouldn’t need to be. All game mechanics and hazards are clearly demonstrated for those who proceed carefully and pay attention to their surroundings.
Relics aside, most combat takes the form of close range melee, with Shovel Knight able to swing his spade like a sword or bounce on enemy noggins like Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick in Duck Tales. As you progress, you can augment your character with weapon and armour upgrades that assist in combat. Coupled with relics and chalices (potions that allow health, mana regen, or invincibility), this can make the game quite easy. Once you learn an enemy bosses attacks, you can often just kick back and launch fireballs or negate one of their tricky moves with 10 seconds of invincibility. Whilst not at “Gold Tanooki suit” level, they certainly made some of the boss fights feel like a cake walk.
Yacht Club Games intended Shovel Knight to be a modern day tribute to NES classics; a task at which they excelled. Not only does the gameplay build on the best the NES had to offer, but the visual stylings, music, and sound effects pay homage too. With an improved palette and far more powerful hardware, the game looks like an 8-bit classic without the limitations that were present in the 1980s. Non-flickering sprites, parallax backgrounds, and layered graphics all blend with the 8-bit styling to create a smooth and enjoyable experience, which should be aesthetically pleasing to those old enough to remember the original as well as people new to the experience.
The same can be said of the music, with an impressively extensive range of beautifully layered chiptune midis filling out the game’s soundtrack. Each of the 48 pieces of music is expertly crafted and, alongside being impressive in its own right, perfectly matched to events on screen. Retro graphics and music are often considered basic; however, proper composition and implementation is an amazing thing to behold. If you want to see it done right, you really must check out Shovel Knight.
In a clever move, Yacht Club Games added “feats” to provide an additional challenge for those who might find the game too easy. Feats are simply optional challenges that, if released on a home console other than 3DS (or Wii U for that matter), I’d imagine would be aligned with trophies or achievements. The feats reminded me of how I played games as a kid. Once a game was complete, my sister and I would issue challenges like “see how far you can get before you die” or “complete the game without buying upgrades”. This is all built in to Shovel Knight and really added to the nostalgic feel for me.
What makes Shovel Knight so amazing is that, whilst clearly inspired by many great classics, it’s very much its own game. It draws inspiration and perfects concepts without blatantly copying or re-skinning mechanics. It’s not only a fantastic tribute to 1980s gaming, but an exceptional game in its own right. An absolute must if you’re a fan of platformers.