Shovel Knight Review
Fledgling studio Yacht Club Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for its first game, Shovel Knight, way back in March 2013. Within a month, nearly 15,000 backers had shattered the project’s initial $75,000 goal, pledging more than quadruple that amount. Naturally, expectations for the game were exceedingly high; thankfully, Yacht Club Games delivered a modern NES-style experience well deserving of such generous support.
Shovel Knight draws inspiration from some of the NES era’s greatest games. The titular hero can use his all-purpose shovel to attack foes with a downward thrust (Zelda II) and also bounce on obstacles and enemies to reach higher areas (DuckTales). In addition to his trusty spade, Shovel Knight can use several secondary weapons, known as relics, that function similarly to the sub-weapons in Castlevania. Relics include the Flare Wand, which shoots fireballs from a distance, the Phase Locket, which grants Shovel Knight temporary invincibility, and the Throwing Anchor, which does exactly what you think it does. The game’s overworld map features branching pathways and roaming adversaries, just like the ones in Super Mario Bros. 3. The map’s eight boss-themed levels scroll both horizontally and vertically and conclude with an epic showdown against a member of the Order of No Quarter, Shovel Knight’s version of Mega Man’s robot masters. There’s even a charming Zelda II-like town where Shovel Knight can upgrade his health and magic.
Apparently Link isn’t the only one who likes to break things for no reason.
Fortunately, though Shovel Knight constantly evokes feelings of nostalgia, it never prioritizes 8-bit style over substance. The game may look 25 years old, but it plays with an undeniable modern polish. The completely customizable controls are nearly flawless; from the jump physics to the varied combat options, everything feels clean and precise. Relics can be swapped easily by using the 3DS or Wii U’s touchscreen or a customized button to access the sub-weapon menu. My only (minor) gripe is the heavy blowback dealt from mid-air collisions with enemies and obstacles.
The levels themselves are superbly designed. Each one is filled with plenty of concealed alcoves and secret rooms hiding buried treasure, music notes, and even a genie (named Chester), who offers to sell Shovel Knight a new relic each time he is freed from his blue chest. Luckily, if you’re short on funds, you can purchase the relic in the main town after completing the level, rather than traipsing through it all over again. Such simple conveniences ensure Shovel Knight consistently maintains its steady, exciting pace.
Putting the “boogie” in Boogie Man
Shovel Knight also deserves praise for its in-game tutorials approach; rather than spelling e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g out, the game teaches you how to play by (get this) actually letting you play. Reach a dead end? Try hitting the oddly shaped tile in the wall. Can’t jump across a gap? Try bouncing on a bubble with your shovel. By taking introductory level design “back-to-basics,” Shovel Knight successfully surpasses the more “hand-holdy” methods found in most modern games.
Furthermore, Shovel Knight provides plenty of challenge, but rarely frustrates (an impressive feat). Thanks to the aforementioned fluid controls, navigating each level’s treacherous layout is simply a matter of practice and patience. Shovel Knight also employs a very Dark Souls-esque technique; should the hero fall, he loses some of this collected treasure. To retrieve it, he must return to same spot before he falls again. The game even allows you to permanently destroy checkpoints in exchange for additional treasure, which essentially turns off the checkpoint system for players seeking another layer of difficulty.
A silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Shovel Knight.
As if rock solid gameplay wasn’t enough, Shovel Knight also oozes with charm at every moment, from its epic slow-motion boss finishes to its tender fireside dream sequences to its unbelievably catchy 8-bit soundtrack (composed by Jake Kaufman). Although you can see the ending from miles away, Shovel Knight’s referential humor and endearing plot enthrall from start to finish.
While retro-style indie games are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, Shovel Knight shines among its peers and feels right at home on Nintendo consoles. And, with plenty of stretch goal content on the horizon, it’s safe to assume we’ll be playing Shovel Knight well into the foreseeable future. Now if only I could resist the urge to buy it again on my 3DS…
Please note that the final score is not an average