Shovel Knight Review
Release Date: 06/26/2014
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platforms: PC/Steam, Wii U, 3DS
There are many games that claim to be “Charmingly Retro” with little to show for it besides blocky, low-resolution characters and music made in modern editing software that attempts to sound a tad 8-Bit-ish. They don’t necessarily pay attention to what made the games to which they pay homage (or, if you’re cynical, openly rip off) work in the first place, and for that reason are fated to be forgotten and disappear.
I know for a fact that this will not happen to Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight is absolutely the best platformer I have had the pleasure of playing in years. The game stars the eponymous Shovel Knight, an adorable little knight who wields a shovel instead of a more traditional sword/spear/axe like you might expect. An evil sorcerer has taken over the land and turned Shovel Knight’s friends against him. Now he must fight all of his old companions in order to bring peace and freedom back to the kingdom.
Shovel Knight can run, jump, and use his shovel for various attacks, and in addition can use relics that can give him a special move or power. The shovel has a very small range but great versatility – it can be swung as a regular attack, charged up for a longer-reaching, more powerful attack, dig up gems, break blocks, reflect attacks and projectiles, and even bounce off of enemies ala Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales. In other words, the “Shovel” in Shovel Knight isn’t just for show.
However the Shovel isn’t the only tool in Shovel Knight’s arsenal. Relics use up your magic meter quickly but have a variety of uses, such as attacking enemies from below, clearing out an entire room, regaining health, and zipping through the air like an arrow. All of them do only a small amount of damage to enemies, but by using each of their specific attributes properly you can absolutely wipe out a boss. All of the relics complement level design perfectly and are great fun to use (and to figure out how best to use them), but more importantly, none of the regular stages require any of them. Special levels are occasionally dedicated to the use of one specific relic, but the the main game can be played beaten without any relics or upgrades. And, speaking of upgrades…
Shovel Knight can upgrade both his shovel and his suit of armor. The shovel can be upgraded three times to have three different effects. None of theses upgrades make the shovel’s regular attack more powerful; rather, they give it a special power, such as the ability to fire a small ground-hugging blast at full health, or a charge attack.
Armor upgrades work differently. Though Shovel Knight can use all of his shovel’s upgrades at once, he can only wear one suit of armor at a time. Each suit of armor has a different effect: Sacrificing damage protection for mana, having increased momentum but no knockback from enemies, or even a suit that has no effect but to make Shovel Knight flip and sparkle as he jumps. However, one particular suit of armor that allows you to gain a charged swing without actually charging your shovel is the most useful and, other than in specific situations or “purist” runs, you will probably never switch it out. That isn’t to say it breaks the game; on the contrary, it feels as if the game was meant to be played with that armor. In fact, all of the upgrades and relics feel like natural extensions of the game’s mechanics and never interrupt the flow of the game. There is one exception to this, but we’ll get to that later.
The game looks and sounds fantastic. Despite the NES-era aesthetics, visuals are never muddled or confusing. Each sprite, background, and action screen looks as though it has had real love put into it, resulting in charming characters and a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere.
The music, though, is where the game shines, and where my love of this game began. Composed in an NES Tracker (software that emulates the NES’s own sound chip), the score is written by both Jake “virt” Kaufman and Manami Matsumae, who is best known for her work on the original Mega Man series. There are only so many times I can say “wonderful” and “flawless” in one paragraph, so I will leave it at this: Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is a perfect mix of light-hearted fun and serious action wrapped in a neat package of nostalgia.
Unfortunately, no game is flawless. Shovel Knight has a few problems despite the praise I have lavished upon it.
For starters, the game is rather short. According to the achievements screen (yes, there are achievements), the game can be beaten in under an hour and a half. This is, perhaps, a downside of the NES-aesthetic; the old Mega Man and Ducktales games could also be beaten in similar durations. My first run, however, took over five hours so take that as you will.
Second, the game has been play-tested to a fault – and yes, I mean a literal fault. Every single time I felt as though I was in danger of dying, I found a health pickup. That is not to say that there were health pickups everywhere; rather, there were health pickups at the exact points that I felt worried. It makes the game feel somewhat easy, but patronizing at the same time.
Finally, one particular relic ruins the game’s level design permanently – the fishing rod. At any time, you can reel in a health-restoring fish from any bottomless pit at small cost to your magic. In other words, you can restore all of your health at almost any time. Obviously, the magic cost was meant to offset this, but the fishing rod uses such a small amount of magic that the cost is negligible. Also, sitting still and playing an Animal Crossing-style fishing game breaks the flow of the game entirely. Spending an entire minute of a platforming action game sitting still and doing timed button presses simply is not fun.
Luckily, the New Game Plus feature fixes most of these problems. Enemies hit you twice as hard, health pickups are nonexistent, and the game’s short runtime is effectively doubled. In addition, each level has half as many checkpoints as before, and, despite the problems that the fishing rod brings, it feels as though it is almost a necessity to staying alive, rather than a waste of time. The game becomes “Nintendo Hard”. And, because most players will have unlocked all of the upgrades and relics already, it feels like a true test of platforming skill. The lack of a lives system means that you never become so frustrated that you want to throw your computer away in anger. NG+ is the real meat of Shovel Knight; after the game’s plot is concluded, and all the colorful characters have been sought out, the player has enough skill and cunning to tackle the real quest.
Shovel Knight might be the best platformer I’ve ever played. Levels are brilliantly planned out and challenging as hell, music is spot-on and visuals have an amazing amount of charm to them. Boss battles are maddeningly difficult (especially on NG+), and the effect of the story, despite its brevity, is amplified by sequences that put you inside Shovel Knight’s own mind, making gameplay goals feel like an extension of your own feelings. Yacht Club Games combined a retro aesthetic with modern game design to make an absolute smash-hit, and I urge fans of NES games and platformers to pick up Shovel Knight as soon as humanly possible.