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HONEST GAMING JOURNALISM

Shovel Knight Review

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Genre Release Date Developer Publisher Price Platforms
2D Platformer 06/26/2014 Yacht Club Games Yacht Club Games $14.99 USD 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pushing the NES visuals to their limit.

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.

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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.

Just fishing underwater, NBD.

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.

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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.

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  1. goombagore says:

    Good review, has me pumped for the game (maybe on Wii U), but it would have been nice to hear more about the level design. You praise it very highly, and you give some detail on how the protagonist (and his skill set) interacts with the levels, but you don’t really take about them that much, and for a platformer, that’s very surprising. That part of the review just felt skimmed over compared to the rest of it.

  2. Aeiou says:

    Looks a bit casual.

    I will definitely give it a go and the complain when it isn’t megaman/castlevania.

    • Anonymous says:

      It isn’t. It is just a really, really REALLY good game. After playing it for a bit I had to do something else and I found myself smiling which made me realise that I haven’t played a new game in a good while which made me naturally smile and feel happy.

      • Aeiou says:

        Finished initial playthrough, it’s a good game but the game never really demanded precision platforming except once or twice, overall it was a bit on the easy side.

        For all the great design that went into the bosses, i could just either bounce on their heads or rush them down and not have any issues, bouncing on heads was essentially 80% of the boss fighting.

        It definitely isn’t worth 15 bucks.

        • AniMitch says:

          I think its worth it when you take into account the free content that is being worked on at the moment.

          I do agree the game is very easy and i think they could have had fixed this by having a harder difficulty avaliable from the start.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Platforms: Steam, Wii U, 3DS”
    What the hell is a Steam platform?
    As in “Steam Box”?

    • Kevin Grant says:

      http://i.imgur.com/LIUFeKC.jpg
      You can buy it on Steam.

    • Jay F says:

      as in it’s sold on Steam…May even be Steam exclusive.

      • CaptainKing says:

        Nah, GOG has it DRM free and the humble widget on their site gives DRM free + a steam key.

    • Erik says:

      When it says “Steam” it usually means Windows and SteamOS (= Ubuntu Linux). The Linux version of Shovel Knight has been delayed though, afaik.

      • Anonymous says:

        No. “Steam” is not an all-encompassing term, it’s a software vendor.

        The platform was and is “PC” regardless of where the game is sold.

        • Erik says:

          Oh your question was meant rhetorical. Well it’s Valve speak. But if you insist: Because “PC” isn’t a terribly exact term either since there are plenty of PCs that don’t run Windows (which is probably the platform you’re looking for).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Paid reviews general

  5. Aleksander Adamkiewicz says:

    “Yacht Club Games’ platformer presents adventure in spades! ”

    What is this, Eurogamer?

  6. Anonymous says:

    It’s an 8-bit platformer and yet there’s no option to run.

    People really hate speed runners don’t they?

  7. Dio Brando says:

    Seems like a good game.
    I’ll pick it up when it eventually pops up for sale in merry old England, where game devs hate us for some reason.

  8. sumo says:

    game was fun, I didn’t bother with ng+ though I had enough of a challange with the game when I played it without vsync at 120 fps back when that made it run on double speed.
    the difficuly actually felt like a joke after that.

    “Shovel Knight might be the best platformer I’ve ever played. “. go play rayman legends now.

    rayman legends has it all, beautiful art/animation/style/backgrounds/foregrounds/themes…, incedible music that often does not only fit the level but actually flows with it, thight controlls with a nice moveset (even though I don’t like the flybuddy moving thing too much) great leveldesign both in challange (if you go for getting gold and rescue all the guys) and variety. there is also a shitload of stuff to unlock as well as mini/side games that you can play.

    • sumo says:

      you know what, I am not even done.

      RL also has a multiplayer part to it that I have not played, but it’s a thing.
      it also instantly recognised my snes knock-off gamepad while I hade to use j2k to get it working with shovelknight.
      from the 2d games that I have played in recent times only volgarr and rayman actually got that shit right.

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