Shovel Knight is a game out of time. Embracing the graphics, gameplay, and themes of the Nintendo Entertainment System with unabashed devotion, Yacht Club Games have written an 8-bit love letter 30 years in the making. But games have long evolved past the days of d-pads and two button control schemes. Is it still possible to create an original title while taking cues from a handful of specific (and often imitated) classic titles?
Surprisingly, yes. Without snark or cynicism, Shovel Knight creates a charming world full of exaggerated characters and personalized landscapes. It forgoes the modern sensibilities of game design and embracing the often praised, but rarely duplicated, elements that ruled games of the mid to late 1980’s. In fact, it accomplishes this so successfully that it’s not only one of the best retro-influenced titles, but one of the best games of 2014.
The easiest way to describe Shovel Knight is as a 2D Action Platformer, but even that sells the experience short. The majority of combat is up close and personal with the Knight’s basic melee attack. The short-range of the shovel means players will need to pay attention to their distance and timing of attacks. Of course, if you’re looking for something a little more chaotic, you can always use the down thrust. By landing on an enemy, the Knight will pogo up into the air, still ready for his next downward attack. Both require quick reflexes that are thankfully assisted by the game’s tight controls. Every pitfall and spiked floor death lay squarely at the feet of distracted players. But so do the achievements. While not difficult overall, Shovel Knight doesn’t shy away from brief but challenging, rewarding moments.
What the shovel attacks can lack in variety, the magic system more than makes up for. Fireballs, arching anchors, and flying swords create an extra layer of strategy over the mostly traditional gameplay. Optional stages are actually designed around individual magic powers. A spike-based stage requires players to use their invisibility spell to quickly navigate around the instant death environment, narrowly jumping to safety. While health pick-ups rarely appear in most stages, magic refills are plentiful, encouraging the player to experiment. Other pieces of equipment including ground-based projectiles and charging slashes broaden out the gameplay opportunities. Shovel Knight always keeps its focus on the shovel, but these enjoyable extras spice up the mechanics all the way to the end. It’s an admirable success.
All of this is done without a single tutorial or training exercise. Every stage introduces a series of new mechanics and challenges rooted in the theme of the boss Knight. Each are introduced in a mostly safe environment and quickly incorporated into riskier areas. The player learns that they can use enemies and items as a bounceable platform because there’s no other way to reach the higher platform. At no point in my 5 hour playthrough did I ever feel lost or confused about where to go or what to do. This is the biggest accomplishment of Shovel Knight. To continuously evolve and challenge without stopping to educate. To show and not tell.
Shovel Knight also uses an original checkpoint system. Each checkpoint can be cracked opened, canceling the save, for large amount of gold inside. If you die however, you’ll be sent back to your last save. It’s a smart approach to risk and reward.
If there is one fault, it’s the punishment for death. Throughout Shovel Knight you’ll collect gems and gold to purchase items from towns. Given that there’s no lives or continues to earn, the only way to punish the player is to remove a small amount of gold. You’ll be able to retrieve your lost money where you last died, unless of course you die before collecting it. But gold is plentiful throughout Shovel Knight, beating a boss will often give you enough to purchase an upgrade. It feels like more of a necessary evil for the game’s checkpoint system. But if you aren’t breaking checkpoints, it feels like an unrelated punishment.
The art design of Shovel Knight is truly “8-bit” influenced. The performance, however, takes advantage of the advancements in-game systems. You won’t find any flickering or slowdown in Shovel Knight but every regular enemy, stage, and boss would fit perfectly in a variety of classic NES games. Each knight comes in their own unique size. From the adorable engineer, Tinker Knight, to the intimidating and reserved, Polar Knight, you’ll never be sure what kind of foe you’ll face next. With each stage reinforcing the mood of the upcoming boss, you’ll feel you’ve travel a vast and dangerous land. Even the small towns Shovel Knight visits for items have their own feel, providing a relaxed a friendly environment between battles. The best design easily goes to the Troupple King and his dance, the less said the better. It’s a charming and welcomed surprise.
The tale of Shovel Knight is somewhat of a tragedy. Long ago, our titular hero and his ally, Shield Knight, explored the Tower Of Fate in search of treasure. Unaware of the dark power looming, Shovel Knight accidentally unleashed a dark force from a mysterious amulet. Shovel Knight awakens, unsure of what took place inside the now closed Tower of Fate and Shield Knight missing. Depressed, Shovel Knight uses his weapon for its originally intended purpose until he learns that The Enchantress has reopened the Tower. With his shovel ready for battle, Shovel Knight charges toward the Tower, ready to take on each member of the Knights of the Order Of No Quarter.
Shovel Knight’s story isn’t the most engaging narrative, but the excellent pacing help make it evocative and memorable. Each of the enemy knights have their own motives for joining The Enchantress as well as a previously established relationship with Shovel Knight. Their personalities range from the aloof, to posh, and somber. Every stage plays out as a further expansion of the Knights, familiarizing the player with them long before they reach the boss battles.
But perhaps the most touching moments of Shovel Knight are after each battle when Shovel Knight naps near a campfire below the stars. On some occasions, a small playable scene will occur. I won’t go into the specifics of the scene, but its presentation and melancholic story are incredibly touching. Even when the event doesn’t occur, players will know what Shovel Knight is dreaming, and why he continues to fight.
What ties this package together is the exceptional music. Energetic beats and swelling melodies were a significant element to my enjoyment of Shovel Knight. Each song feels perfectly setup for players to go above and beyond the incoming challenges. But the music is so well written I’ve found myself humming multiple tracks even away from the game. The easiest way to represent the music’s importance is to turn it off while playing, it simply isn’t as enjoyable of a game at that point. Yes, it’s that good.
It’s easy to appreciate a well executed chiptune, a sharply designed sprite, smart level design, and tight gameplay. Together they create a powerfully fun title that never betrays its retro roots but remains just as enjoyable as a modern title. Shovel Knight is a brilliantly designed game surrounded by a heartfelt presentation.