I had a vested interest in Shovel Knight being a good game. Like many others, I was one of the over 6,000 backers who put $10 toward the game on Kickstarter. To say that the final product has been one of my favorite games of 2014 is both a triumph for my gaming self, as well a past me that saw something very special in Yacht Club Game’s first release. All specifics aside, Shovel Knight is a must play.
Shovel Knight is an ode to 8-bit platformers made famous by Nintendo’s first console. It plays out similarly to the original Mega Man games. Each level is themed around its boss. Finding your way to the stage’s boss involves a mix of precision jumping and well-timed attacks on the stage’s enemies. It’s a simple and classic formula, but Shovel Knight digs up a buried treasure of gaming and truly makes it its own.
The game can be challenging if you aren’t used to these sorts of challenges anymore. It never reaches the difficulty of a fellow indie platformer like Super Meat Boy, but Shovel Knight keeps you on your toes. Thankfully, this isn’t an homage to the classics that wants to punish you for not playing an 8-bit game in the last decade. Yacht Club placed multiple checkpoints within the game’s lengthy stages, so death rarely means that much progress has been lost. Instead of limited lives and continues, death means the potential loss of gold which is necessary to buy upgrades for your character. This way, a simple mistake doesn’t result in the frustration of being forced to start the game over entirely from scratch.
Shovel Knight is really fun too. The challenge makes each individual part of a stage feel rewarding to complete. While the checkpoints limit the game’s potential to be too frustrating, the clean animations and solid controls guarantee that you will always know what hit you or why you missed a jump.
The enemies on the stages often have simple, easy to overcome attack patterns, but the bosses are where the game shines. Each feels incredibly distinct, both visually and with the abilities they have at their disposal. There are also a few side-bosses that can be encountered on the stage select screen which are often even more unusual than the Knights at the end of the game’s traditional stages.
While few games in the 8-bit era were known for their stories, Shovel Knight does manage to do a lot with a little. After losing his beloved Shield Knight while exploring the Tower of Fate, Shovel Knight retires from adventuring and takes on a solitary life. After some time, the land becomes overrun by the Order of No Quarter who live to serve the evil Enchantress who has unlocked the Tower of Fate. Hoping to gain answers about Shield Knight, Shovel Knight picks up his shovel once again.
The narrative or the dialogue might not compare to more story-rich games, but it’s serviceable in a minimalist way. Every boss spouts off their primary motivation (treasure, prestige, etc.) almost immediately, and Shovel Knight gets to say fun things like “Shovel justice!” It is camp, but in the best way possible.
I did find the relationship to Shield Knight to be a truly touching addition, however. After completing a stage, Shovel Knight can be seen falling asleep near a campfire. Often, this results in a bonus stage where you have to fight off a horde of enemies and catch Shield Knight before she falls and hits the ground. It isn’t much, gameplay or otherwise, but it does reveal Shovel Knight’s personal feelings of responsibility for the loss of his beloved. I think these sequences do an amazing job of investing players in a story that is otherwise summed up accurately on the backside of a game case.
Shovel Knight has such an incredible sense of self that it’s hard not to enjoy the game. It pulls off its mechanics and gameplay incredibly well, while having its own unique style and charm. For some, it won’t be challenging enough, but I think the New Game+ mode will have answer those players’ concerns. There, the game has far fewer checkpoints and enemies do a lot more damage. The game is also short, but proposed Kickstarter stretch goals for future updates should give the game added value with local co-op and a gender swap mode.
I cannot recommend Shovel Knight enough. Whether you played games during the NES-era or not, Shovel Knight is both a great introduction and re-imagining of 8-bit platformers.
9.5 out of 10
A copy of the game was purchased via Kickstarter for $10 by the reviewer. The game is available for $14.99 on PC, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Wii U.