Shovel Knight: Review

Shovel Knight Dragon Mini-bossNostalgia is a powerful narcotic. It blurs the vision, warps reality and in extreme cases causes hallucinations. People fall victim to nostalgia without realizing they are under its spell; time creates a gap between the original playthrough of a beloved franchise and will cause players to dote on the title and remember the game in HD-perfect pixel art, as opposed to jagged 8-bit reality.

Shovel Knight is able to create these feelings of nostalgia in real-time, as developer Yacht Club Games’ debut title perfectly plays, looks and sounds as amazing as the NES games that you remember. Shovel Knight is inspired but not beholden to the aesthetics, gameplay and experience of classic titles like Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and other great hits of the 8-bit era.

What You’ll Enjoy

No tutorial. Experience is the greatest teacher, and the level design within Shovel Knight guides players every step of the way without beating them over the head with information. The prologue level starts with a single enemy on a flat plane who falls with one strike from your mighty shovel. Simple enough. The second enemy is on a raised platform that you must jump to, while timing your strike. Makes sense. By the end of the game you’ll be dodging, reflecting fire and hopping on multiple enemies at once without thinking twice. By slowly introducing new mechanics and problems, the game design is able to show (not tell) players what they need to do through an iterative design philosophy that allows for a gradual difficulty incline that won’t surprise players.

Shovel Knight Mole Knight BossThe checkpoint system is designed as a player-controlled difficulty slider. In each level there are globes where Shovel Knight can return if he perishes in battle. Unlike classic NES games, there is no life system. If you need ten plus chances to time the jumps over death spikes and pits perfectly, you can take your time. If you prefer the grueling challenge of running through the level in one go, you can destroy each checkpoint and when you die, you’ll be back at the beginning. It’s the best of both worlds without having to select between easy and hard on the title screen.

On the surface, some could consider Shovel Knight a Mega Man knock-off. They are both blue, fight 8 masters before challenging a deadly tower and end-game boss, acquire new powers and have a mysterious foil. But Shovel Knight is more than the retro-references. The close range combat, pogo stick jumping and limited arsenal create its own unique feel and gameplay scenarios that the blue bomber never experienced. The relics Shovel Knight acquires emphasize exploration instead of a rock-paper-scissor styled combat and will allow SK to beat challenge levels designed around testing the full spectrum of acquired abilities. The overhead world map, villages and constant need for gold are more akin to an RPG-centric game than Mega Man ever was. Shovel Knight is able to pick and choose its inspiration, while retaining its own unique charm and style.

Each level is full of secrets that are hidden in plain sight. Sometimes they are a simple trick, like going left at the start of the level instead of right or destroying a section of wall that is slightly marked. Other times, it will require the player to plan out what enemies and blocks to destroy in a specific section. Finding everything within a level will require a keen eye, but once you know what to look out for, the tells of each area will become obvious to spot. If you miss one of the vital relics, the local shopkeeper will sell it within town so you won’t be under-equipped or forced to replay levels unnecessarily.

Shovel Knight World MapMost characters only have five to ten lines of text dialogue, but between these select words, their wardrobe and fighting style, an entire personality is conveyed to the player. My personal favorite was Polar Knight and his adversarial relationship with the title character.

What Might Frustrate You

Even with the well placed checkpoint system, there are sections which will take multiple tries to complete. It can be frustrating in these modern times to replay a section five, ten or more times, but this is the design mechanic of older games and is in keeping with the tone. Each death is a learning experience and is usually the player’s fault. There are no tricks or cheap gimmicks, but you shouldn’t expect to speed-run through on the first try.

I had a couple deaths when I swore I activated a relic by pressing Up + Square but instead swung my shovel as I fell into the abyss. I was frustrated and didn’t understand why the relics weren’t mapped to a different button. Well, Yacht Club Games anticipated my need and when I opened up the settings, I saw that instead of the button combination this could be mapped to a single input. Save yourself some frustration and change this setting immediately.

Final Verdict

Shovel Knight AirShovel Knight plays as great as you remember NES games being. The retro-aesthetics add charm, personality and a cohesive presence to the game, but Yacht Club Games wisely bends the rules of color palette, enemy count on screen and character models to deliver the best platformer since the SNES era. The team created a love letter to a bygone era of gaming and possibly the first installment of fan-favorite franchise.

If you still enjoy retro games or want to recapture the feeling of nostalgia, then Shovel Knight is a game that you must dig into.

Must Play

+ Tight Controls
+ Challenging but Fair
+ Upbeat Soundtrack
+ New Game Plus for Added Challenge
+ Kickstarter Goals still Incoming


Trophy Analysis

This could be one of the best trophy lists I’ve ever seen. There are a handful that you will earn through natural play and beating the game on regular, then new game plus. Then there are some unique challenges like “don’t collect any gold” or “only use the shovel 20 times in a level.” Plus there are feats that only the best players will be able to complete like don’t die, destroy every checkpoint or beat the game with only the shovel. It’s all doable, but it will require skill, patience and a complete mastery of the game’s mechanics. Again, Yacht Club Games was able to balance the reward and gameplay for beginners and hardcore players.

Shovel Knight was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a retail code provided by Yacht Club Games.

Check out the NerdEXP interview with Shovel Knight developer David D’Angelo.

Level Up, Friends!