For whatever reason, some folks tend to view retro-inspired games through a negative lens, calling them lazy, unoriginal, or just cynically cashing in on nostalgia. To levy those complaints onto a game like Shovel Knight would be a huge disservice.
Whereas many retraux games either lean on referential material to mask poor gameplay or rip off their sources wholesale, Shovel Knight feels like an original game that was pulled directly from the 8-bit era. Despite being intentionally limited in both visuals and audio to mimic that old-school atmosphere, the game is astonishingly beautiful with uniquely detailed animation and a brilliantly varied and memorable soundtrack. (I dare you not to smile while playing Propeller Knight’s stage.)
Indeed, Shovel Knight takes the best gameplay and aesthetic cues from classic titles like Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3., and Ducktales and forms an elegant amalgamation of those disparate parts.
The story revolves around the eponymous Shovel Knight who, after losing his beloved partner Shield Knight, embarks on a journey to save the land from the rising darkness started by the evil Enchantress. The primary antagonist employs a quirky squad of bosses called the Order of No Quarter, with each member lording over a specific region. Naturally, you must defeat each in order to face their leader.
It’s a charming, if basic setup, but the execution is exceptional.
Each Knight in the Order is unique and can be summarily described as this game’s rendition of Mega Man’s revolving cast of Robot Masters. You have the airborne, bombastic Propeller Knight, the meager genius Tinker Knight, the greedy Treasure Knight, the arrogant King Knight and the somber Polar Knight. The list goes on and they all have wonderfully varied designs alongside fun, if not exactly fully fleshed out personalities.
(Three playable boss knights are in the works, though, so some further characterization is possibly incoming for Specter Knight, Plague Knight and King Knight. Better looks into the motivations of any characters are certainly welcome, though Polar Knight’s story is the one that intrigues me most.)
The enemies – and this is not just limited to the boss Knights, mind you – aren’t just different skins swapped onto the same one-note pattern. I honestly can’t think of any single foe, no matter how lowly, that duplicates the attack pattern of another. You can’t rely on only one move to progress. The method with which you have to approach each opponent changes constantly so you can’t just steamroll through the game on the first try.
The game’s setting is unbelievably imaginative. Sure, the world sports the basic platforming stalwarts like a lava stage and an ice stage, but the way the mechanics of each level are implemented ensures the experience is unique. Much like the boss Knights who inhabit them, each stage features distinct mechanics, while subsequent levels tend to use ones you’ve learned in previous stages to keep things fresh.
Specter Knight’s level, for example, has tense, extended areas of pitch-black darkness where you have to remember where the bottomless pits and enemies are by the flashes of lightning that briefly reveal them. Similarly, Propeller Knight’s stage sets itself apart with wind-based platforming, wherein you have to navigate the strong blasts blowing you in different directions at varying speeds to avoid deadly spiked walls and enemies alike.
Moving platforms, falling platforms, disappearing platforms, platforms that don’t appear until you make a blind jump, areas where you have to keep up with the moving screen; it’s all tried-and-true challenging gameplay. The penultimate stage is a veritable test of every single mechanic introduced, while also including at least one you haven’t yet come across.
A lot of the trickier platforming techniques are inspired by those found in both Mega Man and Ducktales. Shovel Knight moves like the Blue Bomber does, but thanks to his weapon of choice, he can use enemies as springboards to traverse through the levels much like Scrooge McDuck. This makes for some intense platforming as you’re often plummeting downward into those bottomless pits to pummel enemies to reach higher areas.
As such, there are some really crafty techniques you’ll be charged with, especially in the bonus treasure stages. The frigid mountain area’s air dash challenge is particularly inspired as it requires quick combinations of horizontal and downward movements across deadly chasms. Of course, all of this would fall apart with terrible controls. I’d like to start off by saying that I played this game entirely with keyboard controls. I couldn’t get my PS3 controller to work with Steam, but that’s entirely on me. The developers have done an excellent job of providing support for an exceedingly varied range of gamepads.
Editor’s Note: From personal experience, it is entirely possible to get most any game that supports Xbox 360 drivers to work with a DualShock 3 on your PC. Here’s the best way to sync your DS3 while avoiding the use of the awful malware that is MotionInJoy. -Daniel
Due to my perceived control limitations, I had trepidation that the game might have turned out frustrating at the very least, or unplayable at the very worst. I was terribly wrong. Defying all expectations, keyboard controls are incredibly tight and responsive. I intend to play through the game again on the Wii U because I can only imagine how absurdly good it is with traditional controls, but if you’re like me and are stuck with a keyboard, you’ll still have a great experience. The Blue Burrower just controls extraordinarily well.
That’s a beautiful thing because each stage gets increasingly large and correspondingly difficult. What might be a bit of a turn off to newer gamers is Shovel Knight’s save system. The game automatically saves any time you exit a level, but progress within levels is not saved.
There are checkpoints strewn throughout the stages that you restart at if you die, but if you exit the stage before completing it in order to, say, upgrade your magic or health, you’ll have to start all over again when you return. Being unable to step aside from the game for fear of losing progress may be considered a drawback in this day and age, but for the most part, I loved it.
Aside from the inherent difficulty this game provides, there’s added challenge in the form of mechanics inspired by the Dark Souls series involving your accumulated treasure. Whenever you die, a substantial amount of your treasure is left at the location of your death. Once you respawn at a previous checkpoint, you can journey back to where you died to reclaim your treasure. If you die again before retrieving your gold, it’s lost forever.
Further, if you really want to challenge yourself, you can ignore checkpoints altogether. Once you reach one, you have the option of destroying it for extra treasure. Are you confident enough in your skills to complete the level without dying? It’s a fun risk/reward feature that’s welcome considering the emphasis the game places on treasure collecting.
Make no mistake, though. Shovel Knight is no mere collectathon. The game relies heavily on treasure accruement in lieu of more traditional leveling up. The first town provides opportunities to purchase increased health or magic. The second town offers upgrades for your shovel and armor. Shovel upgrades let you pull off ranged attacks at full health, dig up piles of treasure in one fell swoop, or charge your melee attacks for stronger swipes.
Armor upgrades come in different colors and each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, one increases your magic limit, but decreases your defense, while another decreases knockback when enemies attack you, but its increased weight makes it more difficult to control momentum. Rather than there being one suit of armor that stands substantially above the rest, the game tasks you with finding the one that works best for your type of playstyle or for any particular level.
Rather than having a 3×3 grid for stage selection akin to the aforementioned Mega Man series, Shovel Knight features a world map that’s similar in structure to Super Mario Bros. 3., just smaller. Linear vertical and horizontal paths lead from one distinct area to the next. The most fun part is that, every so often, surprise characters (Reize Seatlan!) will appear on the map, independent of the set levels. They walk along the same paths as your character and pursuing them causes you to enter a special boss fight. These characters, too, are unique in both mechanics and personality.
Instead of gaining new powers from any of the foes you fell, as Mega Man would, Shovel Knight improves his arsenal with a bevy of special magical powers via Relics. There is a Relic hidden in each main stage, but in a pretty cool twist, when you open up their treasure chests, you’ll find that a particular NPC always manages to get to it before you. You can purchase the Relic in-level or, after you complete the stage, from the same NPC in the main town (he’ll still sell the item in town even if you miss finding the treasure in-level because, well, he logically finds the Relics regardless of whether or not you do).
What was most impressive, though, is that I never once felt like I was grinding in order to afford all of the various upgrades. I can’t think of any instance where these magical items, special moves or armor were necessary to complete the game, so you aren’t forced into anything. However, more health and Relics like a fireball-spewing wand, a horn that practically clears the screen and an amulet that grants the ability to turn invincible for about three to five seconds certainly help balance out the game’s difficulty.
Despite the game’s high amount of polish, my experience with it wasn’t without its flaws. I ran into two glitches in my playthrough. The first was a minor annoyance, but happened multiple times, wherein I defeated a mini-boss and the sound of his defeat – a sort of miniature explosion – continued on throughout the stage, masking the excellent soundtrack. The other issue, though, was particularly deflating.
One of the later and frankly most difficult stages features a boss with two phases. Upon completion of the first phase, my character was made invincible, which would be pretty awesome if not for the fact that he was also rendered immobile. So it was just endless and bombardment of enemy attacks while Shovel Knight was stuck reveling in his out-of-place victory animation. The game wasn’t frozen, though, because I still had access to the pause menu. Due to the way saves and checkpoints work in Shovel Knight, the only option I had was to restart the grueling stage from the very beginning.
I’m really nitpicking here, though. This was the only time I felt like any frustration wasn’t of my own doing. I may have encountered bouts of irritation, but never so much as to quit in rage. Overall, this game is difficult, but very fair in its challenges. Finally completing a particularly tricky area was always met with a sense of accomplishment.
All in all, it took me about 10 hours to complete the main campaign and I’m still itching to play more. Luckily, developer Yacht Club Games is up to the task. With Shovel Knight’s exceedingly successful Kickstarter campaign, there’s more content on the way. Beyond the aforementioned playable bosses and a New Game Plus feature that allows you to carry over stats to play the game at an increased difficulty, there are plans for multiple other free updates.
The developers will offer a battle mode, a challenge mode and a gender-swapped version of the game, where the Enchantress becomes the Enchanter and all of the Order or No Quarter are reimagined as females. Dialogue and sprites will be reworked to reflect the change. The latter may be largely superficial, but it’s a fun reason to return to a charming world.
Shovel Knight may look and play like an old game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth playing. It’s markedly different from anything that large studios churn out nowadays, but it draws inspiration from a wide range of the best classic games and makes something wholly its own. Shovel Knight is easily the finest and most rewarding game I have played all year.
(A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), Wii U, 3DS
Release Date: June 26th, 2014 (Windows/Steam/3DS/Wii U), OSX and Linux TBD