Originally released in 2014 on PC, 3DS, Wii U, Mac, and Linux, Yacht Club Games' lovingly crafted retro homage Shovel Knight has finally made its way to Sony and Microsoft's consoles. Does it dig itself into a hole, or boldly carry its treasured reputation forward?
From the moment I powered up Shovel Knight I was taken aback by just how much of a love letter it is to the NES area of platformers, and how whole heartedly it embraces and champions the lineage of games that inspired it. In a video game landscape dominated by multi-million dollar AAA games, Shovel Knight is a testament to what a small, dedicated team can achieve.
For the uninitiated, Shovel Knight is a 2D action platformer, wherein you play as the titular Knight on a quest to rescue his beloved Shield Knight from the wicked Enchantress and her knights of The Order of No Quarter. The game presents the player with a world map that is divided into a series of levels, each taking on average about 10-20 minutes to run and jump through, depending on player skill. All of the levels can be replayed at any time for extra currency, which can then be spent in one of the towns to upgrade Shovel Knights armor and abilities. As you progress through each level, you’ll be presented with increasingly difficult platforming and enemies, with each level having a distinct theme to it that is wonderfully typified by the boss encounter at the levels end. All of the knights of The Order of No Quarter that Shovel Knight faces off against perfectly match their given level, with art direction and attacks that brilliantly personify their character and ooze 8-bit charm.
Shovel Knight himself is the embodiment of a chivalrous knight, always seeking to do the right thing, and just generally being an upstanding dude. As his name suggests, he wields a shovel, yes, his sole weapon is a shovel. But the way in which Yacht Club Games manages to integrate the shovel into all element of the gameplay is terrifically satisfying. It can be used to swipe at and bounce on enemies and environmental objects, both if which play heavily into the platforming. Of course it can also be used to dig for treasure, which functions as the games currency. Be careful though, should you fall pry to a tricky platforming section or nasty enemy, you’ll drop a portion of the gold you’re carrying. The gold can be reclaimed, provided you can return to the point where it fell within your next life. While that sounds like a compelling gameplay mechanic on paper, it can be frustrating at times. For example depending on how you died, the gold wont always be in reach, and some of the trickier sections of the game can drain your stash of loot very quickly if you become stuck attempting a certain sequence repeatedly. The frustration is lessened slightly by checkpoints that are scattered throughout the levels, but the issue still stands as one of the games biggest flaws. However you’ll rarely feel like Shovel Knights many deaths (and you will likely die a lot) are unfair. Thanks to the games responsive and pinpoint accurate controls, deaths almost always feel like player error. I’m not sure if that diminishes the stink of failure or enhances it, but either way you can’t blame the game for Shovel Knight missing that platform for the fifth time in a row.
Shovel Knight is also imbued with many other abilities that can be earned through out the course of the adventure. These abilities are tied to a mana system of sorts that depletes each time an ability is used, but can be replenished through pick ups in the levels. I won’t go into detail because I believe the thrill of discovering new abilities is an experience best left unspoiled. Suffice to say, the new abilities Shovel Knight gains also play into the platforming and boss battles, and make for a nicely evolving experience.
The art direction in Shovel Knight is gorgeous. Everything about the visual style is elegant and retro, yet somehow modern and so very easy on the eyes. Shovel Knight is overflowing with charm and character, and the visuals are the perfect representation of that. All of the knights of The Order of No Quarter are memorable and charismatic, thanks to a loving hand from the developers that extends to the environments and level design.
On that note, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the music. Oh my, I haven’t be some enraptured with an 8-bit soundtrack in some time. All of the tunes do a stand out job of portraying the mood and character of what’s happening on screen. The title song was instantly embedded in my memory, and I found myself randomly humming it while away from the game. If every other element of the game didn’t already scream 8-bit retro platformer, there would be no denying it after hearing the soundtrack. Composer Jake Kaufman has done a stellar job, and not only that; the soundtrack is available in its entirety on Bandcamp under a ‘name your own price’ model. Amazing.
For those wondering, Shovel Knight features cross-save between all three PlayStation platforms, and it functions beautifully. I was able to put in some time on my PS4, quickly upload the save to the cloud and continue on my Vita, and vice-versa, with minimal time and effort. The game also runs flawlessly on the little Vita, perfectly keeping pace with its bigger console siblings. In fact the Vita is my platform of choice for Shovel Knight, the game just feels so right on the system and the short nature of the levels makes it perfect for playing on the go. I haven’t tested the game on Xbox One yet, but I see no reason why it wouldn’t be just as at home there. Speaking of the different systems Shovel Knight is now on, there are some nice little treats for the different console families. PlayStation gamers will get the opportunity to cross shovel and sword with Kratos from God of War, and Xbox owners will encounter some dudes of the amphibious kind with an appearance from the Battletoads, of which publisher Rare also had a hand in making.
Shovel Knight is a love letter to the glory days of action platformers on the NES. It’s a gorgeous and wonderfully polished experience that shines bright among its many fantastic peers in the indie game space. That being said, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. The platforming can be unforgiving, an attribute of the genre to be sure, but one that could certainly turn many people off. There is also some frustrations relating to the risk/reward factor, but if you can look past that and enjoy the game for its silky smooth gameplay and strong retro heart, you’ll likely find a gem in Shovel Knight. Maybe it’s just my nostalgia for the era of games it so lovingly recreates taking, but I believe Shovel Knight is a game not to be missed.