It only takes a few moments to see influences from NES classics like the Super Mario Bros. series, DuckTales, and the Mega Man series in Shovel Knight‘s DNA. You’ll also be hit with other waves of nostalgia, being reminded of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Konami’s Castlevania series, Sega’s Golden Axe, and other favorites of a bygone era here. Whether references are intentional or not, it’ll feel like the late-’80s again, and in all the best ways possible.
Now, retro-style games have become rather cliched in recent years. The style is very popular for indie and mobile titles, and while I understand the opinion that not utilizing the latest cutting-edge graphic technologies doesn’t move things forward, I personally love it. It’s fascinating to see what modern artists are capable of pulling off with big pixels and limited color palettes. It’s that whole mentality of doing more with less that can potentially yield results even more impressive than the latest blockbuster on the newest consoles. Yes, I love the way Muramasa Rebirth looks on the Vita, but I can equally appreciate the lovingly crafted spritework in Daisuke Amaya’s Cave Story. Don’t let the 8-bit style turn you off, though; Shovel Knight‘s graphics are superb — borderline 16-bit at times as the best 8-bit games were — and animation is detailed, smooth, and brimming with character.
The same can be said about music in games. While I absolutely loved the work of Gustavo Santaolalla in The Last of Us — one of my all-time favorite PS3 games — I equally enjoy what Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae have done here in Shovel Knight. Much like oldschool graphics, music that has to be created without the use of real instruments and limited sound channels often produce stunning compositions that transcend the technology itself. One of Shovel Knight‘s first tracks, “Strike the Earth! (Plains of Passage)”, is so inspired and sounds like it could have leaped from the very best of the 8-bit era. In fact, so much of Shovel Knight is of the highest quality that if it had actually come out during the NES era, it would no doubt be regarded as one of the best games of all-time.
The graphics and music are indeed terrific, and Shovel Knight shines in the gameplay department as well. Its closest relatives would be Castlevania and DuckTales; just think of your shovel as Simon Belmont’s whip or Uncle Scrooge’s cane. Mechanically, it works quite similarly in terms of being a short-ranged melee weapon and a tool for bouncing on enemies and other environmental obstacles. However, chalk it up to the influence of modern gaming to have the greatest effect where it matters most: controls. Shovel Knight‘s controls are perfect, and I can’t think of a single death that occurred because the controls weren’t responsive enough or didn’t do what I wanted. Tight controls (or lack thereof) will make or break platform games, and to its credit, Shovel Knight absolutely hits the nail on the head in this regard.
At its heart, Shovel Knight is a tried and true action platformer with some RPG overtones in terms of armor, weapon, and subweapon upgrades, each having their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Levels are long, and full of branching pathways and hidden alcoves. Discovering them is a joy, and much of Shovel Knight‘s challenge is in finding them all. Writing is also a strong point, with excellent dialogue and a surprisingly poignant and personal story. I had goosebumps by the game’s final scenes, which is a testament to the developer giving every facet of Shovel Knight equal attention.
There are modern conveniences like auto-saving and numerous level checkpoints, but Yacht Club Games changes things up a bit to make its death and continue system have actual consequence. I think one of the game’s neatest feature is how you are given the option to destroy the various level checkpoints. By doing so, you’ll collect extra treasures, but as a result, you’ll no longer be able to continue from that point if you die. This creates scenarios where you have to make it through an entire level in one life or be sent back to the very beginning.
Keeping the checkpoints in place doesn’t give you a free pass, though. Dying separates you from a good chunk of your loot, and if you want it back, you’ll have to collect it from where you died, which is sometimes impossible depending on where exactly you bit the bullet. This is a nice change from most modern games, where death carries with it no ramifications.
The one area of the game that feels slightly undercooked are a few of the boss fights. They are all beautiful to look at and have interesting and learnable attack patterns, but many of them can be defeated rather easily on your first attempt. Being able to carry multiple items that fully refill your health and magic meters further diminishes the challenge if you choose to utilize them. In some cases, though, I appreciated these battles being a little easier after taking a serious beating through some of the level trials preceding them.
Between all of the great action are these wonderful, quiet moments full of reflective calm and other surprises. They’re a great inclusion that very much reminded me of Golden Axe‘s intermission campfire scenes where you can stock up on health and magic potions. However, these brilliantly build a strong bond between the game’s key characters in haunting and meaningful ways. I always looked forward to these after defeating one of the game’s bosses.
The game’s achievements, or “Feats” as they’re called here, are definitely worth mentioning. There are some truly challenging ones that will give trophy hunters a run for their money, extending the life of the game for those who want to extract the most out of it. A number of them run completely opposite to one another, so don’t expect to get them all in one shot. Speaking of the game’s length, it took me about 7 hours to finish it the first time (the in-game clock had me at around 6 hours and 40 minutes), and even though I took my time, I only found about 65% of the game’s hidden Music Sheets, which unlock music tracks inside an in-game sound test. There were also some other important items I missed along the way, so the game definitely will take more than one playthrough to see and do everything.
Not only that, but a New Game+ mode is also included, which ups the challenge for those seeking a more difficult playthrough, but lets you keep all your upgrades from your first time through.
And last but not least, I have to point out the game’s humor. I mentioned earlier that the writing in the game is excellent, and while that applies to Shovel Knight‘s serious dialogue, it equally enhances the more lighthearted exchanges as well. It’s full of puns and other high-energy, exclamation point-filled zingers that make all of the NPCs interesting to talk to.
Shovel Knight is a special game. It represents the pinnacle of 8-bit sensibilities with the refinements of modern game design, wrapped up in a beautiful package that will remind you of all the things that drew you to videogames in the first place. Also available for the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS, Shovel Knight is not to be missed and is an easy contender for Game of the Year.
- Graphics & Presentation: A+
Beautifully drawn sprites, gorgeous backgrounds with multi-plane parallax scrolling, and some giant screen-filling enemies. 60fps with no screen tearing, even at its highest resolutions.
- Music & Sound Effects: A+
A superb soundtrack by Jake Kaufman, with nods to many 8-bit classics. Contributions by original Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae are a welcome treat. Excellent sound effects bring the action to vivid life.
- Gameplay & Controls: A
Perfect, fluid controls make Shovel Knight a delight to play, with tons of hidden areas to find. Fun platforming with all sorts of environmental hazards to contend with. Very unique continue system. Some bosses provide little challenge.
- Value: A-
A pretty quick game at about 7 hours or so, but New Game+ and a slew of Feats and hidden items will keep you playing for a long time if you want everything the game has to offer.