Review: Shovel Knight
Developer: Yacht Club Games - Publisher: Yacht Club Games - Platforms: Wii U, 3DS, PC - Release Date: June 26, 2014
Concept: Combine elements from classic platfomers with an innovative checkpoint system to form retro bliss
Graphics: 8-bit is in vogue and Shovel Knight wears it well with some nice pixel art.
Sound: The soundtrack isn't quite as catchy as the games Shovel Knight pays tribute to, but it's still enjoyable
Playability: Platforming is on-point and nailing a chain of shovel bounces is even more satisfying than in Scrooge McDuck's adventure
Entertainment: Shovel Knight is worthwhile adventure regardless of whether you grew up with these types of games or if this generation is your very first as a gamer
Replay Value: Moderately High
I Can Dig It
*This review covers the Wii U version
Many of us owe Shovel Knight's existence to the Kickstarter backers that helped the game see the light of day. Initially requiring only $75,000 in funding, it more than tripled that the campaign's end. It's easy to see why so many got behind the project. Shovel Knight is one of the best retro platformers available today.
Shovel Knight and his partner, Shield Knight, were once the greatest duo of adventurers in the land. That is, until, a fateful excursion through the Tower of Fate caused Shield Knight to be trapped within it's walls forever. After remaining sealed for years, the Tower of Fate opens once again and it's ruler, The Enchantress, terrorizes the land using her eight dastardly knights, known as the Order of No Quarter. His spirit reinvigorated, Shovel Knight takes up his trusty spade and sets out on a quest to rescue his beloved Shield Knight.
My initial impression of Shovel Knight was that it was essentially a Mega Man tribute with a sprinkle of DuckTales in the form of the bouncing pogo attack. However, Shovel Knight draws inspiration from a variety of games, and not all of them are nostalgic. The world map is straight out of Mario Bros. 3, even down to having random encounters between stages. Towns in the vein of Zelda II's villages are littered across the world. One of your weapons, an anchor, performs exactly the same as the axe sub-weapon from every Castlevania game ever.
Obligatory references to old favorites are status quo for retro-inspired titles, but yelling "Hey, remember this!" can only these games so far - even an homage has to have something original. Thankfully, Shovel Knight takes care of this in form of an ingenious checkpoint system. Each of the Mega Man-esque stages feature several, glass orb checkpoints, making your trek significantly less stressful than in the Blue Bomber's adventures. However, players have the option of shattering these checkpoints to reap huge treasure bonuses, but the price of greed is losing that checkpoint for good.
This is a brilliant and thoughtful option for a couple of reasons. For one, dying causes players to lose a good chunk of treasure that will remain present at the place of their demise until they're able to retrieve it. Die again before doing so, and that loot disappears forever - a surprising, but effective, nod to the Demon Souls and Dark Souls games. If players happen to die in a particularly hairy spot, they can forgo the risk of returning to that deadly area by offing a checkpoint to recoup their loss. Once more, skilled players simply looking for an old-school challenge can up ante as much as they want in exchange for greater wealth.
Swapping progress for cash can be very tempting since money plays a significant role in Shovel Knight. Unlike Mega Man, new weapons aren't inherited from fallen bosses and must be purchased. Because you're tackling each knight of the Order in a (mostly) predetermined order, this method works - especially since bosses aren't susceptible to any one item. Upgrades for your armor, shovel, health, and mana all require cash. Certain NPC's will also request that you pony up some dough, which may trigger certain occurrences, including extra boss fights.
Shovel Knight's odd weapon of choice adds some unique little quirks. In addition to being an effective melee weapon, there's a weird satisfaction in simply unearthing jewels from dirt mounds. Even better is digging into weak areas of walls to expose hidden treasure and secret paths. Shovel-bouncing feels wonderful and many areas go all out in putting that skill to the test. One challenging segment has players bouncing on tiny, moving cannonballs across a giant gap while dodging airborne enemies at the same time. No matter how crazy situations became, I always felt confident in my ability to pull it off thanks to how finely-tuned the bouncing mechanic is.
Stages are pretty straightforward but feature branching paths for some light exploration. Staple level themes like ice and fire are present, but they're complimented with more creative stages, such as Plague Knight's giant beaker-filled laboratory or Specter Knight's haunted cemetery. Boss fights are tough but, as mentioned previously, since no one sub-weapon acts as a boss' Achilles heel, they're also more flexible in how you choose to approach them, which I like.
Another aspect that I loved is the content outside of taking down evil knights. You'll be tasked with collecting music sheets for an overexcited bard, traveling warriors will challenge you to duels, and you'll solve the mystery of an art gallery that may or may not be haunted. There are also special stages centered around the use of single sub-weapon, giving you the chance to become intimate with their abilities in a controlled environment. It's pretty cool for a game of this ilk to feature it's own form of sidequests. Additionally, dream sequences in which Shovel Knight must catch a falling Shield Knight provide are surprisingly symbolic and lead to a pretty thoughtful payoff.
Not everything is perfect, though. Using your items requires the somewhat awkward input of pressing the Up and attack buttons at once. That's tricky to pull off in hectic situations (such as in mid-air) especially you play predominantly with the analog sticks. I would have preferred them to be mapped to one of the shoulder buttons as several deaths came from accidentally shovel bouncing when trying to use an item or, conversely, using items by mistake while trying to perform quick actions. The ability to swap weapons on the fly via a button press would have also been appreciated because having to repeatedly glance down at the touchscreen to select an item gets tiresome.
There's also a noticeable spike in difficulty about halfway through. Whereas I'd completed the first half of the game with relative ease, the latter half suddenly kicked my ass. Proof was an end-game stat chart that showed my recorded number of deaths go from about 2-3 in each of first four stages leap well into the double digits for every stage afterwards. It'd be nice if either the challenge had escalated more evenly, or that every stage was an ordeal - again, like Mega Man.
Shovel Knight is another successful throwback that captures the fun and nostalgia of the platformers of yesteryear while injecting some modern sensibilities and a unique spin on checkpoints to appeal to modern gamers. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't want this franchise to follow the route of it's inspirations and spawn countless sequels for years to come.