Release Date: June 26, 2014Platforms: Wii U (reviewed), 3DS, PCDeveloper: Yacht Club GamesPublisher: Yacht Club GamesGenre: Action-platformer
The tale of Shovel Knight begins with a loss of hope. When our titular hero’s partner and love interest Shield Knight disappears after an adventure in the Tower of Fate, Shovel Knight puts down his shovel and allows the realm to slowly succumb to the evil Enchantress. As Shovel Knight rests besides a dying campfire at the end of each day, he has nightmarish visions of his beloved Shield Knight falling through the clouds as swarms of enemies creep in. Just as our hero leaps up to catch her, he awakens from his dreams, alone and devastated. This is not your typical retro-inspired video game.
If Shovel Knight had come out twenty years ago on the NES, it would have turned my entire world upside-down. The game takes the essence of platforming classics like Mega Man and Castlevania and throws in just the right amount of RPG elements to make for an incredibly rewarding sense of progression. In addition to upgrading your health and your magic, you can even enhance your shovel’s effectiveness, as well as buy new armor that comes with its own in-game benefits besides the shiny 8-bit costume change. There’s even a little Super Mario Bros. 3 thrown in there as well, with a colorful world map that’s sprawling with levels and moving travelers to encounter.
While the game is a sidescrolling action-platformer at its core, Shovel Knight’s shovel weapon grants our hero some unlikely abilities that help give the game a very original feel. Treasure plays a big role in the character upgrade system, and Shovel Knight can dig up a whole lot of it by attacking mounds of dirt or conspicuous stone blocks in the environment. Then there is the bouncing mechanic, which changes the pace of the gameplay in an instant. Shovel Knight can use his shovel to bounce off certain surfaces and enemies, which is often needed to traverse large gaps or spike pits in exhilarating platforming segments.
You’ll also have a wide array of magic attacks and subtle new abilities that can be purchased along the way, from brief spouts of invincibility, to continuous digging through dirt or stone blocks that are suspended above the ground. Every main level features a new gameplay mechanic that is not only wonderfully executed, but unexpected in its design. The levels are also very long, which allows for each of these ideas to truly develop and evolve before the inevitable boss room. And for the sadistic Shovel Knight fans out there, you can even smash these checkpoints with your shovel as you go along, rendering them inactive but scoring you some additional treasure for living life on the edge.
There is no life count or Game Over in Shovel Knight, and the only penalty for death is losing a portion of your gold and treasure. Luckily, you’ll always have a chance to reclaim these lost spoils by making it back to the area you last died in and grabbing a couple of floating moneybags. This system is very reminiscent of the popular Dark Souls retrieval mechanic, and serves as an incredibly smart design choice, especially considering that you’ll be dying a whole lot on your quest. The game is fairly linear overall, although each level is peppered with dozens of secret areas that are always a strategic shovel tap away. Your main goal is to traverse the land and bring down the eight masters of The Order of No Quarter (e.g. the eight robot masters in a Mega Man game) on your way to stopping the evil Enchantress.
Which brings us to the challenging boss fights in Shovel Knight. These bosses were my favorite part of the Shovel Knight experience, as they have all of the magic and charm of a classic Mega Man game. Each boss has their own personality, and in order to defeat them, you’ll need to master their frantic attack patterns. There’s the tiny Tinker Knight, who chases you with his measly wrench before hopping into a giant mech to sway the odds in his favor. There’s the massive Polar Knight, who pummels you with snowballs during the fight. There’s the evasive Treasure Knight, who kind of looks like a Big Daddy from BioShock as he hides in a deadly underwater lair.
Music plays a big role in Shovel Knight, and the bouncing chiptune soundtrack is easily one of the best I’ve ever heard in a retro-inspired game. The player is also encouraged to find dozens of song sheets that are hidden throughout the world, which can be delivered to a musician in town who will then play the tunes for you whenever you want. In terms of replayability, Shovel Knight also includes an awesome New Game+ mode after the main journey has been completed, and a list of 45 “feats” to accomplish, which task the playing with doing everything from collecting every song sheet to beating the game without dying or using checkpoints! There is a ton of content to find here, and the adventure never feels stale because of it.
In the end, Shovel Knight is the perfect example of what can happen when a developer takes their well-known inspirations and uses them to create something entirely unique. The game has Mega Man and Castlevania coursing through its veins, but Shovel Knight still manages to stand apart in many ways. Not only does the story pack an emotional punch, but the gameplay is just as biting and bursting with interesting ideas and challenging gameplay. But more importantly than that, Shovel Knight gives me the same sense of magic I felt after playing my very first Mega Man game, and things like that just don’t come around very often.