Retro visuals are pretty popular these days, with almost every second game on Steam Greenlight sporting a pixel-art look. I believe this trend started with one of my all time favourite games, Sword & Sworcery. Most of the “retro” styled games end up just looking the part and trying to cash in on nostalgia, but Yacht Club Games has finally released Shovel Knight after a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, and boy does it live up to all the hype.
I never really paid attention to the game when the Kickstarter campaign was going on and only really started reading into it when I saw it on the cover of Nintendo Force. I bought the game as soon as the eShop refreshed on 3DS and I’ve needed to charge my 3DS far too many times over the last few days because of it. The game gets almost everything right from the get-go. It is a huge serving of nostalgia, with excellent gameplay and atmosphere to back it up.
I bought the game as soon as the eShop refreshed on 3DS and I’ve needed to charge my 3DS far too many times over the last few days because of it
You play as a knight whose main weapon is – you guessed it – a shovel. The game gives you a bit of history when you start out. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight used to fight alongside each other, but when the exploration of the Tower of Fate results in them falling to dark magic, you (Shovel Knight) wake up with Shield Knight missing and the Tower sealed. The Enchantress spreads evil, meanwhile, and you aim to rescue Shield Knight and overthrow all obstacles the Enchantress sends your way.
Gameplay is a combination of the best elements of classics franchises like Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 (the map view in particular), Castlevania III and Ducktales. Platforming perfection with no hand-holding would be a succinct way to describe it. Each level has a unique visual style, enemies, and music, and platforming elements also change as you progress. In my Final Fantasy X HD review, I’d mentioned how the remaster captured what we remembered of the original, and made it better. People usually remember only the good things from their favourite old games and these rose-tinted memories often go away when you revisit them. Shovel Knight, for its part, has none of the annoying flaws many NES games had.
Some levels have annoying sections, but you’ll never fault the game when you die because it’s evident that the mistake was yours rather than a a case of “bad level design”.
Your main weapon is a shovel and you have to collect gold to buy things in villages that either let you upgrade your health or your magic. There are patches of dirt in the ground scattered throughout that you can dig up for gold. There are also additional weapons in the form of relics that use up magic, but those are unlocked as the story progresses. The gameplay isn’t easy like most games today (another trait of NES games). You will die quite a bit, but the game has a really nice checkpoint system. When you die, a portion of your gold is taken away and you can collect it from the same spot when you replay the section.
Some levels have really annoying sections, but you’ll never fault the game when you die because it’s evident that the mistake was yours and not a case of “bad level design”. There’s a section where you have to pogo stick with your shovel onto a book so pages open up, giving you platforms to jump on. There are rats with propellers coming towards you and vats of lava in between platforms. This was really annoying early on in the game. Levels also have abundant mini bosses, some of which I found harder than the main level boss.
The visuals are stunning. There is no other way of putting this. It appeals to your nostalgia and manages to look great even when played on a large screen.
The visuals are stunning. There is no other way of putting this. It appeals to your nostalgia and manages to look great even when played on a large screen. I found myself using 3D while playing it as well because the game has implemented lovely stereoscopic 3D with parallax backgrounds. Sprites are excellent, character animations are great, and the levels all look unique. Even the short cutscene slideshows and their animations have been faithfully done so this game would feel at home on an NES.
The chiptune soundtrack of Shovel Knight has been done by Jake Kaufman (Virt), who also did music for Retro City Rampage, and it is spectacular. It also has a few contributions by famed Mega Man composer, Manami Matsumae. The songs are catchy and they never get boring even when you’re stuck dying and playing levels over and over.
Shovel Knight’s charm doesn’t end there. There are subtle things it gets right, like small animations that no one would pay attention to. The rummaging chest animation in particular has been masterfully done. The game also has cheats that enable a wealth of humorous modes, like butt mode and armour colour changing mode. I’ll leave the cheat-hunting to you.
Shovel Knight is not just a love letter to you from years ago. It is a platformer everyone needs to play. There’s a wealth of content and even a New Game+ mode that makes the game a lot harder. My only real complaint is the length – you can beat it in under six hours. If you’re against games that look like they were made for consoles from decades ago, Shovel Knight is probably not for you, but you will be missing out on one of the best platforming experiences in years.