We are currently in an age where 8 and 16 bit games are becoming popular again. Countless games attempt to capture our nostalgia for 80’s and early 90’s platforming games and often fail, but Shovel Knight brings all those classic elements into a fantastic package. Through a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign, Yacht Club Games developed and published an heavily inspired NES game, influenced by legendary titles like DuckTales, Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Mega Man titles. Shovel Knight is one of the best 2-D side scrolling platform games I’ve played in a very long time and sets the bar for other indie developers at an all time high.
Navigating through the map is quite adorable, taking inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 3 in a semi-open world map. As you clear through sections of the map, fog clears up and displaying more castles and side challenges to do. There are even roaming knights and challengers that shuffle around as you travel to different locations. While navigating through this map brought back some wonderful memories, sometimes the controls were unresponsive and took me into the wrong direction, which made me question playing through the actual castles. Fortunately, the controls were very responsive – just navigating the map led to some issues. There are two different villages in the world, one used to upgrade your heath(using “meal tickets” that can be found through your adventure or bought from a goat) or magic (using gold found through completing levels) but also have interesting dialog options, mini games and vendors. The other is used to purchase armor and upgrades for your shovel, and both town have a charming tone and mood that makes each visit a pleasant trip. Catching my eye, the nostalgic UI design brought the entire experience of a retro inspired platformer together and made me feel I was playing a genuine retro title released for the NES.
In my experience playing indie titles inspired by retro platformer games, only a few were able to pull off well designed levels and interesting environments, but most left a sour taste in my mouth for this beloved genre. To my surprise, each level revolves around a different theme, giving a unique look to every level you come across and an entertaining level design that is nowhere near repetitive, introducing new enemies and increasingly challenging obstacles every step of the way, retaining strong and fresh gameplay. Shovel Knight was able to bring challenging levels that did not hold your hand the entire way through and makes you feel proud once you overcome it, which most games fail to achieve. An entertaining knack that every level contains are secret passages, you start noticing walls marked with certain emblems or a different enough texture to set it apart from the rest, once you strike that wall, it uncovers a path that can lead to alternate routes and challenging rooms with a gold and or rewards waiting to be claimed. What comes at the end of each level? What else but a great boss fight that ties it all together.
At the end of each level you face one of “The Order of No Quarter,” who have been dispatched by the Enchantress to stop Shovel Knight from reaching the Tower of Faith. There are eight knights in total, each suit to the environment they’re placed in. Each battle is unbelievably satisfying to fight, with the fluid animations of each knight building on the tension and excitement of battle. It isn’t easy to be declared the victor, as each knight is extremely challenging in their own way. I died on several occasions, until I saw through their pattern and used that to my advantage, even then it was still a challenge. On the final sliver of your enemy’s health, that final blow brings it all together, as the game’s animations slows down and your enemy collapses, after that intense battle a soft jingle starts to play and you go on to your next challenge . As you progress through each level, you pick up gold from enemies and throughout the environment, that gold can be used to upgrade your shovel, purchase armor and unique items.
Collecting gold throughout your adventure gives you options to upgrade your character and purchase relics, special items that use magic. Shovel Knight doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of items to purchase, which benefits this title, as the limited yet effect number of items only adds to the overall experience. Each item has a different value, and you can save your gold to buy the most expensive item or purchase multiple inexpensive items. This system allows the player to decide how they want to experience the game. Certain items are unique to a level, as in, you don’t need that item to complete the level but can be used to reach certain obstacles, which adds replay value, seeing an area you can’t reach and purchasing the item needed later in the game gives you more incentive to go back and explore. In terms of armor, you’re able to buy five different pieces, each containing unique abilities, except the most expensive piece of armor, made of gold, which is just for show but looks great. Only three upgrades are available for your shovel which changes the way it handles, for example, the Charge Handle gives you the ability to charge your strike for a more powerful attack. As for Relics, there are eleven items to purchase, not only do these items get you to hard to reach places, but they add an entire new level of gameplay, as specific levels are dedicated to specific items, and act as an obstacle course to test your abilities with that item.
Shovel Knight’s distinct gameplay mechanics set it apart from other retro knock-offs and puts the player in challenging situations. For instance, it has a punishing yet interesting consequence when you die, as you lose a large portion of the gold you collected but gives you a single chance to get back to the scene of your death and reclaim your loot. I thoroughly enjoyed this system, the challenging risk-reward situation changed the way I approached the level, whether risking more of my loot to reclaim the dropped gold or taking the easy way around and saving my current loot. In some cases I would die in an area that made it nearly impossible to reclaim my loot, not because of the platforming nor enemies, but because of the location, which lead to frustrating situations.
The checkpoint system is very unique and executed well. Like traditional checkpoints, as soon as you pass a landmark you will spawn there after dying, until you pass the next checkpoint and so on. However, you can shatter a checkpoint at any time and be given a pile of gold. This extraordinary mechanic is risky, by destroying that checkpoint you will no longer spawn there but at the previous point, turning a casual playthrough into a challenging experience one.
Everything about Shovel Knight made me feel like I was playing the NES again, the 8 bit art style, music, platforming, level design and classic UI design made for a more immersive experience. Yacht Club Games did an extraordinary job on most of the elements retro platforming games have to offer, as for the very few problems Shovel Knight had, I cant help but forgive it and play some more. I can not wait to see what Yacht Club Games plan to do with Shovel Knight in the future, whether this is the end of our shovel wielding hero or more content is being developed for the future, either way there is a bright future for this indie developer.
Available on: WiiU, 3DS and PC; Publisher:Yacht Club Games ; Developer:Yacht Club Games; Players: 1; Released: Jun 26, 2014; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $15.00; Official Site