The classics are often considered classics for a good reason. There's something simplistic and beautiful about the old-school 8-bit age of gaming, encapsulating just why we both love (and hate) games so much. No genre grasps this dichotomy quite like the 80s platformer.
It's easy to see Yacht Club Games' affinity for a bygone era. Shovel Knight practically bathes in its retro NES-era aesthetic, as evidenced by its look, its music, and its simple-to-explain story. But more than that, the developer fully understands what made those old-school games so appealing to begin with. By embracing certain aspects of classic platformers, while thankfully doing away with others, Shovel Knight emerges as a fantastic effort, regardless of the time period.
Shovel Knight follows the title character of the same name, who had previously retired from the chivalrous life of knighthood after his partner had fallen in battle. But with the evil Enchantress and her Knights of No Quarter wreaking havoc on the kingdom, the Shovel Knight must once again pick up his trusty tool and go forth into battle.
The controls will be second nature to anyone who has ever picked up a gamepad, but even those new to the genre should be able to grasp the concept fairly quickly. Shovel Knight moves across the field making precision jumps and taking down enemies through either direct shovel strikes or through his pogo maneuver. The latter tactic will be used repeatedly throughout the adventure, with the second half of the game requiring some precision pogo jumps to traverse across more challenging gaps.
The end of each level pits the Shovel Knight against one of the Knights of No Quarter, each with their own theme. The bosses' designs are quite imaginative, as are the challenges that each one brings to the table. For example, Polar Knight will not only toss snowballs at you, but he'll unearth lethal spikes in mid-battle. Meanwhile, Specter Knight will warp around the arena and turn out the lights as he becomes weaker. The boss battles never feel repetitive, all offering their own unique obstacles and challenging players in different ways.
A knight's fortitude
What helps separate Shovel Knight from its old-school brethren is its progression system. Treasure isn't simply for score chasing, but is also a vital form of currency that can be used to upgrade the main character. Meal tickets can be used to increase health, while other denizens of villages can also help increase Shovel Knight's magic or offer him special moves.
There are also hidden chests throughout each stage that contain a traveling salesman that will sell a special item. These items are often well-hidden, but not too difficult to find. In fact, I'd often wind up finding the hidden area, but only after I accidentally cleared out my path that would help me reach it. Those moments of sheepishness are plentiful in this game and they add a good incentive to keep hammering away at the game to get better at finding everything.
Though Shovel Knight starts off as a whimsical adventure to run through, it's essential to know just what it means to be diving into this type of game. Shovel Knight understands that platformers like Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden weren't just colorful and simplistic. They were hard. They were "throw your controller at the wall" kind of hard. This game fully embraces that idea, offering death after death after 'cheap-as-chewing-gum' death.
However, Shovel Knight understands what separates "hard" from "unfair." All of Shovel Knights platforming sequences are doable, even if they get incredibly difficult and they often left me feeling like that next platform was just within reach. But most important of all, the game understands that certain aspects of the genre must move forward. In creating difficult sequences, the developers utilized and refined classic ideas like silhouetted environments that darken the level and giant insects that act as ferries.
Retro, but not outdated
Also, there is no archaic life system that forces players to start a level again from scratch. If a checkpoint is reached, players are welcome to continue trying from that checkpoint until they either make that elusive jump or die (repeatedly) trying. The penalty for dying is simply losing treasure, which can often be recovered on the next turn. This benefits the game greatly, because if I had died three times near the end of the level only to be forced to start over, I likely wouldn't have had the itch to keep trying.
Shovel Knight is an amazingly fun romp, offering precision platforming at its finest. Only at the end did I feel the game began to falter a tad, as it delved into some unwelcome cliches. But aside from that, this game brought back memories in the best way possible, all supplemented by a soundtrack that will ring through your head for a long time. It not only re-creates an old-school genre, it actively improves on it. Between the main adventure and the side stages that include treasure-collecting stages and optional boss battles, there's about 6-8 hours of content find. However, with all the dying to be done, the Shovel Knight experience will likely last a little bit longer. And really, I can dig that.
Final Score: 8 out of 10.
This review is based on a digital PC copy provided by the developer. Shovel Knight is available now for PC, Wii U, and Nintendo 3DS for $14.99. The game is rated E.