I grew up playing games on the NES and that’s where I have a lot of nostalgia. Now with the resurgence of these games we have an ocean of indie pixel platformers to choose from. Taking inspiration from the classics, Shovel Knight offers a great blend of new and old mechanics giving an even fresher take on the genre.
Can You Dig It?
Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were the best heroes in all of the land. When the heroes arrived at the Tower of Fate, a cursed amulet knocked them unconscious. When Shovel Knight awoke Shield Knight was gone. Shovel Knight was traumatized after this event and went into a life of solitude. With Shovel Knight gone, The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter were free to run rampant. Shovel Knight notices this evil and seeks to return to the Tower of Fate to avenge his missing love.
What’s nice here is that the story never intrudes on the gameplay. Sure, before fighting a boss there is occasional banter with one liners. The town’s people are expressive and give great hints for helping you become better at the game. Some of the interactions truly made me chuckle the first time I read them. Certain words also wiggle or bounce for emphasis making the characters have more of a personality. What works best here is that there isn’t some kind of overarching grandiose story. Just good old fashion beat the bad guys because they’re bad.
Shovel Knight is a cross between Mega Man, Castlevania, Duck Tails, and a little bit of Zelda 2. You may think borrowing ideas from all of these games makes Shovel Knight derivative but that’s not the case. Shovel Knight combines all of these elements into an excellent 8-bit classic. Shovel Knight’s platforming will test your quick problem solving skills and reaction speed. Shovel Knight introduces you to a basic mechanic that will be used throughout the level. For example, lightening plays a huge roll on Specter Knight’s stage. Certain platforms are hidden by the darkness and you need to time your jumps with the lightning strikes. Then when you think you’ve mastered it, the platforms are moving and enemies are hidden by the night sky. Shovel Knight is always throwing something new at you and keeps you guessing making every stage feel different.
Shovel Knight falls in between Mega Man and Castlevania with enemy placement and overall movement. You’re not blasting away a ton of foes and you’re not systematically disposing of enemies to make that jump easier. You are taking out enemies here or there then jumping across multiple platforms. Shovel Knight is not as rigid as Mega Man and not as stiff as your favorite Belmont. You are usually in control of Shovel Knight but the biggest issue I ran into was using the downward stab. The physics felt a bit off. Like my character just gained a lot of weight, giving me a slight feeling of losing control. As you progress through the game you get used to how it works but there is a problem. In order to break the downward stab you simply can’t let it go. In other words you are committed to that movement and can’t change your mind. This often lead me diving into pits which wasn’t my intention or accidently breaking vital blocks and losing my footing. These sometimes felt like cheap deaths.
Gold management is another important aspect in Shovel Knight. In the early game you must choose between either upgrading your health or total magic points. It has taken inspiration from current rouge likes, because when you fall in battle you drop a certain amount of gold. In order to get this gold back you need to run to where you died. If you happen to die on your way to get your gold then say goodbye to that dropped gold. One stage I died about 15 times and I ended up losing a good chunk of change which led to less upgrades. There are plenty of checkpoints in each level but there’s a slight twist to them. You can break the checkpoint to get the treasure within but once you do then that checkpoint is gone and you will have to settle respawning at the next closest checkpoint.
Relics give Shovel Knight special abilities that covers projectiles to even a fishing rod. Some of the my favorites include a bracelet that makes you invincible for about three seconds for those difficult jumps. Another is the fire wand which acts like a projectile to take out enemies from a far. You can also buy these chalices that let you pick two different effects. One turns the player invulnerable for 10 seconds and the other refills your health to full. These items are one time use per level and can be replenished whenever you go back to the pond. I found these power-ups to be way too strong in the game and made bosses a push over.
Another thing I want to point out is the difficulty curve in the game. Overall the game felt well balanced, but on certain stages the difficulty was all over the place. One screen I would just blaze past then the next screen would be filled with pits, flying enemies, and spikes all over the walls. Near the end it tests everything you have learned and those where the toughest stages in the game. After it was all said and done I managed to finish the game in just under five hours. Completing the game unlocks New Game+. You get to carry over all of your upgrades and items plus the game is much harder. The only thing I could tell from New Game+ is that I was taking more damage and enemies received the same amount of hits before they perished. Leaving me with no incentive to play the game again.
Graphics & Audio
Shovel Knight is a complete throwback to the 8-bit NES era. The pixel art and animations are some of the best we’ve seen in these types of games. Sure the game uses more colors and frames of animation than the NES could handle but that doesn’t take away from the experience. Each stage is crafted so well it brings back that sense of accomplishment when you make it to the end of the stage and beat the boss.
In Tinker Knight’s level there are spinning gears and tools everywhere. Plague Knight has one of my favorite stages with flashing neon lights, bubbles, and flasks spread out in various places. Shovel Knight’s music also sticks with 8-bit chip tunes. These songs reminded me of Mega Man and kept me humming them long after play was over.
Wii U Features
Shovel Knight offers basic off TV play that one comes to expect with most Wii U games. The gamepad allows you to quick select inventory items on the gamepad. Most of the time I found myself pausing the game to select my items, so this really didn’t help me out. At the current time you can only play Shovel Knight on Nintendo platforms and PC.
Shovel Knight is simply one of the best platformers I’ve ever played. Its gameplay is finely tuned offering tons of variety per stage. It manages to combine all of these game elements so well it was hard to put down and kept me coming back for more. Yacht Club Games really ran with the 8-bit style and showed their labor of love for pixel art and tight gameplay. If you’re looking for a fresh platformer to play then dig up Shovel Knight. This is the best Mega Man game you’re going to play for a long time.
+ Excellent 8-bit aesthetics
+ Great variety between levels
- Uninspired use of the GamePad
- Balance doesn’t stay consistent