Shovel Knight, for the most, has been widely acclaimed by both critics and fans alike, praising its nostalgic 8-Bit graphical approach and its heavy influence from NES games, specifically the Mega Man series and Super Mario Bros 3. Many have addressed their concerns on Shovel Knight’s clear grasp on nostalgia, and how it doesn’t necessarily provide anything new and primarily rides off of the nostalgia alone. As someone who grew up exclusively playing the original PlayStation and have never owned a NES or SNES, I can deliver a warranted slice of perspective. Shovel Knight is not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, and most definitely rides off of nostalgia, but none of these are necessarily a bad thing. I, for one, am not playing the game with tinted goggles as I never grew up in the 8 and 16 bit era of gaming, so no nostalgic flashbacks to Mega Man or Castlevania will ever resonate in my obscure mind. Despite all of this, I am happy to report that I absolutely adore Shovel Knight and if I had played it during its original release last year, it would’ve made its mark on my top 10 games of 2014. Shovel Knight is exceptionally charming, wholeheartedly addicting, and reasonably challenging; its 8-bit art style and sound direction are undoubtedly nostalgic, but that doesn’t detract from its overall presentational quality. Regardless of its nostalgic factor, Shovel Knight is a lovely bite-sized experience that shouldn’t be missed.
As I’ve previously mentioned at length, Shovel Knight is a 2D 8-bit side-scrolling platformer and its retro likeness is instantly apparent through one glance. It’s abundantly clear that Yacht Club Games were heavily influenced by NES classics, noticeably Mega Man; the main menu and level selection menu in particular heavily boast a Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. 3 approach. The clear dedication to replicate this NES formula is present, hell enemies will even respawn if you head back to a previous section of the current level. It’s that minute attention to detail and the clear respect and love for the material that make Shovel Knight so successful and so damn good. The sound design is equally, if not more impressive than its visual counterpart. Even though I didn’t own an NES or SNES, I did however own a GameBoy Color and religiously played Pokemon Silver, so the chiptune soundtrack and 8-bit sounds were very familiar and were the only bit of nostalgia that resonated with me. Luckily, by collecting the vast number of music sheets scattered across the many stages of Shovel Knight, you’ll be able to listen to whichever glorious 8-bit track you prefer at your own leisure. Given its retro influence, the story itself is fairly simplistic and caters to traditional story-telling gaming tropes. The Shovel Knight must reach the Tower of Fate and rescue his beloved, Shield Knight, but the malevolent Enchantress intends to impede his journey and dispatches the Order of No Quarter to defeat the Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight must defeat the 8 members of the Order to reach the Tower of Fate, and save his beloved once and for all. It’s nothing particularly special but since story-telling in gaming was a little less emphasized 25 years ago, Shovel Knight shouldn’t necessarily be criticized for its narrative as its exactly what it wants to be, an NES title with an emphasis of gameplay over story.
With Shovel Knight, gameplay is king and is undoubtedly the main course. Now even though I haven’t necessarily played these games, I have watched videos of them and have done research for this review. The gameplay of Shovel Knight is not necessarily an exact replica of a specific NES title per se, but arguably a combination of some of the greats. Shovel Knight primarily takes its projectile gameplay from Mega Man and some level environments even mirror the aesthetic of Mega Man 2. The platforming itself is fairly responsive and tight and can be quite challenging in some of the later stages. The Shovel Knight uses his versatile shovel to attack enemies, bounce on top of objects and enemies – similar to the pogo jump in DuckTales, and for traditional shovel uses such as eliminating sand and dirt blocks, digging up treasure and clearing hidden paths to unlock extra goodies. Collecting gold and treasure is a crucial gameplay element of Shovel Knight and luckily there is plenty to spare. Gold is used to purchase shovel and armor upgrades, health and magic upgrades and primarily makes the world of Shovel Knight go round. However, in familiar Souls and Bloodborne fashion, you lose your gold when you die. Granted you only lose a fraction of your total amount, but you’re only given one opportunity to reclaim it, if you die before retrieving it, it will be forever lost. You could easily begin a stage with 8000 gold and carelessly die over and over again and lose it all in the matter of minutes. Stages have a minimum of 4 checkpoints, while some stages will hold more. Players can destroy these checkpoints to earn a ton of loot if they so choose to, but be warned, the destroyed checkpoint will be rendered inert and you’ll spawn even further back; in a sense this subconsciously makes the game more difficult and creates a risk versus reward approach to its progression design. Level design is well done, with plenty of hidden pathways to uncover new treasures or collectibles, which will encourage you to replay stages to see what you’ve missed. Throughout your playthrough, you’ll be given the opportunity to purchase new items which rightfully use up your magic, these items range from simple fireballs that your knight can cast to a belching war horn that destroys nearby enemies in its blast radius. Stage and enemy variety is well moderated and while, certain enemies make a constant return in different stages, there’s most definitely enough variety to warrant their stay. Yacht Club Games, however, missed a fantastic opportunity to implement these items in a Metroidvania manner. I would’ve loved to replay older levels and use my newly attained items to unlock new hidden areas that were inaccessible before. I was also hoping that items purchased mid-level would play an imperative roll in that stage’s boss fight, however boss fights are fairly simplistic and the usage of new items are irrelevant to the outcome of the battle. Only a couple of boss fights towards the end proved to be a challenge, and even then it was still very manageable. PlayStation owners are in for a slight treat when picking up Shovel Knight, not only is there cross-buy and cross-save functionality for PS4, PS3, and PS Vita, but you’ll also get the opportunity to fight Kratos from the God of War series. At first, this may sound a bit gimmicky, but not only is Kratos a hidden and optional boss but he’s also probably the most memorable boss in the entire game. His memorability is not due to his legacy, but because he’s a fast adversary and his battle has a total of three components, including a freefalling segment. Defeating him also unlocks a fantastic set of equipment; an exclusive shovel and piece of armor that permits the ability to consecutively hit and swing a flaming projectile which dramatically ups the ante. Regardless of your platform of choice, Shovel Knight is an undeniable treat that is chock-full of addicting combat, precise platforming, and a welcomed challenge.
So I may not be the most qualified or credible person to give you my two cents on this retro-inspired title, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed it nonetheless. For those of you who’re not into the retro scene of gaming and/or were not fortunate enough to grow up in the NES and SNES era of gaming, I’d recommend giving Shovel Knight a chance. It’s simple yet challenging at the same time and is a perfect title for the 3DS and Vita. For those of you who grew up playing classic NES titles, you’ll feel right at home with this baby. I am to believe that Shovel Knight is however not nearly as difficult as the classics that inspired it. However, destroying the available checkpoints and starting a new game plus playthrough prove difficult enough to make up for its lack of challenge in comparison to its inspirations. The game is fairly extensive for its size and price; clocking in at nearly 13 hours, Shovel Knight is a blast from start to finish. As someone who was immune to its nostalgic factor, I got to see Shovel Knight for what it truly was, an amazing action platformer; for me, it was the fantastic soundtrack and challenging gameplay that won me over, not its 8-bit art style. With planned DLC, a challenging new game plus mode, and dozens of music sheets to collect, there are plenty of reasons to keep Shovel Knight fresh in your mind. It’s a fantastic experience that does not work off of nostalgia alone and manages to pluck redeeming qualities from its inspirations and implement then in the best possible manner.