It was my wish to avoid echoing every other review of Shovel Knight by bypassing the part where I invoke all the classic NES titles that this game takes its cues from. This isn’t going to happen though. That’s because talking about Shovel Knight without mentioning them – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Duck Tales, Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and the NES Mega Man titles, for the record – would be like discussing 1960s rock without mentioning Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. It’s pretty much impossible and probably pointless to try. This is because Shovel Knight pays such intense homage to some of these titles, while outright aping elements of others. This game doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve, it broadcasts them in fireworks and skywriting.
The game never feels derivative though. It does not do anything particularly new, but it’s so well put together, lovingly made, and fun that it sidesteps being a simple rip-off. This is a great example of a game knowing exactly what it wants to be, and executing perfectly that vision. The scope is narrow, but first time developer Yacht Club does well by keeping things simple and fun. The overworld map is pure Mario 3, complete with enemies that move around to different spots, initiating encounters as you make your way to the various levels. There are bonus stages and village hubs, and the latter are ripped right out of Zelda II. Overall though, the NES Mega Man and Castlevania games exert the most influence here because Shovel Knight mines those great works for level design ideas, art direction, and most importantly, the feel of the 2-D, sidescrolling gameplay.
Mega Man 2 and Castlevania III in particular make their venerable presence felt in the awesome art direction. The former contributes the industrial, mechanical and technological touches seen in some stages, while the latter of course permeates the levels leaning on spooky and supernatural atmospherics. This isn’t to say that Shovel Knight fails to bring any new aesthetics and motifs to the table. Yes, there is a Clockwork Tower – that’s literally the name of a level – a castle, and a graveyard, but there’s also a level that takes place inside of a submerged mechanical whale, and one aboard a derelict viking ship stranded amid a blizzard.
The visuals are incredibly charming, and legitimately gorgeous at times. Of course, this isn’t an actual NES game, and it’s even more beautiful because it’s done with greater color and clarity than was possible back in the day. The old pixel style meets new hardware/broader color palette reminded me a lot of Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne, the fictional game featured on Community. It’s a wonderful blend of old and new, and as a bonus: no slowdown! Also contributing to the excellent retro atmosphere is the killer soundtrack. From the menu, to the map, to the various towns and levels, the music is uniformly awesome. These tunes can stand next to any classic 8-bit overtures, and they make Shovel Knight that much better.
The platforming in Shovel Knight will definitely feel familiar to anyone who’s guided the blue bomber through all manner of treacherous jumps and obstacles. The beats and rhythms of navigating those old 8-bit playgrounds are present here. The boss fights also are heavily inspired by those of the Mega Man titles. Each one takes place ‘mano y mano,’ on a single screen, and pits the player against a foe specializing in one particular power. NES vets will get serious flashbacks to squaring off against Wood Man, Metal Man, and the like. The boss fights are genuine highlights because they’re unique, well designed, and fun. The non-boss combat feels a bit like Mega Man at times, but possesses many more Castlevania genes. This is because your main weapon is, you guessed it, a shovel. It might as well be a whip or a sword, and there are even a handful of sub-weapons. Jumping and fighting feels great because of the tight controls, and traversing the levels and taking out enemies is really fun.
You probably already guessed it, but Shovel Knight is really hard. What would a game inspired by 8-bit classics be without a devastating difficulty level? That said, the game never feels insurmountable, and with practice and patience, I think most people will get pretty good at it. Even at its worst, I don’t think it approaches the challenge of say Castlevania or Mega Man 2. It feels fair, and no matter how bad things got, I always knew my mistakes were my own fault. The coolest aspect of the difficulty is the fact that you can “tweak” it on the fly, so to speak. This is possible because of the brilliant checkpoint system that Shovel Knight employs. To some, the very idea of checkpoints in a retro game like this is blasphemous, but Shovel Knight strikes a genius compromise by allowing the player to destroy any checkpoint they like. You’ll be rewarded with much needed money, but of course, the checkpoint will no longer function. I loved this mechanic. Briefly agonizing over whether or not to destroy one was a great conundrum. Those who want to be dropped back at the beginning of a level upon death can make that happen, and they’ll get paid for taking on the extra challenge – provided they’re good enough. Those who want to hedge their bets and play it safe can do that too. The flexibility of this mechanic adds an extra layer of depth to the Shovel Knight experience.
If there is a drawback to the difficulty of Shovel Knight, it’s that it will likely force less skilled players – like myself – into a decent amount of grinding for cash. It’s never egregious, and you technically never have to grind, but I found myself replaying some of the earlier levels in order to purchase more health, magic, subweapons, and the like. When you die in Shovel Knight, you drop money, but if you can get back to where you fell, you’ll have a chance to re-collect that which was lost, assuming it’s accessible. If you die again before getting back to your fallen loot, then it’s lost forever, and even more cash is dropped. As the game got tougher and tougher, I lost tons of money. 8-bit savants will likely die less and recover their money more often when they do, and as such, avoid grinding as much or at all. I was not so lucky skilled. Though for a time, the grinding was kind of novel in an old school way, it did grow tiresome after a while. I finished the game in eleven and a half hours. I’m not exactly sure how much of that was spent earning money, but it was definitely a bit more than I would have preferred. One final nitpick with the difficulty: the curve felt a little off. The game starts out tough, the middle third or so really ratchets things up, but then the final stretch, while super hard, felt noticeably easier. It’s all exceptionally challenging of course, but a bit uneven nonetheless. This did make the final portions feel a little anti-climactic and less satisfying, but this is a fairly minor complaint. It’s possible I was just getting better at the game, but somehow I doubt this.
As I just mentioned, Shovel Knight isn’t a long game. My playthrough saw me complete numerous optional tasks, such as beating all three bonus stages, exploring the Hall of Champions – where everyone who donated to the game’s kickstarter is featured – purchasing all the sub-weapons and beating all the enemies on the map overworld. I also spent a decent amount of time searching for secrets in the levels, talking to people in the towns, and yes, grinding. With all that considered, I do wish Shovel Knight was a touch longer, but the game does offer more to do beyond what I completed. There are 46 hidden sheets of music scattered throughout the game. I found 27 on my initial run, and those inclined the hunt them all down should see their playtime increase substantially.
What’s especially neat is that Yacht Club included a built in achievement list for the game. Called “feats,” they range from easy fare like “Buy Your First Item” to laughably impossible tasks like “Beat the Game Without Dying.” There are a whopping 45 of these to complete. I only did 14 during my playthrough, though I wasn’t actively trying to do them. Hardcore completionists could spend literally dozens and dozens of hours trying to do all 45, though I’m positive you’d suffer a rage-induced aneurysm long before then. Finally, there’s a new game plus to tackle after beating it once. You’ll keep all your equipment, but enemies deal out twice the damage, there are fewer checkpoints, and all the health-giving turkeys in the game are replaced with bombs. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be a great addition to the package for anyone looking for even more challenge. All told, for $15, I’m totally comfortable recommending Shovel Knight to anyone interested, even if the main game is on the short side. Word on the street is that Yacht Club is even planning free additional content.
Shovel Knight is an excellent game that certainly draws upon nostalgia for part of its appeal, but not to excess. People who played the games that inspired it will appreciate what it does, but it’s good enough on its own merits to be enjoyed by anyone. It so accurately identifies and recreates the elements that made those classics great, and in turn it produces a greatness all its own. It’s a game that’s slavish and obsessive in all the right ways. A love letter to 8-bit gaming? No. Shovel Knight is a note from a stalker, written in letters cut from magazines, with a vial of blood and a lock of hair attached. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
*reviewed on the Wii U*