Forget the comparisons to Mega Man, put aside the allusions to Duck Tales, and ignore Zelda II‘s influences; Shovel Knight is a terrific game on its on accord. Yacht Club Games’ debut isn’t a simple marriage of what’s come before, but a work that impresses with its vision of what made the NES days so great.
As the titular Shovel Knight, your job is to rid the land of eight villains and their leader, the Enchantress. Each of these bosses is preceded by a stage that brilliantly keeps with the theme of its master; Plague Knight’s level is littered with cauldrons and viles, and Tinker Knight’s is composed of cogs and gears. The theme extends to the enemies as well, with each stage brandishing its own batch of minions for the Shovel Knight to dispose of. Every aspect of these stages is cohesive, crafted with the utmost care, and nothing feels out of place or repurposed. It’s a type of craftsmanship I rarely see, and that attention to detail carries throughout Shovel Knight‘s entirety. The hero’s weapon preference isn’t some novelty, but a thoughtful decision that proves its worth throughout the game. From beginning to end, the shovel is all you have, but it’s put to good use. You can expect to dig, bounce, deflect, and attack with it. The concept is so strong, and because of the game’s linear progression, the skills you build are put to the test in the later levels. The Shovel Knight isn’t a reskinned Scrooge McDuck, he’s a standout character who fits into a world that wasn’t built just for him, but merely plucked from it for us to control.
This understanding of design is made especially clear when it comes to the game’s difficulty. Instead of a predetermined Easy, Normal, or Hard scenario, Shovel Knight allows players to create the experience they want. Key to this is choice; every opportunity to make the game easier is optional. The stages are littered with checkpoints, but they can be destroyed to earn jewels (which serves as a point of pride as well as currency for the in-game upgrades), and potions used to refill your health or make you invincible aren’t forced upon you. Perhaps you’ll play like me, always prepared for the worst, or maybe you’ll ignore every safety net. It’s your decision, and you can grow as a player and adapt the situation accordingly.
No matter how you choose to play it, Shovel Knight is a joy. It truly fights for your attention, layering objectives on top of one another, beckoning you to play for just a few more minutes. There are puzzle rooms that require the use of hidden abilities, and boss battles outside of the original eight. The opportunity to test your skills are put to the test in the StreetPass Arena, where players create a two knight battle without the other player even there. First, players create the scene by collecting jewels in an empty arena, swinging their shovel at an unknown adversary. That data is sent to other players, who then face off against this ‘ghost” data you’ve created. Shovel Knight is full of fun diversions, and it isn’t hard to finish the game in just a few sittings due to these addictive qualities.
Despite so much to do, it’s easy to stop and make time for Shovel Knight‘s music. Whether it be during play or selected from the Bard’s list of tracks (which are strewn around the stages as hidden music sheets), Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae’s score is beautiful in it’s authenticity. Working within the confines of the NES, the two swept me with their work, which only proves that limitations can bring the best out of a creative mind.
Shovel Knight is a retro styled game with modern touches, sure. But more than anything it’s a lot of fun. Far too often we can get caught up in deciding on whether nostalgia is tainting our opinions or not. I’d argue that Shovel Knight isn’t trying to appeal to our cravings for the good ol’ days, but is instead a work that stresses the most important elements of gameplay, one that cuts away the fat that bloats modern gaming. It’s presentation reflects a simpler time in gaming, one when there wasn’t this clear cut idea of what the gamer wants. It may be “8-bit”, but that doesn’t mean it lacks any sort of growth or understanding of how far video games have come. Instead of an amalgamation of what has come before, Shovel Knight is a creation that stands out due to its own accomplishments.