Digging up the past
Reviewed for PC
Shovel Knight captures the spirit of platforming glory days by expertly presenting the core of what made it’s origins gratifying and memorable.
Some may dismiss Shovel Knight outright after only looking at some screenshots or hearing about the art style. An abundance of pixel art platformers in the current indie landscape can be a bit overwhelming, and the assumed reliance on 8-bit as a crutch has come into question. But with a fantastic soundtrack for support and a unified idea, Yacht Club Games’ debut title owns it’s aesthetic in a way that very few have.
Short of coming on a cartridge, Shovel Knight does everything to make itself feel like a classical hybrid of beloved games like Mega Man, Super Mario 3, Duck Tales, and Zelda. At first glance, these comparisons may be obvious — obtaining new powers, a world map, and you can bounce on enemies with your shovel. But as you play on, and see the intentional gradual fade of the cutscenes, or notice the late load in of enemies once you’ve advanced into an area, things that were obviously tied to technical limitation in the past are now here only for integrity, as an homage to the games it seeks to meld.
The tale of the Shovel Knight isn’t a powerful narrative, but more of a timeless and simple story. One where the honorable take on the dishonorable to save a fallen comrade, one who is presumed lost in the ‘Tower of Fate’. After leaving a town bustling with charming inhabitants, you begin to pursue an evil enchantress who has corrupted the minds of the eight main bosses, known as “The Order of No Quarter”.
Each of these eight have very distinctive characteristics in both personality and boss behavior. For example there’s the Polar Knight, a tough nordic snow-shovel weilding barbarian , or Propeller Knight, an arrogant and nimble fencer. Bosses without a home that will scurry about the world map between stages are appropriately called wanderers. Despite no place to call their own, they offer up the same cheeky dialogue and personal style.
Each stage in which the main bosses dwell is in accordance with their distinctive trait, which will be familiar to any fan of the Megaman series. The design of each stage is fairly unique and each has a bit of a gimmick. Sometime’s it’s bouncing on disappearing platforms, sometimes it’s being pushed and pulled by wind, and sometimes it’s fighting in the dark. Hidden throughout levels through clever jumps, breakable walls, fishing and of course digging, are collectibles, gold, and relics. Collectibles can be traded for gold, gold can be exchanged for shovel, armor, health, and magic upgrades. Gold will also pay your way into secret battles or areas. Relics are secondary items kept and used at the expense of your magic power to perform something unique, and each relic will also coincide with theme of level you’ve acquired it within.
What I’m truly getting at here should be obvious. In great classic games, following through with your swing was everything. The reason Mario 3 was memorable was because was can recall the motif each world and it findings followed. Remember big world? How can we forget the evil sun in the desert? How many times did we slide into a precipice thanks to ice? The same goes for dungeons and temples in the Zelda franchise. The songs we still hum today, in the Ocarina of Time: The Minuet of Forest, The Bolero of Fire, The Serenade of Water, all correlate with temples of the same name. The way elements of gameplay, characters, items, and level design come together harmoniously in Shovel Knight will instantly make it easy to enjoy and worth remembering.
Shovel Knight is a bit short, but once the credits roll there’s still more to do. Achievements dubbed ‘feats’ are a way of increasing the challenge for some replayability, as well as some bonus levels and a new game plus which allow you to carry your items over into a more difficult mode. So just when you think you’ve dug as deep as you can go, you can dig deeper. Shovel puns.
The way elements of gameplay, characters, and items come together harmoniously in Shovel Knight will instantly make it easy to enjoy and worth remembering.