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Shovel Knight Review: Sharpen Thy Shovel

Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Release Date: 6/26/14

 

With classics like The Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden II and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, it’s easy to forget that most NES games were awful. A majority of releases would be considered shovelware today, and even some revered classics make unforgiveable design decisions, like Contra’s turrets that spawn only when you’re right next to them, or Mega Man 1′s easily missed item that is nevertheless 100% necessary for completion. There wasn’t anything about this style of game development that led to the classics we remember, we have just filtered out a lot of the crap and been left with some real gems.

That’s where a lot of modern “8-bit” games fail: actual design. For every Lu-Mulana or Mega Man 9 there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog 4 or an Evoland. Thankfully, Shovel Knight is the real deal: it plays like an 80s classic should play in 2014. It’s the Mario 3 to Capcom’s entire catalog: an elaboration on everything that made those games work with a few extra layers of depth and replayability.

Shovel Knight follows Shovel Knight, who retires from knighthood after losing his friend and battle partner, Shield Knight, and returns after from a self-imposed exile to find that the eight members of the Order of No Quarter have conquered the land, so he embarks on a quest to defeat them all and to end the evil enchantress’s reign.

His quest takes him to 8 major levels, each with fairly traditional video game themes; Polar Knight’s level has a lot of jumping across slippery platforms, while Spectre Knight’s feels like it was grabbed from the nearest Castlevania game at hand. While Shovel Knight borrows a lot of its best ideas, their execution is second to none; I can count the number of moments that felt cheap on one finger.

A lot of NES games use their gimmicks to artificially increase length, with one-off elements and enemy placement both designed to require rote memorization. Shovel Knight is designed with the player’s enjoyment in mind: every enemy is fun to fight, every new technique, weapon or item is fun to use and level design is never unfair, even during the difficulty spike of the last three or four levels. In Shovel Knight getting to the more difficult levels means more chances to show off your mastery of an ever-growing toolset, and of the polished, satisfying core mechanics.

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While Shovel Knight has a basic run, jump and attack, he can also use his shovel to bounce on enemies or platforms, much like in Capcom’s Duck Tales and its remake. Pogoing isn’t nearly as central to Shovel Knight as it is to Duck Tales, but it makes combat a lot more dynamic, and paves the way to dozens of secret areas that hide new weapons, unlockables or simply money that can be put towards upgrading your character.

Though the basic run, jump and pogo are enough to conquer most challenges, there are a surprising number of unlockable weapons and armor sets. A lot of the sub-weapons are carbon copies of Castlevania’s, but a few show some real creativity, like an amulet that makes Shovel Knight completely invulnerable for a few seconds, even allowing him to run on spikes. All collected sub-weapons can be selected at any point, and all draw on the same upgradable magic meter. The constant sense of progress is addictive, and I found my New Game+ playthrough, which makes things more difficult but allows you to use your endgame build, more than worthwhile.

Every level ends with a boss fight filled with as much personality as the levels that precede them, and each feels like a unique challenge, even with the variety of strategies that the sub-weapons allow. There are no Metal Gear-style five minute monologues here, but each other Order of No Quarter’s eight knights have a lot of personality, and the small bits of backstory, like Spectre Knight coming back from the dead and Polar Knight’s history with Shovel Knight, are effective and make the world feel meatier than just a series of connected levels.

The focus on collecting gems and the genuinely attractive rewards that come from spending them is the glue that holds it all together. Beyond the eight Order levels and the inevitable series of extra difficult final levels are bonus levels and optional boss fights, many of which take the form of wandering enemies on the world map, Mario 3 style, and even a few Bastion-style training gauntlets that focus on specific weapons and items, all rewarded with more gems. Death causes Shovel Knight to lose a portion of his gems, though these can be recovered by returning to exact area of death, similar to From Software’s Souls series. Checkpoints can be destroyed for extra gems, adding a nice risk/reward mechanic to the progression.

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If I have any problem with Shovel Knight, it’s that the difficulty level is a bit low for a throwback platformer. Though a first playthrough is a satisfying challenge, I didn’t feel like anything truly tested my mastery of the mechanics, save for perhaps a few levels near the end of the tougher New Game+ mode. Thankfully, Yacht Club Games promises an upcoming challenge mode made up of smaller, more difficult challenges, similar to that in Contra 4 or Mega Man Powered Up!’s. Other upcoming additions include three more playable characters, a 4-player battle mode and an option to play as a female protagonist. If these additions are anywhere near as good as the rest of Shovel Knight, they’re worth getting exciting about.

Modern NES-style platformers are no longer a rarity, but Shovel Knight is no less exciting a release for it. This is a game that doesn’t just capture what made the best of that era great, but improves on it. Shovel Knight is exciting throughout, and I’m psyched to try out the new content Yacht Club Games has in store for it. Shovel Knight gets a hearty recommendation for any fan of the NES era or of 2D platformers in general.


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