Back are the glory days of 2D platforming! So I say to ye all. With titles like Rayman Legends, New Super Mario Bros., and the slew of platforming indie games like Mutant Mudds and Super Meat Boy, the 2D platforming genre isn’t going anywhere. Sure, maybe there is a bit of an oversaturation of these titles, but many prove that the genre has a lot to offer; on top of that, developers are experimenting with the formula to keep it fresh. And then along came Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight, a kick-started project by Yacht Club Games available for download on 3DS, Wii U, and PC, is a love letter to the great NES platformer classics. The game exceeds the expectation that this game is just a nostalgia-grab (see my review of Ducktales Remastered) by forging its own place in the now decades-old legacy that is the platforming genre. Read on, my fellow knights!
Our hero Shovel Knight has retired since losing his comrade, Shield Knight, to evil magic at the Tower of Fate. When the Tower of Fate is again open however, an evil sorceress and her “Order of No Quarter” (an order of knights akin to Mega Man’s Robot Masters), Shovel Knight picks up his shovel to save the land, find treasure, and relive the glory of adventure. What surprised me the most about Shovel Knight’s story is that there is one and, not only that, that it matters. It may sound harsh, but even the best games of the NES era had little if any story of note. While Shovel Knight’s story is unobtrusive and explored in mini-dialogues, every iota of this game is full of characterization. This game, made in the modern age employing an old visual style, has the ability to animate characters beyond the capabilities of retro systems. Because of that, many of the subtle animations of each character add to the depth of the tale. The best example of this comes in dream sequences between levels. In each, Shovel Knight desperately fends off enemies while trying to catch a forlorn and plummeting Shield Knight. It sounds so simple, but the act of Shovel Knight reaching up to catch the crestfallen Shield Knight, an animation he will only perform in these sequences, is remarkably touching. By the time the game was over, the ending moved me in its subtle but perfect execution and made me care about the world beyond the confines of the game.
But the gameplay is where Shovel Knight really shines. Armed with yes, a shovel, Shovel Knight has a short range melee swipe and can also use the shovel to down thrust onto enemies. He can dig in certain spots or destroy walls to look for treasure as well. While the melee swipe is effective, the down thrust can propel Shovel Knight like a pogo jump of Ducktales or Zelda II fame. Each level offers several level-specific challenges, much like Mega Man, and the game is on par in offering that variety. While one level will involve avoiding lava by temporarily turning it into rubber-like green goop, another will have you pogoing desperately across chasms, while yet another is full of conveyer belts and pitfalls. These challenges will be a welcome to platforming veterans and offer up real struggle to any newcomer. The game, though difficult, has no lives system. In place of that, there are checkpoints within each level that the player will return to upon dying. The punishment involves the player losing a quarter of their hard-earned booty which floats precariously in the location of where the player last died. If the player dies again before recovering said loot, it is lost. On top of that, there is a wealth of gold within each checkpoint which can only be obtained by smashing the checkpoint and losing all hope of returning there. It is a great way for players to set their own difficulty and gamble their way to riches. While this mechanic is a far better one in my opinion than the outdated lives system, some players may think the game easier than games of its NES kin.
There is also bounty to be had within each level in the form of cash and power ups. If the player can manage to reach difficult platforms, secret passages, or rooms hidden by breakable walls, there is plenty of gold to be had. An interesting catch is that while one can spend money in town for certain power ups and special armor, the far more valuable abilities must be bought by a strange man who hides in chests throughout the game’s levels. So while there is obvious risk in bringing cash to a level, reaching a secret and not having the money to spend on things like projectile weapons makes the risk appealing to completionist and casual player alike. I love how this game has so many different ways aside from level design to challenge players. With an arsenal of weapons in tow, there are many ways that the character can interact with levels, reach new heights, and fend off the Order of No Quarter. Speaking of them, each level has a member of the order at the end of the level. Each has their own personality and their complex animations would make Robot Masters or any bosses of the NES era to eat their hearts out. While the bosses have patterns, they are not always predictable; the fact that they often have phases makes each battle intensely satisfying and memorable.
Because it was made in the last few years, Shovel Knight does not suffer the issues of its predecessors. Errors with clipping and the problem of slowdown are both nonexistent. Animations are unbound from restrictions and, though it is hard to describe, this game feels like the embodiment of what our imaginations remember NES classics to be. The soundtrack is a combination of the talents of Minami Matsumae and Jake Kaufman of Mega Man and Ducktales Remastered fame respectively. Each track feels custom-fit to its level and it is funny how they made me feel nostalgic for a track I was hearing for the very first time. After completing the first playthrough, players can experience new game plus mode which features fewer checkpoints and a higher damage rate. My only qualm with new game plus difficulty and with the game as a whole is that that level of difficulty is not optional at the outset. Also, money, the only real deterrent from dying, is no longer useful once everything is purchased, making the new game plus mode feel less punishing than perhaps intended. The 3D on the 3DS version of the game makes it feel dioramic, a subtle visual style I really appreciate described by a word I have painfully little opportunity to use.
Shovel Knight is a game that deserves all of the praise and hype it is currently getting. I feel like I haven’t said enough about it, but suffice it to say that it is a beautiful swansong of the NES platforming era despite the fact that it would never be able to run on it. Not only that, Shovel Knight is a great example of how Kickstarter-begun projects can be successful and, more importantly, how the employ of animation, game design, and music have as much to do with storytelling and world realization as dialogue and plot.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames