Developer: Yacht Club Games
Platform: 3DS, Wii U, PC (Reviewed on 3DS)
Release Date: June 26th
I’ve had a rocky history with games that share the 2D action platformer genre with Shovel Knight. I am a huge Megaman fan, but I only got introduced later on thanks to the Battle Network and Star Force series. When I tried going back to play the Classic and X series, I always struggled with it and thought they were too difficult. Now, after playing Shovel Knight, I understand the appeal behind the genre and I want to go back and give those games another shot.
The story of the game revolves around Shovel Knight and his girlfriend Shield Knight as legendary adventurers. One day, as they found an amulet at the Tower of Fate, a powerful magic separated the Knights and Shield Knight disappears. In his grief, Shovel Knight confines himself to solitude as The Enchantress and The Order of No Quarter rise to power. It’s now up to Shovel Knight to stop them.
With this simple setup, the game is ready to go. But it doesn’t just throw the story to the wayside. Similar to games like Megaman X, the feeling of progress and growth keeps the story in mind. The combination of Shovel Knight resting at a bonfire after a boss level and his dream sequences with Shield Knight keeps the characters close to the gameplay without interrupting the flow.
The game world is also littered with comical and colorful characters, ranging from a frog that speaks entirely in puns to the somewhat creepy Troupple King. You can also encounter travelers in the overworld, who each have their own motivations for their journey.
The art direction of Shovel Knight is heavily influenced by NES pixel style. The color palette sticks of the game is almost identical to the NES in terms of what it is capable of running, in addition to a few more colors here and there. These colors are accompanied by an awesome modern art style that makes striking beautiful levels. The art doesn’t just imitate, but rather enhances the various character, enemy, and even background animations and looks great as a result.
The only major downside to the visuals is playing on the 3DS version. While the PC and Wii U versions sport high resolutions for big displays, the 3DS version plays on the same scale at a lower resolution. It is necessary for the game to work as intended, but it looks very small compared to the TV/monitor display versions. If you intended on getting the 3DS version, you will get used to it, especially if you have never played the other versions, but it will take a little while to get used to. The size also affects some of the background intensive levels in the game, so expect to fall down a pit of get knocked upside the head by an enemy you didn’t see at first.
As with the visual style of Shovel Knight, the sound design is very much NES-inspired. In fact, the sound composition uses the same audio design as an enhanced Famicom sound card, creating an awesome nostalgic mixture of sound effects and music for the game.
The soundtrack is composed by Jake Kaufman (who is one of my favorite western game composers) with a couple of tracks written by Manami Matsumae of Megaman fame. The soundtrack as a whole is fantastic, with it being very easy for tracks to get stuck in my head. Some of these tracks also mesh up really well with some comedic moments as well.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Shovel Knight is a 2D action platformer, complete with level-based progression. The core of the gameplay involves using your shovel to whack, dig, and pogo your way through each level. At the end of some levels, you can fight one of the Knights that make up The Order of No Quarter.
The 3DS version also has a special feature called StreetPass Arena. This game mode allows you to record yourself as ghost data in a best-of-3 with 3-second rounds. The goals is to collect gems of try to anticipate where your opponent is going to be to try to knock them out. It’s an interesting design and is a lot of fun to use, but it’s not really enough to make the 3DS version the definitive one.
With its heavily nostalgic feel and tone, it’s no surprise that Shovel Knight draws inspiration from other 8 and 16-bit classics. If I had to describe the gameplay inspirations, I would say Castlevania for the game’s movement and combat and Megaman for the level design and boss battles.
One other major inspiration that I’m thankful for is Megaman X’s approach to teaching the player through gameplay rather than a list of instructions. In my playthrough of the game. I’d only seen two prompt for button presses, pressing up to talk to people and pressing up+attack to use your subweapon. Everything else is left up to the player to figure out, and the game is design extremely well to alleviate frustration from not being able to figure it out.
Some might say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but Shovel Knight can’t be content with just that. Fortunately, Shovel Knight has great strengths in its design that make it stand out.
First of all, gold is the main mechanic besides shoveling and battling that the rest of the game revolves around. You use your shovel to dig up dirt piles and uncover hidden areas to find gold in the form of gems. You can then use this gold to buy health and magic upgrades.
You can also buy subweapons, and the game has an interesting way of doing this as well. If you find a hidden blue chest in the level, an man named Chester will pop out and offer to sell you the item for a price. If you wait until you come back to the village to get it, it costs double the amount of gold. To benefit the most from your spoils, you need to conserve your gold as you traverse the level.
This leads to a couple more cool features that affect the amount of gold you get and retain in a level. The boss levels use a checkpoint system to save your progress, but you can destroy these checkpoints for extra gold at the cost of losing a checkpoint. You don’t lose gold from getting hit, but when you die, you lose some of your gold instead of a life. Similar to how Dark Souls handles soul recovery, you can get your gold back if you can make it back to the point where you lost it before you die again.
This system permeates the entire process of completing levels, and it’s the way that Shovel Knight handles all of these features that makes this one of my favorite games of all time. The variety of equipment and abilities this game allows you to play the game as you see fit.
You can pick up all or even some of the subweapons, armor, and shovel upgrades if you want to, but it is entirely possible to beat the game without any of these things, just your trusty old shovel. You could even try to beat a level or even the entire game without dying, either one is realistically possible. These options also have accompanying Feats (or achievements) that encourage experimentation with the game’s features.
These options add a great amount of replayability to Shovel Knight. However, it is important to note that the accessibility isn’t necessarily from casual to hardcore, but more like average to hardcore. The important thing is this game knows what it is and what it offers, and it’s a great game for introducing you to the 2D action platformer genre.
Shovel Knight is an excellent game with style and design executed almost perfectly. While it draws inspiration from several sources, its charm is unique. Whatever gripes I have for the 3DS version’s screen size and scale, the game’s other features more than make up for it.