Shovel Knight is a delicious blend of the old school and the new. It’s a side-scroller adventure game that reminds the player of the 8-bit era, while packing in heavy RPG elements, Dark Souls-esque death mechanics, and replayability. At first glance it might appear that Shovel Knight can’t contend with the AAA titles which today saturate the games industry. Fortunately that assessment would be wrong. So very very wrong.
Shovel Knight was initially released in 2014 on the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U consoles. Though this once sparked jealousy in gamers who owned more current generation console systems, last month we joyously received the game on PS4 and Xbox One! Not much is new in this more recent package. You can now earn trophies and achievements whilst playing on the new respective systems. The biggest addition, however, is an extra fight with console mascots. On Playstation you can fight Kratos (of God of War fame). On Xbox you can fight the Battle Toads (the main characters of an old Rareware property).
As previously mentioned, Shovel Knight looks like it would be at home on a NES or SNES system. The game intentionally pays homage to the retro. But this is not to be taken as a slight to the game’s aesthetic. The colourfully vibrant world and overload of pixels mean this game would be an impossibility on the consoles of yesteryear. The art direction here is superb. Shovel Knight’s enemies come in the form of six bosses, the Order of No Quarter, and their big bad boss. Each one of these characters has a unique visual personality that distinguishes them from the others. This is not even to mention the prettiness of the game’s different worlds. Developer Yacht Club Games takes us from snowy wildernesses to ominous castles and all the way back again. Complementing these visuals is an upbeat bit tune soundtrack which really ties the whole “feel” together.
Though the game’s main quest can be chivalrously defeated by Shovel Knight (and a decent player) in around six-ish hours, what you’ll be doing for those six hours and afterwards makes this package well worth the $20 entrance fee. Shovel Knight is a fun guy. He makes a habit of disposing of enemies by innovatively bouncing on them with his shovel. This game mechanic is reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick in Ducktales (wooooo ooooo). The ability to relinquish one’s enemies and traverse the environment in this way keeps the game’s minute-to-minute gameplay fresh. Whilst shovel pogo-ing you’ll move through stages collecting treasure to upgrade Shovel Knight’s gear so he might ultimately become powerful enough to sweep aside the Order of No Quarter.
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Following the game’s conclusion you can visit side areas unrelated to the main quest, gather collectables and work at the many “feats” challenged by Yacht Club in the pause menu (the completion of which unlocks tied achievements and trophies). Perhaps Shovel Knight’s greatest success is the depth it offers for more skilled or masochistic players. There are several risk/reward systems within the game. For example, death sees shovel knight drop bags of money, which if not recovered are lost forever. Later levels will kill you with greater regularity, but offer more treasure. Also, each stage has checkpoints, but if the player decides to destroy them, he is gifted with treasure at the expense of a respawn point. The inclusion of a New Game Plus mode further ensures Shovel Knight’s status as a solid investment.
Shovel Knight is an excellent homage to the games of yore. It works equally well as a modern action RPG, and as a reminder that side-scrollers are still as relevant and fun as they ever were. Whether you look at the excellent art, sound or game design, it is hard to see Shovel Knight as anything besides a worthy $20 purchase. Its more deep and punishing mechanics would keep me coming back for more far into my 15th hour. Shovel Knight is the best game I’ve played all year. It is worthy of your time and coin.