Release Date: June 26, 2014
Version Played: Wii U (reviewed), 3DS, PC
Hours Played: 5 hours
Favorite Part: The game’s final stages.
As the inaugural effort from indie developer Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight sets a strong precedent for what to expect from the company in its future.
The NES-inspired title presents players with a creative flash of design and sound, as well as strong gameplay that this gen’s wave of “retro-styled” games lack. But that’s no surprise coming from a company founded by former members of Way Forward (Mighty Switch Force, Shantae).
Aesthetically, Shovel Knight is designed to look and feel like an original title from the 8-bit era. It is not designed in such a way to ostracize those who love graphically superior games. It simply wants you to believe it COULD be an original 8-bit game, a feeling it creates by way of simplistic, but detailed, sprites and backgrounds.
Blended with wonderful level design, a splash of parallax scrolling, and some good color choices, the game’s music does a perfect job of helping drive the player into the world of each stage. The game chooses to keep the musical flair a little more light-hearted and action-oriented, much like its aesthetics. The team thought very hard about how to complement each stage with its musical composition, giving “The Iron Whale” a true sense of being underwater and “The Lich Yard” the eeriness it deserves.
While there are some cues to the fact that this is not an actual NES title (the sheer number of displayed colors, for instance, could never run on the NES), it is heavy with references to classic NES games. The best examples of this are Shovel Knight’s downward shovel strike, which is nearly identical to Scrooge McDuck’s cane-bounce from 1989’s DuckTales, and the use of runes as a sub-weapon system like in Castlevania.
The only real difference is that the player can use touchscreen of the GamePad (or 2/3DS) for things like Rune selection. This isn’t a bad thing, as the game is re-appropriating these older elements that players are familiar with, melding them seamlessly together to create something new and unique.
The fundamentally simple mechanics and controls for the game will also be familiar to players, making Shovel Knight quick and easy to pick up. The directional pad is self explanatory, as are the jump and attack commands. The simplicity of these controls also gives the game its difficulty, as the player is left with the option to either “attack” or “jump out of the way” of enemy attacks.
Other commands, such as item usage, are managed through combinations of the d-pad and the two action buttons. The simpler control scheme of Shovel Knight leaves the player with more to think about when tackling obstacles, allowing the game itself to be more challenging instead of forcing the player to struggle with convoluted controller layouts.
The difficulty of the game is based on the player’s ability to learn how to navigate stages. For instance, there is a section of the game where the player must use wind to their advantage to scale high platforms, but hide before a strong gust pushes them into the instant-death spikes. The screen preceding this maze is a less daunting iteration with less powerful gusts. The game wants to give you a challenge, but not without first teaching you how to approach the challenge. Consider it a “non-tutorial” tutorial.
The problem with this level of difficulty, however, is that it doesn’t translate well into the world of modern gaming. Call it frustrating, but when a player needed to collect passwords or only had a set number of lives before they had to start over from the beginning of a stage, there was a degree of genuine threat. Shovel Knight has done away with the life/continue system, allowing the player to infinitely restart from a checkpoint.
The greatest penalty a player incurs through dying is that some of their treasure is released into the air over where they died. This treasure can be reclaimed once the player makes it back to that board. While this is a good thing, in that it allows the player to move forward without serious detriment, the ease of regaining your treasure diminishes the value of each attempt. While some parts are still frustratingly difficult, even with infinite lives and checkpoints, the overall “SUCCESS!” feeling of overcoming certain challenges is gone.
New and Improved — Buy It!
While Shovel Knight borrows directly from several classic games (try a round of “What is this from?” when you play it), it pairs quite well with some very inspired compositions (two of which are arranged by Manami Matsumae of Mega Man fame) and a simple, yet tight control system.
Even with the difficulty of the game feeling diminished by infinite lives, players can destroy the checkpoints they encounter, forcing them to restart from the beginning of the stage each time they die.
There are also a slew of “Feats,” a renamed set of Achievements, that can give the player extra incentive to try the more difficult aspects of the game such as getting through a stage unscathed. However, at just the right length and with a punch of originality, Shovel Knight is easy to pick up and reminds players how to enjoy a game without too many additives.