Last year, Yacht Club Games put up a Kickstarter for a game called Shovel Knight. It was to be a modern retro platformer that borrows many aspects from NES classics such as Mega Man, Castlevania, and Mario while bringing with it the refinement of video games honed by innovation over the last thirty years. It had a modest goal of $75,000, but over the course of the campaign it managed to raise over $300,000. With each funding goal shattered came a new stretch goal. Shovel Knight would eventually be released on June 26th, 2014. Does Shovel Knight live up to the expectation set by the campaign? Is it worth the $15 price tag? Continue reading below for a full synopsis and my personal opinion on the various aspects of the game.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. While story isn’t the central focus, this game is relatively new. If you want an isolated experience I suggest playing the game before continuing on.
Shovel Knight | Steel thy Shovel!
Shovel Knight is a modern take on a classic NES game. It takes inspiration from many of the classic platformers of the late 80’s and early 90’s with a sprinkling of more modern references thrown in. Some of these, like the Super Mario Bros. 3-style world map, are more obvious. Others are a little more subtle. From graphics to music, story to gameplay, Shovel Knight is as classic as you can get in 2014. This review is based playing about half the game blind on a friend’s computer, then restarting the game and completing it on my own computer. My final in-game completion time was 3:49:34 with 65 deaths and an item completion percentage of 88%.
Shovel Knight | Story & Characters
Shovel Knight and Shield Knight are lovestruck companions exploring the land for treasure and glory. They eventually find their way to the Tower of Fate. A cursed amulet hidden within the tower ensnares the duo with its foul magics. Shovel Knight awakens some time later, finding the tower sealed and Shield Knight nowhere to be seen. Stricken by grief, Shovel Knight gives up the blade and secludes himself to live a normal life for a time. As time passes, the vile Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter rise to power. The land begins to fall under her icy grip and seeking further power, the Enchantress unseals the Tower of Fate. Shovel Knight, seeing an opportunity for redemption, takes up the Shovel Blade once more and begins venturing toward the Tower of Fate. Will Shovel Knight find out what became of his beloved Shield Knight?… or will he dig his own grave?
Naturally, the story of a classic platforming game isn’t very important, but Yacht Club Games does a great job keeping it interesting. They do this by intertwining story and gameplay in a pretty nice way. Being what is essentially an 8-bit game, much of the story is told through text, but the dialogue is concise and doesn’t break the flow of the game. The characters have colorful personalities and the level of detail is worthy of praise. Each knight of the Order of No Quarter has a story of his own and the dialogue of NPCs change as you complete portions of the game. Even things that seem insignificant add to the well-crafted whole.
At the end of each stage Shovel Knight spends a lonely night next to a campfire. In addition to giving you a second to revel in your victory over the boss, these short scenes remind the player of the weight of Shovel Knight’s quest and the solitude that comes with losing a loved one. After defeating a certain number of bosses an additional scene will play where the player must battle an endless swarm of enemies as Shield Knight falls from the sky. The scene ends when the player catches Shield Knight in climactic slow motion. Even if you aren’t that interested, you stay attentive because defeated enemies during the dream sequences drop loot and sometimes a chest will be next to the campfire that you can’t open up until morning. Additionally, you can practice fire safety by putting out the cinders with your shovel, which awards some more gold.
The presentation is very good for players that care about the story and might even sway some players that normally wouldn’t because the additional perks at the end of these scenes (The money and chests) keep the player’s attention.
Shovel Knight | Game Play
Imagine Mega Man meets Castlevania meets Ducktales with a little Mario thrown in. That’s what the gameplay in Shovel Knight is like. Shovel Knight’s weapon of choice is the Shovel Blade, a useful weapon that can cleave enemies just as well as a plot of soft soil. He’s initially only capable of moving, jumping and attacking, but as you progress you can acquire various upgrades and sub weapons, called relics. The controls are fully customizable and the PC version is compatible with an Xbox 360 controller. As soon as you load up the game I suggest you change the controls from using Up + Attack for subweapons to a separate button. During my initial playthrough, I would frequently use my subweapons by accident until I fixed this. Aside from this one fixable hiccup, the controls are simple and very responsive.
After the opening cutscene, the game thrusts you into action. Much like many classic games, Shovel Knight likes to teach you things on the fly. By the time you get to the first boss you’ll have learned the art of bouncing off enemies (Scrooge McDuck style), how to and what you can interact with, and the importance of exploration. Because each stage is so different, it spends a lot of time trading off between teaching you something new, giving you an opportunity to demonstrate what you’ve learned, and challenging you to utilize everything you’ve learned thus far in combination.
Upon completing the introductory stage, you’re brought to a world map. In order to progress to the next “world” you must defeat the stages that contain members of the Order of No Quarter. There are eight in total, the first area containing two and the following two areas containing three each. In addition to these, there are enemies that wander the map, Hammer Bros.-style (from Super Mario Bros 3), as well as various supplementary stages you can test your mettle against for additional rewards. Finally, there are two towns where you can redeem collectibles for upgrades or purchase some using all of the money you’ve been obtaining. After all eight Order stages have been completed the path to the Tower of Fate opens.
There are various upgrades that can ease the game’s difficulty or increase your attack and movement options. You can increase your max health and mana, upgrade your armor and shovel, or acquire relics. Each relic requires a different amount of mana to use but they add a lot of depth and strategy to the game. For example, the fishing rod can hit enemies directly under you but also retrieve hidden items from certain pits. The propeller dagger is my favorite. Not only does it function as a dash and an air dash, but it can also damage enemies you collide with. There are ten relics in total, all of which are uniquely useful. As you progress through the game a creative player will find many uses for the relics. Sometimes you’ll find that there’s more than one way to approach a screen. Will you combine the Propeller Dagger with bouncing off enemies to take the high route or will you use the Phase Locket to bypass the spikes at the bottom? Shovel Knight has much to find and many ways to progress if you take the time to find them. I anticipate New Game+ becoming a great speedrun category because you have access to all of the relics from the beginning.
Shovel Knight | Graphics
Let’s Play of Shovel Knight level 1 & the first town.
Shovel Knight, much like Mega Man 9 and 10, effectively utilize 8-bit graphics to provide a classic feel but also make use of things not possible on an NES to improve the level of detail without moving up to 16-bits. Scrolling background layers add depth to the stages and the high level of detail even in minor enemies kept the game feeling very fresh visually. Due to a low amount of RAM and small cartridge sizes, most NES games can’t handle having a lot of enemies on screen at once and the number and types of enemies is kept low to save space. Neither of these are a problem for Shovel Knight because even though it is classic in almost every sense of the word, it is designed for modern hardware. This allows it to highlight the strengths of the games of yore while eliminating many of their weaknesses.
Each stage is a unique experience and with each passing area I became more and more excited by what I saw. One of the earlier bosses, Specter Knight, has some of the best spritework I have ever seen in a game. From the way his cloak moves as he flies through the air to the design of his scythe, he’s a work of art. Shovel Knight sets the bar high early on and doesn’t falter. The game also adheres to the NES’s original color pallette, further cementing the retrogaming style we’ve grown to love.
Shovel Knight | Music
Real talk, the music in this game is great. The chiptuned soundtrack was composed primarily by Jake Kaufman. Jake has worked on over 50 games since the year 2000. Notable games on his resume include Retro City Rampage, Ducktales: Remastered, and Double Dragon Neon. The legendary Manami Matsumae also contributed to Shovel Knight’s robust soundtrack. You might know her from her contributions to the Mega Man series as well as others.
With 48 tracks, there’s plenty of music to go around. Each stage and each boss have their own theme. Rather than music and design be separate, Yacht Club Games involved the composers early in development, ensuring that each stage’s setting and theme were augmented by the music. The surreal Explodatorium stage is accompanied by the eerie and slightly off-putting Flowers of Antimony track while The Inner Struggle goes excellently with the tension the final climb up the Tower of Fate should have. In addition to the game’s standard soundtrack, there’s also an arranged soundtrack. Both of them are available for purchase on BANDCAMP. You can pay what you want for either of them.
The soundtrack has a familiar flare to it. This is no surprise, considering the music can actually be compiled in the NSF format, which is the machine code language used for NES hardware. Yacht Club Games has done the work for you and the NSF file, which is under a megabyte, can be found HERE. NSF files can be played on various music players that support the format (such as VirtuaNSF) or on the actual NES hardware using specialized aftermarket flash cartridges. The music does utilize more channels than standard NES music though, adding more depth and variation in the music.
Shovel Knight | Tips
This section covers a few tips for not missing anything without spoiling specific things. Skip over this if you want to find everything without help.
- Explore everywhere: You’ll find out early on that certain walls have hidden treasure inside. Some walls don’t contain telltale signs. In addition to specific markings, I’ve found that symmetry is key.
- Some pits have sparkles at the bottom. Try fishing
- Game is designed to go fast. Odds are if you take it slow you might make things harder for yourself. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
- Shovel Knight is always trying to teach you something. Keep asking yourself “What is the game trying to teach me?”
- Most enemies have telegraphed attacks. Learning them is the key to staying alive
- Over 300 cheat codes can be entered in when creating a file, changing the game in positive, negative, or merely aesthetic ways.
Shovel Knight | Breakdown
- Tight controls
- Excellent Music
- Textless tutorials
- Game rewards you for being creative and exploring on your own accord.
- Difficulty curve starts out easy and ramps up at a decent pace. Great for many skill levels.
- Many awesome classic game shoutouts. See how many you can spot!
- Awesome spritework. Detailed backgrounds and character design.
- Story keeps you engaged despite being simple.
- Creative level design.
- A little too short.
- Much of the design conventions are lost on people not well-versed in classic games. Things that seem natural to some might be described as alien to others. (Example: falling off ladders like Mega Man instead of being able to jump off them)
- Majority of my deaths were from pits or spikes. Newer gamers might find this frustrating (I personally did not).
Shovel Knight | Rating & Final Thoughts
As soon as I heard some of my favorite speedrunners were casually playing this game I grabbed my shovel and dug right in. Classic gaming enthusiasts (such as myself) will love everything this game has to offer, from the design conventions to the virtually limitless references. I can’t decide if a 4.5 is slightly too low or too high. My motivation for not giving it a higher score is only for the lack of Kickstarter stretch goals currently being implemented into the game. As they are slowly added, this initial rating will go up in my eyes. Is this game worth the $15 price tag? Absolutely. It might be short, but between the promised challenge rooms, multiple selectable characters, and 4-player battle mode this game will go from a firm yes to a HELL YES. Buy this game. I had a lot of fun, and so will you.