Shovel Knight is the ideal Kickstarter scenario. Developer Yacht Club Games asks for an amount of money to crowdfund a promising game, it gets over-funded, and all of the extra money is used to make the game even better. Additionally, upon getting funded, not once did the studio suggest they didn’t have enough money or ask for more. Finally, over one year after launching the campaign, Shovel Knight releases on Wii U, 3DS, and PC. Unlike many other games in the format, it didn’t launch half-finished, half-baked, or on Steam Early Access. Shovel Knight released complete, and Shovel Knight released excellent.
In saying that Shovel Knight is an indie retro-style platformer for a modern era, I must also add that this is one of the only games I’ve played to actually get it right. Whether possible on old hardware or not, Shovel Knight looks like a proper NES game. Everything, from the font to the sprites and bosses, look like something out of an old Castlevania or Mega Man game – with just enough flair to give it its own style. The catchy soundtrack, meanwhile, is equal parts inspired by many of the RPGs and action games of yesteryear. The game takes some liberty with beautiful animation that probably couldn’t be done back then, but even if the tech isn’t strictly authentic, the developer’s reverence for the past sure is.
As Shovel Knight, a shovel-wielding warrior who recently lost his partner, your goal is to defeat the evil Enchantress (as well as her Order of No Quarter AKA their version of Mega Man’s Robot Masters) in order to save Shovel Knight’s beloved Shield Knight. I won’t get into the story because there are actual spoilers, but for a game without voice acting or much dialogue to speak of, the plot of Shovel Knight has character progression, plot twists, and a compelling narrative that beats many game stories with budgets a 100 times its own.
Shovel Knight is a platformer as well as an action game, and it takes cues from a plethora of classics. While playing through long Mega-Man style levels, each with a boss at the end, Shovel Knight can jump, hit enemies with his shovel , dig loot up with his shovel, and bounce off enemies and certain items by holding his shovel like a Pogo stick (which also acts as a downward stab). Shovel Knight’s bounce move is less like Scrooge McDuck, however, and more like bouncing off enemies for extra air in Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario.
The similarities do not end there. Like Dark Souls, our hero drops currency upon dying – currency that he needs to pick up on his next life or risk losing forever; like Donkey Kong Country Returns, the game is hard but forgiving, in that lives aren’t an issue and checkpoints are frequent. Mostly, the fundamental platforming and action feels like an amalgamation between Zelda 2, Castlevania, and Mega Man. The combat is precise, the levels are vertical, secrets are everywhere, and getting hit bounces you back to add just a bit more classic frustration. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but Shovel Knight’s structure is challenging and fun in ways that are both nostalgic to its predecessors and competitive to its contemporaries. Everything is pulled off in spades, but this does lead to minor identity issues where Shovel Knight works so hard to be all of these games that its unique personality ends up being slightly limited. Its quality makes up for this and it’s a very minor complaint, but worth noting nonetheless.
If you’ve played a Mega Man game, the basic level structure shouldn’t be too surprising. Levels are vertical, with many hazards in the form of pits, spikes, flying enemies, ground enemies, and frequent mechanical twists that show up in one level to be used only in that level. Every single 20-minute Shovel Knight level is based around a theme (like treasure, ice, and aerial traversal) and contains unique mini-bosses and final bosses. One, Propeller Knight, attacks using the wind and the skies via his trusty propeller and rapier. Another, Tinker Knight, starts off as a weakling wrench-throwing mechanic in one form before attacking with a massive drill in the next. Every boss is creative, challenging, and carries a personality not unlike many of the best Mega Man bosses.
As for content, there are 8 main themed boss levels (not counting the intro level and final levels), there are a handful of side levels where you have to do fun things like utilize items and collect as much currency as possible, there are some optional map encounters with side bosses and side levels, and there are two Zelda 2-style villages where you can explore, get health and magic upgrades, and obtain new equipment and armor. Surrounding this 5-6 hour adventure, there are also in-game songs to collect, a New Game + mode with fewer checkpoints and harder combat, and new features releasing throughout the year as free updates. In other words, there’s a lot to enjoy for its digital price tag.
Shovel Knight is awesome. Outside of having a healthy amount of content, creative-yet-inspired mechanics, a great story, and fantastically challenging level design, Shovel Knight gushes a love for video games both new and old while avoiding all of the pretentiousness that frequently comes along with it. It may have slight issues in terms of finding its own identity, but it makes up for this with an earnest attitude and some of the most fun I’ve had all year.
Wii U review code provided by Yacht Club Games. Shovel Knight is now available on Wii U, 3DS, and PC.