This article was originally published on The Oakland Press.
Shovel Knight feels like a game that was made in 1990, buried in a time capsule, and unearthed in 2014.
Many games have tried, but few have been able to accurately replicate the look and feel of a classic NES game. Yacht Club games seems to have nailed the limited color palette, chiptune music, and even occasional slowdown for platform games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. And even more important, Yacht Club understands what it was about those games that made them fun.
The gameplay is a mixture of various 8-bit platformers, most notably Mega Man and DuckTales, but with some modern design choices thrown in to make it palatable to gamers 25 years removed from those titles. You control the titular hero Shovel Knight, who can use his bladed spade in a multitude of ways: slashing his foes, reflecting bullets, digging up treasure, and in a Scrooge McDuck-esque pogo stick maneuver. You’ll battle through increasingly difficult stages, each themed around its boss Knight, such as Propeller Knight or Spectre Knight, and collect mass quantities of treasure to upgrade your equipment along the way.
The controls are perfect, but the level design still makes each stage a challenge. The difficulty would be daunting if Shovel Knight utilized a classic Nintendo system of giving you a limited number of lives to get through the game, but instead you can continue as many times as you like from the last checkpoint you passed. The only penalty for dying is that you drop a percentage of your treasure, which can be picked up again if you return to the spot you died on your next life. This method, reminiscent of modern games like Dark Souls, makes the cycle of dying and restarting addictive rather than frustrating. You’ll fail many times before you learn the ropes of a stage, but each time you’ll feel reinvigorated to get further than you did before, rather than feeling punished.
Some old-school aficionados might find the infinite retries a little too forgiving, but the developers have come up with an excellent system to give those masochists the challenge they want. Sprinkled liberally throughout the stages are checkpoint orbs that light up as you run past them, allowing players to replay only the last portion of a level rather than the entire thing when they die. But if you’re so confident in your 8-bit gaming skills that you feel like you don’t need a checkpoint. You can have Shovel Knight smash the checkpoints, releasing some treasure in the process. It lets players choose a self-imposed balance of risk versus reward so novel that’s it’s strange we haven’t seen anything similar to this in the 25 years hence. Just be advised that if you smash every checkpoint to get that sweet treasure and then die fighting the level boss, it’s all the way back to the beginning.
The fun gameplay is enhanced by a weirdly cool sense of humor. In between levels you’ll encounter townspeople, some of whom are bipedal horses, but each who have a lot of personality, despite being 32-pixel sprites. All the Knight bosses are fans of awful puns centered around their theme. Jokes about garden tools are only the beginning. There is even a sidequest that revolves around telling bad jokes. Weirdest of all, Shovel Knight is aided in his quest by the Troupple King, a magical cross between a trout and an apple.
The 8-bit feel wouldn’t be complete without an outstanding chiptune soundtrack. Composer Jake Kaufman delivers in spades here; the music is high-energy and reminiscent of the classic Mega Mans. In one of the few departures from the 8-bit limitations the developers set on themselves, none of the tracks of music will cut out when sound effects are taking up too many audio channels, as was often the case with NES games. It’s a welcome addition, and doesn’t detract from the nostalgic feeling of the rest of the game.
For the purposes of this review, I played the PC version of Shovel Knight. While the 3DS and WiiU versions allow players to use the touch screen to switch weapons, the Steam version allows you to synch up your save files to Steam Cloud, which is handy if you plan on playing on more than one computer. If you do play on your computer, be sure to connect a game controller of some kind; trying to pull off precise platforming on a keyboard is a good way to get hand cramps.
Gamers who remember the platform games of yore will find a lot to dig about Shovel Knight, but even those born after the turn of the century will find an addictive, fun experience, provided they can enjoy the graphics for what they are. Shovel Knight is the pinnacle of retro cool.
Yacht Club Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.