A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.