I know, I’m late to the party again. I can’t always help it. Once, again you probably don’t need me to tell you to play Shovel Knight either. It’s gotten all sorts of critical acclaim, and has done so well that the folks at Yacht Club Games have a physical disc version out for consoles. Not to mention the amiibo figure for fans of the Nintendo Wii U version.
PROS: Old school action platforming inspired by Mega Man & Duck tales!
CONS: High difficulty will scare away some. Anticlimactic end boss.
WHAT?: There’s a super secret mode for those who can beat the game.
So what can I say about Shovel Knight you might not know about? Probably not very much, but I’m certainly compelled to attempt it. Shovel Knight is a 2D action platformer with art, and music inspired by games that came out on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Most notably, the first six Mega Man games, and Duck tales.
The game also borrows ideas from Super Mario Bros. 3, and Zelda 2. Basically, if you were a big fan of Capcom or Nintendo, in 1987, there is a lot of fan service here for you. The game starts you out with some entertaining cinema screens to set up the action. You play a knight who goes into a depression after losing his comrade on a mission. He retires, and in his absence a sorcerer takes over the land. Fearing for their lives, many powerful knights align themselves with her, and plunder the surrounding kingdoms, each one taking a kingdom over.
From here your knight picks up his trusty shovel (hence the name), and proceeds to go on a quest to take back the land. After an introductory mission, that helps get you acclimated to the controls, you’ll be placed on a map much like the one in Super Mario Bros. 3. There are mission stages, wandering enemies, villages, and bonus stages. Each segment allows you to play three missions in whichever order you choose.
Villages work the same way games like Zelda 2, the Ys series, and other action RPGs do. You can go into shops, get items to use in missions, level up your life capacity, weapons, and even interact with characters. Shovel Knight even adds a number of hidden secrets in the villages, as well as throughout the game. Some of them are almost necessary to find if you want to be victorious.
As in the classic Mega Man series, you will face a boss at the end of each mission. The boss will have a pattern you need to analyze, and learn in order to defeat them. On your way to the boss, the stages are full of the tricky jumping, and challenging enemies you would expect. Much like Scrooge McDuck, and his cane, Shovel Knight has a pogo move with his shovel. He can also swing the shovel at bad guys, and use the money he finds in the stages to level it up. Also like Duck tales, there are hidden rooms throughout the stages that give you access to treasure, sheet music that you can bring to a minstrel, and hidden shops.
Finding these hidden shop items can be a Godsend. Some of them make getting through some areas much easier. In the case of some of the game’s bonus levels, they’re actually required. They can also deal higher damage on bosses than your shovel, or magic items you find in the towns. But the standard magic items are important too, giving you the secondary weapons that work better on certain grunts, or even bosses. Again, it certainly feels like Mega Man, except that the bosses aren’t the ones leaving you the weapons.
Clearing the mission levels will break the barriers on the map (similar to Super Mario Bros 3’s locks), and open up newer areas. Again, revealing three more missions, and other spaces. The wandering enemies on the board are also worth going to. Most of them are mini boss affairs, but defeating them will give you a lot of cash, and a bit of background lore.
Speaking of cash, it is also important to collect as much as possible. It’s also important that you fail as little as possible. Shovel Knight doesn’t give you a traditional lives system the games that inspired it do. There isn’t a game over screen upon losing a certain number of lives. Instead the game takes away a big chunk of your money every time you die. It leaves some of that money hovering above your resting place for you to take back on your next attempt. But each failure costs, more, and more until you have nothing left.
The game also has a woman in one of the towns who keeps tabs on the gold you’ve collected, number of times you’ve died, among other statistics. It also gives you a final tally at the end of the credits if, and when you do manage to complete the game. Beating the game also gives you the chance to replay the entire game in the role of one of the bosses.
Shovel Knight does have a few minor differences between its versions. If you play it on Xbox One, it includes a showdown with the Battletoads. PlayStation 4 owners get a similar showdown, but with Kratos. Wii U players get a cooperative mode, while 3DS users get a list of challenges. If you play the game on your computer, you’ll have a couple of performance options over the console versions. Console owners can also buy the game physically for a bit more than the price of the digital download.
Any way you choose to go though, is going to give you a good time. I know I’ve mentioned similarities to some great classic games. That isn’t really a complaint though. Shovel Knight takes the best aspects of those old games. But it also does a lot of new things with them, including some well made puzzles built around them. I also didn’t talk much about the style of the game. If you haven’t played it, and are only looking at screenshots here, you might want to sigh at first. True, a lot of small businesses making platformers these days have gone for the look of an old system.
But Shovel Knight has some of the best sprite work around. It really does emulate the look of an NES very well. Better than many of its contemporaries. It also does a lot of clever visual tricks, and uses these tricks in the actual game design. For example near the end of the game, there is a section where a storm comes into view. During which, all you can see are silhouettes of characters, and objects. In this section many of the platforms are hollow, and you’ll fall through. It is only by looking for one specific detail that you can tell where you need to go.
It does something similar in one of the boss encounters. Even when it doesn’t effect game play, it just nails the look of an NES game. The palettes, the parallax scrolling, all make Shovel Knight feel like it could have been made by Capcom back in 1988. The music isn’t too shabby either. Yacht Club made sure that every song sounded like it is playing on an NES. Five channels, with the bending frequency noises, and orchestrated in some of the catchiest chip tunes in recent memory.
Again, all feeling like a late 80’s NES game made by Capcom. If you were a big fan of Mega Man, or Duck tales back in the day this is certainly a game that will be up your alley. It’s also going to be a great game for anybody who appreciates a great challenge. There are some very difficult parts in this game. But in all of the right ways. It’s the kind of challenge that will be infuriating at times. But also addictive enough that you will keep chiseling away at it until you’re victorious.
If I have any complaints with Shovel Knight, it’s mainly that sometimes you’re going to feel a little bit off. You’ll feel like you should have been on a surface, but the game will disagree with you. It is mainly on one or two very rare occasions, that involve a very specific object that I don’t want to spoil for you here. Granted, I know the game has been out awhile, but there are still plenty of you who didn’t get around to checking this out yet.
But you should, because aside from that one grievance it’s a really good action platformer. One that is still being supported heavily by its creators over a year later. So much so that there are even free expansions yet to come for it. If you missed out on it before, or are the sort who has to have a tangible copy of every game you own on a shelf, pick it up. The physical disc version came out recently, and doesn’t cost too much more than the downloadable version. If you choose to play the PC version however, I highly recommend a game pad. You can use a keyboard if so inclined, but things will feel a bit more natural for most players.
Final Score: 9 out of 10