We gamers who enjoy a good retro action game are immensely spoiled in today’s age, weirdly enough. Over the course of the last console generation, the rise of platforms such as the Xbox Live Arcade and Steam provided outlets for smaller game developers to release lower-cost projects that wouldn’t need to run through the gauntlet of high risk publishing and major funding. Games like Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers proved there was an audience for the retro-style niche, and with that a surge of indie developers came forth to produce games inspired by those they grew up on. By 2014, the concept of making a game that would feel at home on an NES or SNES is by no means new or original, but Yacht Club Games, the team behind Shovel Knight, scribed another love letter that will make anyone who grew up during the bit wars swoon with infatuation.
The origins of Shovel Knight can easily be traced back to a few key franchises from Nintendo systems of old, as well as gameplay mechanics taken from a few recent releases. The most obvious influence is Mega Man, for an immense amount of reasons. In the game you play as the titular Shovel Knight, who must take down the 8 Knights of the Order Of No Quarter to reach the Enchantress at the Tower of Fate. Each Knight boss has a stage themed after them, and outside of a progressive set of 3, those stages can be tackled in any order. If to you that sounds like a setup taken straight from the textbooks of the Mega Man School of Video Game Setups, it’d be clear you know your Blue Bomber. Unlike the Mega Man games however, our hero doesn’t inherit powers from those of the order he’s taken down. Instead, throughout the game he/you collects treasure from dirt piles, chests, and other areas around the levels. That gold is used to buy all sorts of things, from health and magic upgrades, to weapon and armor improvements, and to relics, which are the secondary attacks you use.
The secondary attacks give the Shovel Knight all sorts of extra abilities, ranging anywhere from adding an air-dash rapier attack to gloves that can continually fistpunch through blocks of dirt. Each use of a relic drains your magic meter, much like the heart system in classic Castlevania. In fact, the default button setup has you pressing up+attack to use your relic, which I switched out for it’s own button, but I deeply appreciate the reference.
So we got a heaping helping of Mega Man, a large injection of Castlevania, with one final influence to talk about, which is also the most important.
If it wasn’t expressly given away with the title and provided screenshots, Shovel Knight fights with a shovel. For basic attacks, the only moves he really has is a forward swing and a pogo jump, in the style of Ducktales. Two moves may not seem like much, but the action is immensely satisfying. The downward strike pogo works on both enemies and destructible dirt patches alike, so long strings of bounces are common, if the timing is right.
So we got a game made up of parts straight from Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ducktales. It’s also got just the tiniest touch of Dark Souls, too. Money is a pretty important resource in the game, being used to eventually buff up the hero. Each stage has a few checkpoints to alleviate the pain of death, but when you die you drop a percentage of your money. The money dropped is completely recoverable, but if you die again before reaching your cash, it’s gone forever, much like the Souls system in Dark Souls. This mechanic is incredibly clever, adding that extra bit of stress to a post-death recovery period.
Using a piece from each of these games makes the whole that is Shovel Knight. The love for favorite childhood franchises past is clear as day during the entire playthrough. This isn’t even mentioning the beautiful 8-bit-ish art style that’s always a pleasure to look at. I’ve taken quite a few screenshots for the sake of review, and a surprising number of them have made it into my rotation of wallpapers that decorate my desktop.
So I’ve gotten past the nitty-gritty of the setup, the question to answer now is how does it actually play?
Since I was playing the PC version, my original plan was to hook up my SNES to USB adapter and truly go for an old-school experience. Unfortunately, the game would only recognize XInput, so I had to settle for my Xbox One controller with the slightly less awful D-pad than the original 360’s. Even with that concession, the game still had controls that were smooth as silk. Blaming the controls for deaths or lapses in skill won’t be applicable here; everything you do is your fault.
The pogo bounce is a wholly underrated form of video game mechanic. The skillful repeated bounce off of multiple enemies’ heads always feels phenomenally good, and the “fuck yeah” feeling always shows up when I manage to stab into a bosses head more than once at a time.
The level design is one of the game’s best strengths. Like most Mega Man games, the stages are themed after the boss at the end. For example, King Knight’s stage is a royal castle, Spectre Knight’s is a graveyard, Propeller Knight’s is an airship, and so on. They each have their own art style and platforming gimmicks, with every level presenting some new mechanics to keep the experience from getting stale. Most levels have 6 checkpoints, and they’re each fairly lengthy, relatively speaking. The journey to the boss hardly ever feels tedious, the exception being when I struggle to get past a certain part in a level (and lose all my money in the process).
Though throughout my quest I gained quite a few relics for secondary weapons, most of them only came in handy a couple of times, and a lot of the time I liked to give myself more of a challenge by only using my shovel. There are some great weapons, but the bouncing and attacking with my old faithful never got boring to me, especially after being given the ability to upgrade my shovel to include a charge attack, among other upgrades. To push importance of the relics, some bonus stages lie across the map that focus on the powers they grant you, obstacle courses based around the mechanics of the items. These were a great way to break up the stages, and felt almost puzzle-like in their execution.
The bosses themselves are similarly engaging. Like most retro action games, the bosses follow a pattern of attacks and movement, though they’re not entirely predictable since they switch up attack order and positioning. A couple of them call back to some classic boss fights of games past, but to spoil them here would be ruining the fun. The difficulty stays pretty consistent throughout, and while I died quite a bit, the game never made me feel frustrated save for one of the final stages, but that too can be chalked to up to poor playing.
And now we’ve reached the point in the review where I finally get to gush about the fantastic soundtrack. Each stage has its own theme, and literally every single one of them is fantastic. Music duties are handled by developer Wayforward regular Jake “virt” Kaufman, and Manami Matsumae – the original composer for Mega Man 1. Openly admitting to taking heavy influence from old Capcom games, Shovel Knight makes its claim as the whole package of throwback, and the music seals the deal for me. It’s ridiculously catchy, and quite often I found myself replaying levels just to hear the tunes again. Each stages theme matches the graphical style and feel, and the transition from stage to boss leads the songs into a faster-paced version of the stage theme. The audio is all incredibly well designed, and really just wraps the whole thing up together.
But don’t take my word for it! Listen:
The Kickstarter success and subsequent hype of Shovel Knight created a lot of pressure to produce a killer game, and the developers at Yacht Club Games stepped up. Really my only complaint about the game is it’s a tad on the short side, I was able to complete the main quest in around 5 or 6 hours, though there are collectibles to gather that could improve your playtime. Present in the release build 1.0 is a New Game + mode, which lets you replay the game with gathered equipment and upgrades while doubling the damage you take and reducing stage checkpoints from 6 to 2. Even so, I would have liked to see a lengthier main quest, but I’m more than satisfied with the amount of content I got. In addition, many of the stretch goals will be coming in future updates down the line, so this will inevitably be a game that warrants frequent revisiting.
With it’s superb controls, fluid action, and overwhelmingly charming presentation, Shovel Knight is the total retro-lover’s dream package. It takes tons of influence from classic sidescrolling past, but carves out enough of a unique identity to stand up on it’s own and not be remembered as Retro Reference The Game. If you like old-school at all, this will be right up your alley.
It also has what has become one of my new favorite enemies in any video game: propeller rats.
Shovel Knight is a love letter to those who grew up on side-scrolling action games. With excellent level design and presentation, this short and sweet platformer will satisfy any retro game fan.