It's hard not to get excited at the prospect of a game like Shovel Knight. When the game first appeared on Kickstarter in March of 2013 I was hopeful that the team at Yacht Club Games would reach their goal. And reach it they did. In fact they more than quadrupled their target of $75,000. Here we are, over a year later, and the game is finally ready for the legions of adoring fans. Can Shovel Knight possibly live up to the hype?
It seems 8 and 16-bit inspired titles are all the rage with indie developers as of late. While pixelated games like Super Time Force and Hyper Light Drifter have more of a clean, borderless look, Shovel Knight truly goes for the classic feel of the NES/SNES era. The game's multi-layer backgrounds, intricately detailed sprites and flowing animations make me yearn for the days of titles like Mega Man X and Turtles in Time.
The chiptune soundtrack composed by Jake Kaufman (Mighty Switch Force and Shantae series) does a terrific job of adding to the series of differing environments Shovel Knight must trek through. The soundtrack is, like most of the game, inspired by the platforming greats that came before it and gives the world a cinematic feel. You'll most likely find yourself humming the catchy background tunes long after the game is over.
Lack of Tutorial
One thing Shovel Knight doesn't do is hold your hand. You learn by doing. You're a knight with a shovel on a quest, that's all you know when you're dropped into the first stage. From there on in you start to learn the ups and downs of being Shovel Knight, but no screen pops up and tells you how. It's honestly refreshing in an age of overly sheltering tutorials and gives one a sense of exploration that many games forgo due to the chance of confusion.
This doesn't end after the first level either. Since each stage is usually staggeringly different from the one before the game slowing works in new mechanics and puzzles that you haven't yet experienced. More on that below.
It's no secret that classic games like Zelda II, Super Mario Bros 3 and Ducktales had a hand in inspiring the team at Yacht Club Games. Various elements and homages are seen throughout Shovel Knight. The level select screen is so similar to Mario Bros 3 that random baddies even appear on the overworld and shuffle around every time you return. It's also no secret that Shovel Knight's ability to pogo about on his shovel is an obvious reference to Scrooge McDuck's the well-known ability. Shovel Knight is definitely a labor of love, and a shout out to all the bit based platformers that came before it.
No game influence is more evident than the classic Mega Man series for the NES. Bosses are touted on the character selection screen and levels are set up to feature their theme. The bosses even have their own theme that play when you face off against them, just like the Blue Bomber's robot masters. The comparisons don't stop there, but I'll let you discover some for yourself.
Increasing Difficulty, Level Variety and Bosses
My first thought after plaything through the first few levels of Shovel Knight were Uh oh, this game is too easy. As a platforming junkie I've beaten hundreds of hop-and-bop titles over the last twenty years and I really wanted this one to last. Luckily I found that the difficulty did steadily increase over the course of the game, but never to the point of rage induced swearing (ok, maybe few times). It's a nice mix of satisfying challenges and annoyingly well placed enemies. Also, and this should be noted by everyone, you never run out of lives. So die all you want on your way to the top. It will only set you back as far as a check point.
Speaking of well placed enemies, the game does a particularly great job of mixing up the game play by adding new elements, puzzles and foes to every single level. The ideas introduced are simple enough for players to catch on, but hard enough that mastering them is a feat in itself. One stage had bouncy goo blobs falling from the ceiling. Of course I jumped on the blob and found I could bounce up to unreachable ledges. Helpful! I soon learned that I could shovel the goo across the screen, demobilizing fire enemies along the way. If it could put out fire with it what would happen when I scooped it on to a pillar of lava? This concept of exploration is seen in every single level and never gets old because it is constantly bringing new elements of gameplay into the mix.
Boss battles were the culmination of both items above. Their difficulty increased as the game went on and no two bosses fought the same way. Each had a distinct personality and arsenal of attacks that stemmed from their whacky titles - Mole Knight, Plague Knight, and so on. There were times when a boss battle would get the best of me, but I never wanted to quit. I just wanted to play again and improve. That's Shovel Knight in a nutshell. Not so hard that you want to give up, but hard enough to make you feel like you accomplished something.
The game does a great job of poking fun at itself and the zany world it represents. The dialogue is wonderfully silly and many of the characters themselves have personalities that are skewed versions of the average platformer NPC. My favorite part was undoubtedly all the jabs about Kickstarter and how you should attempt to raise funds to get into the Hall of Heroes. It's goofy at all the right times and in all the right ways.
Oh and there's a giant half-apple half-trout king who loves to dance. So. You really can't go wrong.
There is much to be discovered in the world of Shovel Knight. Secret rooms and tunnels can be found in every castle and often lead to extravagant riches and newly available items. While some secrets are very much out in the open others are well hidden and difficult to reach. You'll be hard pressed to find all a stage has to offer in the first go round.
Shovel Knight, the character, can do two things with his shovel, shovel forward and shovel hop. Other upgrades can be purchased, but none of them gave me what I really wanted - an upwards attack. If you want to hit something above you, you must move to the side, jump and then swing your shovel. This is easier said than done in many situations and it would have been nice to simply be able to thrust my shovel up into a floating block or flying enemy. Also, and maybe this is just me, but I wanted to be able to throw my shovel like a spear, Ghost 'n Goblins style.
Like most old-school platformers Shovel Knight doesn't last as long as one might hope. It's a speed runners dream and while it took me roughly 7 hours to complete the main quest, you could technically get through all the main levels in 90 minutes if you had the know-how. The best part about Shovel Knight is that there is no time limit, there are optional extra levels to take in if you're feeling daring and there are many secrets to be had. Completing the main adventure does open up a "Game+" mode, which offers stronger baddies and less checkpoints. So there's that.
I'm also at liberty to mention that due to the strong Kickstarter response Shovel Knight will receive various updates that will add tons of bonus content. These add-ons include Battle Mode, Challenge Mode, Gender-Swap Mode, and three playable boss campaigns. These will undoubtedly bump Shovel Knight's game length into the "Fantastic" territory.
You need to play this game with the 3D slider all the way up. The development team has done such a delightful job on the 8/16 bit mix that I think an hour of my adventure was dedicated to simply watching how nice the environment looked in 3D. The effect really makes the enemies stand out, amongst other things.
The gameplay on the 3DS is very tuned, though my only regret is that I just couldn't always find a useful way to use relics against bosses (like in Mega Man). Most of the time everything died by the power of my mighty edged shovel. Truth be told, Shovel Knight is probably one of the best experiences I've had in my 3DS.
A part of the game I found really enjoyable was the character design. Bosses and their attack patterns are very well done, and with the 3D they really stand out. Prepare yourself for a great final battle *wink wink*. I played the whole game with headphones, and I have to say this is the first time in my history as a gamer that I wanted to unlock every music track in the game (Yes, you can do that).
It was only a 7 and a half hour adventure (with a "Game+" version, which I totally plan to play), but it was a very very worthy 7 hour adventure. - TimeHacker
Shovel Knight brings out the best in almost every aspect of 2D platforming. It's visuals, controls, audio and Goldilocks difficulty make it one of the best sprite-based adventures in recent memory. It's certainly a must-have for anyone who pines for the days of Mega Man and Castlevania, and a great way to introduce a whole new generation to a classic genre. Shovel Knight digs deep and delivers one hell of a game.