Shovel Knight Review
+ Nostalgic Visuals
+ Wonderful 8-bit soundtrack
+ Challenging, but not unfair
+ Filled with secrets
- Some items are useless
While playing Shovel Knight, I couldn’t help but smile. Here we are in 2014, a year filled with psuedo-realistic graphics and state of the art machinery, and I’m sitting here playing what is essentially an 8-bit platforming game. The funny thing is I’d honestly rather keep playing Shovel Knight than other recent blockbusters. Shovel Knight takes that classic NES game formula and modernizes it just enough so that it’s not frustrating and dated, but rewarding. It’s unbelievably creative, funny, and the perfect ode to classic Megaman, Zelda, and Castlevania.
I’ve already gone over some of Shovel Knight’s history in my impressions, here is a quick recap. Shovel Knight was funded through Kickstarter, and it recieved over $300,000 to fund it’s development; quite a bit more than the paltry $75,000 Yacht Club Games asked for. That was back in April of 2013, and here we are just over a year later, and Shovel Knight has hit our digital game storefronts.
Shovel Knight is lonely, sad Knight. His friend, Shield Knight, has been taken from him by the Enchantress, and he has vowed to get her back. It might be simple, but the dialogue and the way it is delivered really drives the point home that all Shovel Knight wants is his companion. On your way to the Enchantress’ tower, you’ll find the eight members of the Order of No Quarter, and their often hilarious exchanges with Shovel Knight. By the end of the game, I was actually motivated to power through some of the most difficult platforming I’ve done in ages, all for the sake of my pixelated friend and his shovel.
Judging from the screenshots, it should be obvious that Shovel Knight was inspired by some of the classic Nintendo games from our childhood. It really shows too, both literally and figuratively. Shovel Knight adheres to the Nintendo Entertainment System color pallet, so it really looks like you’re playing a game from the late 1980s. However, it has some of the most articulate and appropriately themed pixel art in the industry; each enemy has delicately crafted animations and backgrounds are detailed. I was particularly impressed with one boss in particular, and the large mechanical tank that he controlled.
Speaking of which, the eight Knights in the Order of No Quarter act as bosses. Each one comes with their own unique personality and dialogue exchanges, such as Polar Knight’s service to solitude and Propeller Knight’s appreciation for the finer things in life. In fact, each one of the battles with the Knights was creative to the point where I honestly didn’t know what to expect. It’s not just like the old Megaman games, they didn’t have a unique weapon that they’ll shoot. Rather, their entire moveset was based on how they were designed. For example, King Knight has trumpets appear on the side of the screen to rain dangerous confetti across the battle arena.
Shovel Knight is essentially a cross between Megaman, Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link, and Castlevania. Each stage is accessed through a world map, and each stage has one of the previously mentioned knights as a boss. Shovel Knight uses his shovel as a close range weapon, but its most useful purpose is probably its bounce attack. While in the air, Shovel Knight can bounce off enemies that are below him, much like Scrooge McDuck’s cane in Duck Tales. Many of the levels are designed with this in mind, such as bouncing off bubbles or enemies to reach platforms.
In fact, the level design is spot-on in regards to Shovel Knight and his abilities. As you progress through the game, there is a variety of equipment you can use. Some items (called relics) are obviously inspired by older games, like the anchor that functions exactly as the axe in Castlevania. Some of the more useful relics include the Phase Locket that makes you invulnerable for a few seconds and a rolling gear that lets you roll across spikes. Not all of the items are as useful; I don’t think I used the coin relic at all. Luckily, these are few and far between, and some items are even found in secret passages within levels. Getting these, while not required, will make your life a hell of a lot easier later on.
Shovel Knight also has a currency system. While out adventuring, you’ll collect gems that you can purchase items and upgrades with. There’s are two towns in game, both of which have several different shops and activities for you to partake in. There’s an armory where you can upgrade your shovel and armor to have different passive abilities, such as reducing incoming damage at the cost of having less momentum. Your shovel can be upgraded with different slashing techniques and digging efficiency. It really pays to save up as many gems as possible.
Don’t get too attached to your gems, though. Shovel Knight is a fiendishly difficult game, especially during the latter half. Poor Shovel Knight died 58 times during my adventures, and quite a few times I lost a big chunk of change. See, the death system is similar to something like Dark Souls. When Shovel Knight dies, he’ll drop a chunk of change. You have the chance to recover your money if you can collect your floating money bags, but if you die you will lose it permanently and the process will start over. Rather than just losing a life and restarting at a checkpoint, gold is a motivating factor that acts as an incentive to keep playing.
Shovel Knight features chiptune music composed by both Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae. Needless to say, the the background tracks are mesmerizing. In each stage, there are usually several (usually hidden) in-game music sheets. If you collect any of them, you can bring them to a very talented bard in town to play them. This essentially functions as an in-game music player, much like the sound test options in older games. For your convenience, I’ve embedded one of Jake’s compositions below.
Shovel Knight took me just under 5 hours to complete. In subsequent runs, I’d wager it’d possible to finish the game in half that time, but that would require serious dedication and finesse. After completing the story, you’ll unlock New Game Plus, which will let you replay the game with all of your items and gear with the caveat that it’s much more difficult. Healing items are extremely rare, and enemies do more damage. Either way, you’ll want to replay some levels because odds are you missed all sorts of secret music sheets and shortcuts the first time around.
Buy, Try, or Avoid?
Shovel Knight is one of those games that reminds me why I love to play video games. It’s not about shooting people down, destroying alien war ships, or building houses out of dirt. It’s about simple, harmless fun. It is a work of art, a labor of love, and without a doubt, it is one of the best downloadable games I’ve played in years. If you call yourself a gamer, you need to Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight will be receiving several modes in the future (free of charge!) due to meeting their Kickstarter goals. Some of these include a local multiplayer battle mode, gender swap, and playable bosses. There’s no release date on these yet, but you can expect them in the future.