A little over a year ago, whilst navigating the winding aisles of PAX East’s expo floor, an intriguing sound caught my ear and beckoned me over. I could barely hear it over the massive crowd and all of the attractions the expo had to offer. Left, right, left, left again… frantically I searched for the source of these seductive sound waves. Then, suddenly, there it was in all its 8-bit glory. The music, of course, was the soundtrack to a game demo being played on the show floor… And that game was Shovel Knight. It invoked a feeling of nostalgia I hadn’t felt in years. Yes, folks — it was love at first sight.
Over the past few years, the “retro indie game” craze has spread like wildfire. We’ve seen hits. We’ve seen misses. Honestly, I don’t think a gaming subcategory has been this oversaturated since the World War 2 shooter phase back in the early 2000’s. (Not that oversaturation is inherently a bad thing – Personally, I love World War 2 shooters.) But the issue with having a massive, growing catalogue of these retro-style games is that they start to lose their appeal due to widespread unoriginality. Lots of these games simply adopt the “retro” label in order to get away with pixel graphics and generic chiptune music, but that’s where Shovel Knight steps in; foot firmly planted atop the shoulder of his shiny blue spade. Shovel Knight is the 8-bit savior we’ve been waiting for.
What truly makes Shovel Knight a success is that it uses the retro label as a rule, rather than throwing a few old-school elements in and calling it a day. It’s so close to the real deal that, if you didn’t know any better, you would swear you were playing a long-lost NES title. It’s as if the people over at Yacht Club Games completely stripped down a copy of Mega Man for NES and went through it with a fine-toothed comb, ensuring that everything in Shovel Knight was as consistent to an original NES title as possible. Everything is period perfect – The tight controls, the incredible music, and excellent writing make for a truly charming experience.
Progression through the game is a bit like Mega Man in that each boss has his or her own themed level, and one look at the overworld map [see below] should invoke nostalgic memories from Super Mario Bros 3. For combat, there’s a basic slashing attack, and there’s also downward aerial attack that lets you pogo off of enemies in the style of Scrooge McDuck. Your mission in the game (aside from collecting every bit of treasure you come across) is to stop the “Enchantress,” jumping, slashing and digging your way past the 8 members [bosses] of “The Order of No Quarter” as you go.
With their fast-moving attacks and varied abilities, the bosses are already a challenge. Feel like making them even more challenging, though? Throughout the levels are several checkpoints, which allow you to revive yourself if some grim fate happens to befall you. These checkpoints, however, are made out of glass… so feel free to pounce on each of them with your shovel, destroying them along with any chance of reviving there if you perish. This aspect, along with the boss fights and mini-boss fights, suggests a strong tip-of-the-hat to Dark Souls. Good call, Yacht Club Games. Also, there’s a NewGame+ mode to start the campaign all over again with your existing equipment and tougher baddies.
We live in an age where crowdfunding is used to make some of the greatest gaming-related ideas. I haven’t backed many games on Kickstarter, but I’m genuinely proud to say that I backed Shovel Knight. If you’re a fan of NES-era platformers, this is your game. Scratch that — If you’re a fan of gaming in general, this is your game. The folks at Yacht Club Games have successfully concocted the perfect blend of challenging, yet rewarding gameplay, fantastic visuals, and an absolutely AMAZING soundtrack, and I love them for it. Simply put, Shovel Knight is absolute fun in its purest form. I give Shovel Knight 5 shovels out of 5.
Well, what are you waiting for? Dig in!