Shovel Knight is the first thing I ever kickstarted. It was back in April of last year and at the time the predicted release date was September of that year. I was never too upset about the push backs as I am always in support of making a game better instead of releasing it in an unfinished state and trying to fix it from there. So while the wait was long to get my product, holy shit was the wait ever worth it and with a product as good as this, I’m glad they took their time getting it ready.
Shovel Knight is of course a throwback to the 8 and 16 bit era, feeling like a lost relic of the classic days of platforming. However it isn’t just a graphical throwback, this is a game that features the tight controls and fantastic level design of some of the best of that time. Were this released back in those days, it would absolutely be considered one of the best and you would still be seeing it on “Top 20 NES Games” to this very day.
While originally I thought this to be a Mega Man homage, with its 8 stages, each one providing a unique boss and power-up, there is far more going on here than just that. While yes much of the presentation strongly evokes Mega Man, you also have an overworld map reminiscent of Super Mario Bros 3, a Duck Tales style bounce move, and some Zelda II-esque town exploration. It’s the kind of homage though where they don’t keep calling attention to it. I kept waiting for in jokes and references to games of the past. An “I am Error” or something like that but it didn’t happen. Shovel Knight doesn’t just want to remind you of these great games, it wants to be a part of their ranks.
The game looks great. Yes it has the pixelated NES look but there are lots of flourishes and touches that that system wouldn’t have come close to being able to pull off. There is so much detail in the characters and in the background, not to mention the animations are fantastic. It also has an amazing soundtrack which again, would easily be considered amongst the best on the NES had it come out back then. I can only think of a few times where I was so into the music of a game that I actually bought the soundtrack. This is one of those times. The tunes are across the board phenomenal.
It’s hard to explain controls as it’s the sort of thing that needs to be experienced in order to truly understand them but believe me when I say that the controls for Shovel Knight are great, though I did need to switch the initial button set-up from its default. Everything feels tight and at no point did any mistake I made feel like the fault of the game.
The stages themselves are terrifically designed and each one brings in a new element, from floating statues you need to ride to moving walls to bouncing along the back of a huge beetle, each stage contains a unique element that keeps things interesting. I also found the lack of lengthy tutorials refreshing. This is very much like in the old days where you are introduced to a new mechanic and instead of being told how to use it, you are taught through a series of escalating challenges. It’s a great way to do things that used to be the standard. It helps keep everything moving and ensures the pace doesn’t have to slow down for unnecessary hand holding.
I went into Shovel Knight expecting a punishing level of difficulty but all things considered it’s a pretty fair challenge. There are certainly tricky parts and I absolutely died but there was never anything that felt cheap or unfair. Well ok a few of the deaths where an enemy strikes me and I went flying backwards into a pit were a bit on the irritating side though certainly nothing too detrimental to the experience. It also helps that level checkpoints are very generous and you also technically have infinite lives since the only punishment for death is the loss of some money. However Shovel Knight employs a Dark Souls-esque system where you can reacquire that money if you make it back to the same place where you died. There you will find it waiting for you but if you die on the way back, that money is gone forever. My one issue with this idea is that the money is floating wherever on the screen you were killed, so there were numerous instances where I had died from falling in a pit and therefore was unable to reacquire my lost cash as it floating above an abyss I couldn’t reach. Thankfully lack of money was hardly ever a factor for me in the game. I was stressed at first about losing it but by the end my playthrough I had purchased damn near every crucial item so by the time I started New Game +, I barely had to worry about cash ever again.
So yes there is a new game plus where obviously you get to keep all of your items and power-ups. New game plus is where the challenge really kicks in. The amount of checkpoints is halved and you take half the usual damage while I’m quite sure enemies take twice as long to kill. As of this writing I am on the second last level of new game plus and then plan to go through a third time for all the collectible music sheets I missed. So while the game is on the short side, there is plenty to do.
I feel I have said enough here. Shovel Knight is amazing and will almost definitely be making a return on my end of the year best of list. It’s a terrific throwback that doesn’t rest on simply being an homage and captures everything about the best platformers of the NES era. This one is a very easy recommendation to damn near everybody, even if you have started to become a little burnt out on the pixelated platform throwbacks.