After a year of Kickstarting, developer livestreaming and delays, Shovel Knight is finally here. Its crowdfunding stage was a massive success, blowing through the team’s $75,000 goal and heading just past $300,000. If you’re a fan of classic NES games, you’ve probably been pretty pumped about Shovel Knight since last March. So, does the final game deliver on the promise of a new Mega Man game? Not only does it achieve that, it recaptures that intangible feeling of several other NES classics as well.
Not satisfied with merely crafting an excellent Mega Man game, Yacht Club Games decided to pay homage to Castlevania, Ducktales, Zelda 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3. Bits and pieces have been collected from NES’ greatest, and combined in stellar fashion in Shovel Knight. The downward slash from Zelda 2 and the pogo jump from Ducktales play a key role in combat and traversal. There’s a certain Castlevania feel, especially when you’re slashing through false walls to discover hidden passageways and cooked chickens. The world map from Super Mario Bros. 3 makes an appearance, complete with roaming enemies, secret bosses(!!!) and challenges after finishing certain levels.
Even with all of these inspirations, Shovel Knight still feels like its own game by introducing new ideas on top of the old. The checkpoint system is unique; walking past a checkpoint will confirm your respawn point rather than making you guess where you’ll come back upon death. Instead of using a lives system to slow your progress, you’re allowed to restart at your last checkpoint as many times as you’d like, BUT, each death will cost you some of your hard earned treasure. Just like Dark Souls, though, if you can reach your spot of death without dying a second time, you can grab your lost spoils back and continue your journey without punishment. If you’re feeling adventurous, each checkpoint can be destroyed to gain extra treasure, but you’ll have to start back from the last undestroyed checkpoint should you meet your end. Shovel Knight is built upon several smart systems that make it a little easier for those not looking for a punishing experience, and allows those who want the difficulty to implement it themselves.
The level designs are top notch, with each stage featuring many secrets to find, and many more difficult enemies and platforms to navigate through. Watchful eyes will notice when a piece of the environment seems out of a place, and a quick shovel blade to it will usually reveal a hidden area filled with treasure. The stages all hide an optional piece of equipment as well, rather than handing it out as a reward for defeating the boss. All of them have their own unique use, and some of the platforming oriented items have an extra stage where you’re tasked with clearing a level specifically tuned to its power.
Each level is smartly themed around its boss, with Treasure Knight’s flooded ship featuring giant fish and heaps of gold, and Specter Knight’s cemetery making smart use of gravestone platforms and a dark atmosphere. The remarkable soundtrack by Jake Kaufman pushes each level even further, and I’ve caught myself humming level themes since I finished the game a week ago. The coherence of the levels and the soundtrack brings back memories of jumping through Bubble Man’s waterfalls in Mega Man 2, which I can’t say many “new retro” games ever accomplish.
Shovel Knight is extremely charming in how far it goes to be authentic. It never solely relies on jokes about how funny old games were, Shovel Knight is just happy being an old game with modern sensibilities. It’s funny without ever being grossly referential, and feels like it would have belonged perfectly on Nintendo’s first console those few short decades ago. You’ll jaunt through towns and meet some great characters with clever dialogue, jump through castles and bounce off of frogs, and you’ll climb towers to save your best friend, all in the name of Shovel Justice™.
As wonderful as the majority of Shovel Knight is, a few issues rear their heads after the game’s first few hours. Since the level design is built around discovering secret gems and treasure, the game’s currency, you would expect that there would be a lot of meaningful ways to spend it, right? After you reach the game’s second town less than halfway through the game, you’ll soon learn that it’s the last place you’ll find to spend your money. You’ll gather much more treasure than you can ever spend, undermining some of the game’s base mechanics. Since you’re sure to have bought everything two-thirds of the way through, you’ll wonder why you’re still having treasure heaped upon you.
Some of the upgrades aren’t even worth buying. The armor upgrades can only be worn one at a time, and the most useful of the pack sadly changes Shovel Knight’s color scheme to a drab grey. After realizing this, I chose to stick with his expressive bright blue default armor, leaving me with even less to buy from the game’s already slim catalogue of purchases. I kept expecting another town or some other way to spend my mounds of cash, but it never came. I continued scouring levels for the treasure because it’s still fun to bust through secret walls, even though I knew the gems I found would never be put to any use.
The bosses’ fights themselves also lead to one of the game’s few issues. Even before upgrading your health and magic stats, the game’s bosses are pretty easy to take down. Halfway through the game when you’re health bar is tripled and you can shoot as many fireballs as you want, even the endgame bosses don’t stand a chance. I wanted a bit more of a challenge from these fights, but ended up feeling like I was toying with my food. I would let the bosses get a few hits in to make sure I had seen their whole moveset, then quickly shovel away their last measly bits of health. The bosses aren’t bad, though, as their designs and bits of dialogue are excellent, they’re fun to fight, and each of them have a surprising variety of moves and animation. The game’s optional challenges like New Game+ and low health / no item playthroughs can add a bit of difficulty to the fights, but I still wish I felt more tension during the game’s biggest battles.
Shovel Knight is such a joy to play that whatever issues I have pale in comparison to just how much fun it is. I’m gladly playing through the game a second time, and plan to complete some of the several built in optional challenges to wring more playtime out of it. Bouncing off enemies and through the environments is still exciting, and the world and characters are too charming for me to stop. I’m still finding secrets in stages I’ve played through a handful of times, and still figuring out new ways to use the weapons and magic items.
There are also several free updates still planned to be added in the next year, like gender swap mode, challenge modes, playable boss modes, and more, so if you jump in now you’ll have more than enough reason to come back later. The game is out on Wii U, 3DS, and Steam, and the content updates will be free for all versions. I played through the majority of the game on 3DS, which I stand by being the best place to play. Short bursts of levels are great for portable play, and there’s a quick select menu on the bottom screen that makes weapon swaps instantaneous. On top of that, the exclusive 3D effect is astounding in some areas, amping up the game’s already terrific atmosphere.
Shovel Knight is the real deal. It’s a brand new NES classic that seems like it was lost in time. If Yacht Club Games has more in store for the series, which they really should, the future of Shovel Knight is going to be an amazing thing to watch. Could an eventual Shovel Knight 2 be what Mega Man 2 was to its predecessor? If you’re wanting to see what an NES game made in 2014 looks and feels like, there’s hardly a better place to dig in than the delightful, charming, and nostalgic world of Shovel Knight.