Homages to retro games are nothing new. More than half of the indie developers out there have dedicated their careers to recreating the spirit of games they used to play as kids. Whether they grew up during the NES days or as recently as the N64, there is no shortage of throwbacks to the days of old.
Most of these lean towards one of two camps. One prefers the brutal nature of these classics and are made for those who love the masochistic side of the quarter-pumping arcade age. The other simply swipes the retro-graphic style for the sake of looks looking old.
More often than not, these camps will lead to a game that is either way too hard to be enjoyable except for those who are in on the joke, or a hollow game that is retro only in looks and doesn’t grasp what made the classics fun. It’s a balancing act very few have ever hit perfectly, and Shovel Knight is among this exclusive crowd.
Developer Yacht Club Games is clearly inspired by NES classics like Mega Man, DuckTales and Zelda 2. It sold gamers that fact when it raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter. With experience working for WayForward Games, the king of retro 2D platformers, this small indie team took its crowd-funded money and decided to make a retro platformer that looks both backwards and forwards, and that is just what they did.
Regardless of your age, whether or not you “get” 8-bit design, or even if you are looking for that old-school challenge, Shovel Knight has something for you.
I Heard You Like References
If you can say one thing for certain about Shovel Knight, it’s that it wears its inspirations like a badge of honor. Our protagonist must do battle with eight fellow knights of different elements, ala Mega Man, and his main melee weapon doubles as a shovel and pogo stick, ala DuckTales.
While questing, he uncovers sub-weapons powered by magic drops and controlled by holding the up-button, ala Castlevania, and in-between action scenes, he relaxes in a peaceful town where he can buy power-ups, enter houses, and interact with citizens, ala Zelda 2.
If references towards the days of old are your thing, then this is how to go about them. These nods aren’t so subtle that you don’t understand what you are looking at, but at the same time, Yacht Club Games isn’t going insult you and bash you over the skull like Retro City Rampage did a few years ago, spelling out its jokes for you.
Each of its 8-bit homages has a clear purpose for being in the game, and is woven into the gameplay. This saves them from being more than cheap jokes.
Thinking Forward in the Past
And yet, for all it does to channel our favorite 8-bit masterpieces, Shovel Knight does so much more to allow it to stand on its own. Out with the old, and in with the new. By doing away with many outdated ideas from that generation, Yacht Club Games proves that you can make a classic throwback without being tied to the decrepit mechanics.
First and foremost, no 1up system. Our protagonist is granted as many deaths as necessary to complete a stage or a boss fight. No “game over” means no going back to the beginning of a stage, forcing a replay of all those those tricky parts over and over again. If a boss or difficult spike placement is proving to be a little too much, just pick up where you left off from the game’s generous amount of checkpoints and give it another shot.
Some might argue that this kills the purpose of classic games and makes it too easy. 8-bit forced gamers into mastering a level, knowing its ins and outs, and making a flawless run-through seem second nature through strict trial and error. What is this unlimited try nonsense?
These people speak the truth, but Shovel Knight has them covered too.
For one, checkpoints are totally optional. When stumbling upon one, triggering it will respawn you normally when poor Shovel Knight perishes, or he can smash it open to steal the gems inside for extra prizes.
This risk/reward system created by these checkpoints allows challengers to play through Shovel Knight as either a slow quest which encourages exploration or a hack ‘n slash gauntlet towards the finish line. The approach is up to you, a choice which the classics never gave.
Choice… modern day game design theory working right there.
On the other hand, death doesn’t go entirely unpunished either. Taking a page from Dark Souls, because who doesn’t these days, Yacht Club Games sees more fit to leave your precious treasure scattered around the spot where your character meets his end. Seeing as how roughly eighty percent of the deaths in this game are caused by falling into pits or onto spikes, getting those gems back should prove to be quite risky.
Do you really need to buy that power-up after this level, or can you hold off until the next? Is that treasure really so important?
No matter how you play throughs of Shovel Knight, there is going to be risks in how you treat death. Collecting all of the treasures and secrets or blasting straight through, both are guaranteed to force you into making some tough judgement calls.
The Balanced Approach
Luckily, Shovel Knight never proves to be too painful. This isn’t 1001 Spikes or Super Meat Boy by any means. Mega Man isn’t even a fair comparison. Shovel Knight is definitely easier than the classics and the masochistic modern games.
Mechanics are easy to pick up, no jump is impossibly difficult, and each of the bosses might only take a test run or two, if none at all. Of the eight normal bosses, I got the better of six on the first try. Black Knight and The Empress don’t put up much of a fight either, nor do the random boss battles that pop up on the map.
I also completed the game with minimal deaths, at least I never felt like it was too much. You die, it happens, you recover and press on. Challenging it can be, but frustrating it’s not. I’d go so far as to say that Shovel Knight is not out of the realm of possibility of a “one life” run with minimal practice.
Only in chasing some of the more complicated achievements, or ‘feats’ as they are called in this game, will your head possibly spin and your controller possibly shatter in frustration.
Shovel Knight’s relative ease makes it far more approachable for everyone to enjoy, and one of its strengths. Those looking for something more painful though can artificially boost the game’s difficulty, be it through breaking all of the checkpoints, playing on Hard mode, or equipping armor which makes you weaker.
Limited Color, Still Infinite Possibilities
The main draw of Shovel Knight always has been the graphics, though. Yacht Club Games delivers where it counts and creates one of the best looking retro-homages ever with this one.
The team might have had to cheat here and there a little bit with some of the animations for backgrounds or obstacles like the swinging chandeliers in King Man’s stage, but it is very clear that the designers tried their hardest to stick to what the NES would have capable of.
The chiptunes also work well with the setting and feel of the game, but I’m walking away from Shovel Knight a little disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were a little high, but most Mega Man games come jam packed with theme songs you’ll hum for weeks after playing.
I can’t recall any from Shovel Knight off the top of my head. They get the job done for creating the illusion of an 8-bit game, but the soundtrack sadly come up unmemorable. Maybe if I listen to it for twenty years, some of them will stick.
Levels are smartly designed with precise platforming situations and mind-bending challenges. Much like Mega Man as well, each level fabulously sticks to the element of its boss fight, and most build their most challenging segments around a single mechanic exclusive to the level.
Bouncing on cannonballs, swinging from chandeliers, dropping snow on spikes, each level is its own crafted individual entity which falls under the overarching mechanics of the game in its own special way.
Plus, the secrets are a lot of fun to uncover too, some of which require a deep understanding of a stage’s unique theme.
Everything Shovel Knight does, it does incredibly well. It’s balanced enough so that both old-timers and newcomers can find something to enjoy, and never once does it falter in its mission of paying tribute to classics.
Dare I say, even the interactive cutscenes and fabulous ending are really touching.
In terms of homages to 8-bit games, this is second to none, beating out even Capcom’s own throwback to its own games, Mega Man 9, by not being too tied down by old conventions.
I don’t want to take Shovel Knight’s achievements for granted, but if I had one small complaint, it’s that its hook is primarily an aesthetic one. Most other indie platformers out there are finding marvelous ways to evolve 2D gameplay. FEZ, Guacamelee, LIMBO, La-Mulana all come to mind, but Shovel Knight’s loyalty to older games leaves it a little basic without much room to do anything “new.”
It’s a minor complaint though because Shovel Knight never promised to be innovative, and thanks to flawlessly pulling off its goals, It doesn’t need that extra hook to be called anything less than a massive success and one of the best games of 2014 so far.
A group of guys wanted to make a game, so they raised $300,000 and made the best possible game out of it. best of all, there is still more yet to come in free updates. Three new campaigns starring the enemy knights, a battle mode, and a boss rush mode!
Shovel Knight is the gift that keeps on giving.
If you are stuck choosing a platform, I would suggest the Nintendo 3DS or Wii U version. My main review is based on the Nintendo 3DS, but I dabbed in the Wii U one quite a bit. The Wii U has some built in multiplayer not available on the other platforms and it has the most comfortable controller. I forgot how much that Nintendo 3DS XL D-pad can bruise your fingers.
The Nintendo 3DS can be played on the go, has solid 3D capabilities, and also has a passive multiplayer function through the Street Pass system.
Disclaimer: We funded Shovel Knight during its Kickstarter campaign, and received the Nintendo 3DS version as our reward. We completed the campaign before writing this review.