Rest assured, if there was any part of my body that even remotely disliked Shovel Knight I would have ran with that just for the excuse of writing “Shovel Knight? More like ShovelWARE!” (Un)fortunately Yacht Club Games have opted to strip me of that minute amount of fun to instead offer a whole bucket-load more of fun within the actual game. Shovel Knight is not just an enjoyable product in of itself, but it’s turned out to be one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory and a candidate for Game of the Year 2014.
Shovel Knight comes to us from former WayForward Technologies developer Sean Velasco, who presumably left WayForward because he wanted to make games with fantastic audiovisual design AND have some actual game design in it (lol). He claims to have been inspired by games such as Castlevania III, DuckTales and Mega Man; and in the current climate of popularised nostalgia baiting this can be where the eye-rolling begins. Often when developers start listing off old NES games as inspiration, and they seem to be mostly highly popular titles, it can translate into “my entire research for this project was the games I just happened to own when I was 8 years old.” However, the fastest way to sum up everything good about Shovel Knight is it takes all the great ideas and common sense of old Japanese developed NES games, brushes off the few scraps of dirt and presents in a lovingly polished fashion bursting with its own personality.
Let’s do the mandatory Shovel Knight review thing and unfairly break the game down into its individual parts and which NES game inspired them so everyone gets a vague idea of what they’re in for. The graphics deliberately emulate the NES (although your Nintendo would probably explode if you somehow figured out a way to play this on one), the music actually can be played on an NES and so is 100% authentic chiptune music. You play as the Shovel Knight, who can swish his shovel as a close range weapon (Castlevania) and bounce off enemies with a down thrust like he’s riding a pogo stick (DuckTales); you have to fight a renegade group of Knights in a non-linear order to reach the final castle stages (Mega Man) to defeat the evil Enchantress who has enslaved the land (Castlevania again). As you navigate the map screen (Super Mario Bros. 3)you can visit towns to buy upgrades for your health, magic , armour and Shovel (Zelda II) as well as bumping into bonus “traveller” bosses and treasure gathering extra stages (Mario 3/Bionic Commando?)
As for the actual stages themselves, Mega Man was definitely the core inspiration in terms of the game’s single room puzzle-esque level design and style of boss battles, but here’s where constantly comparing Shovel Knight to its NES counterparts misses the point. It’s easy to comment on certain similarities between Shovel Knight and an entire memory stick duo of NES games, but ultimately I’d argue the main inspiration for the game was common sense.
Here’s an example of that; the stages in Shovel Knight are significantly longer than the average NES stage, so all of them have a whole bunch of visually clear checkpoints. When you die, you get knocked back to the last checkpoint (usually no more than half a dozen screens, and probably not even that) and take a hit to the wallet as bags of your money will dangle tauntingly above where you died, if you can get back to where you died without dying again you can get all that money back and there’s no problem as there’s no lives system at all. In addition, you can break the checkpoints to get a nice treasure boost, but obviously now you’ve lost that checkpoint so you better make sure you don’t screw up getting to the next one here.
So what we have here is a forgiving checkpoint system that lets the less savvy player get through the game without booting them out of the stage for a couple of mistakes, that also offers motivation for the player to not die twice on one section as they’ll lose their treasure (which also encourages players to spend their treasure and engage with the game’s RPG elements regularly)…and it has an extra challenge built in there for the hardcore crowd without having to change a thing. Wow! That’s really smart! It kind of blew my mind how smart such a little feature is; it completely nullifies the frustrations that came with the lives system from the old Mega Mans, with its “throw yourself down a pit twice to restart with 3 lives” nonsense,without requiring any kind of difficulty adjustment. I’ve always had low tolerance for games that still relied on lives systems in this era of gaming anyway but now there is literally no excuse for it. The way Shovel Knight handles it is just smarter, and that is so refreshing.
However, the true shining part of Shovel Knight is in the boss battles, which in all honesty, might be the greatest boss battles in any 2D action game. They certainly put anything in classic Mega Man to shame, and those Mega Man X bosses over there aren’t feeling too sure of themselves either. The vast majority of the bosses are against another knight or warrior with their own gimmick, as well the Black Knight who also uses a shovel effectively making him a shadow boss. Speaking of which, here’s a good test for action games, if your game has a shadow boss in it and it’s fun, then chances are your mechanics are pretty much ready to go. Boss battles in Shovel Knight do follow patterns to some extent but it definitely doesn’t feel like that most of the time. Fights against enemies like the King’s Knight almost feel like you’re playing against a second player. These fights are fast and furious, bosses don’t get stunned for too long so skilled players will be able to exchange down thrusts, side slashes and magic to get some “combos” going; but the subtlest touch that makes it near perfect is you don’t take damage from a bosses attack if you’re able to get a strike in first. This tiny little detail translates what in most games is a choreographed dance in pattern avoidance to an actual fight in your brain, if you “outwit” your opponent and get that first slash then as far as the game is concerned you deserve to be winning. It creates really challenging and engaging battles whilst at the same game communicating (through gameplay!) that the Shovel Knight is on par with these guys and is a mighty warrior in his own right.
Before I briefly touch on things I didn’t like so much in the game, let’s just dedicate a small paragraph to the ridiculously fantastic soundtrack Shovel Knight has, which comes to us from Jake “virt” Kaufman with two tracks done by Mega Man 1 composer Manami Matsumae. Let’s just shovel this in here; because everyone will probably be saying this in five years and I want it on record, Jake Kaufman is the best Western videogame composer working today. He’s also possibly clinically insane, since he’s provided full lossless audio downloads of both the official Shovel Knight soundtrack and an arrangement album on his Bandcamp so you should probably check that out.
So regarding what I don’t like…there’s just kind of too much stuff which contradicts the simplistic nature of the mechanics and level design. You can explore the levels by breaking blocks to reveal hidden pathways and passages where you can find extra treasure and usable items. Treasure is predominately used for buying upgrades, but it’s not difficult at all to find enough treasure to max out the really useful things like shovel abilities and magic points. Other than that you just have items and armour upgrades, and in the case of armour I pretty much just bought them all for the sake of buying something and then only ever used one of them. There’s just too much of this stuff for a game this short, half of the weapons I used once to see what they do and then never picked them up again. Then on top of that there’s potions you can use, but to do that you have to buy a chalice, then you have to go to the lake and talk to apple fish king thing (don’t worry about it) who does a nice song and dance for about 2 minutes to give you a one use potion (things like invincibility and health etc.). But because it’s one use only you just end up putting off using it forever and accidentally beat the game with it sitting in your lap, it’s just a load of fluff for something basically pointless.
It’s not a massive issue or anything, but the problem is the game focuses a lot on the act of gathering treasure (note the paragraph earlier about losing treasure being used instead of a lives system) as its inspiration for exploring levels and completing extra stages on the map, so it feels like all this extra stuff is just there to justify having so much treasure in the game in the first place. The game could have used a bit more balancing in how you buy new magic and how you spend your treasure, because honestly by the end of my playthrough I started not caring about treasure at all when I realised I already had everything worth having and that made me far lazier in terms of exploring the levels.
Also, the level design is consistently tight throughout the game with every stage having its own bag of tricks that stays consistent with the game’s mechanics and basic rules, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weaken towards the end. The final castle stages, probably in an attempt to be more “challenging” start relying less on clever tightly designed rooms and more on gimmicky instadeath traps that punish you for the slightest mistake. The worst part is the room where the walls move up and down, crushing you if a pixel of your shovelly body is caught under it. I died on this part about 50 billion times, initially out of sheer carelessness but eventually just out of boredom-fuelled impatience.
These are all little niggles, but Shovel Knight definitely needed to be a little more tight in its extra bits to be a true classic, but nothing mentioned above stops it from being a fantastic videogame. The soundtrack and the pixel art come from a place of artistic confidence and not just nostalgic baiting, the level design is fuelled predominately by common sense and everything is presented with a lot of care and love and a cute little story which ends the experience with a satisfied sigh. Yacht Club Games have proven themselves with Shovel Knight and the industry should look forward to their future projects.
In closing; in the opening paragraph I described Shovel Knight as “one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory” and I’d like to end this review by clarifying that. Shovel Knight is encouraging in both its style of design and the future of the videogame industry in general. A bunch of cool people who knew what they were doing got together and had a great idea for a game, they pitched that idea to the public through Kickstarter who liked it and supported it. This gave them a comfortable budget to work with for the kind of the game they wanted to make, but not requiring 10s of millions of corporate dollars in an unsustainable five year developmental cycle. The product of this is a wonderful little game that the developers can be proud of and that players can love. We need more games like Shovel Knight, and you dear reader, need Shovel Knight in your Steam library.
The pressure’s on you now, Mighty No. 9,Inafune and his team better up their game to follow this.
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platform: Steam, Wii U and 3DS in North America, other platforms to follow