It seems like forever ago since I first heard of Shovel Knight and with the continuous delays, the wait was never an easy one. It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan for old school Mega Man, so when Shovel Knight was classified as a “melee-focused Mega Man,” it instantly became my most anticipated game. I purposefully ignored all of the trailers and previews, so I could go in blind and complete the nostalgia, pretending I just picked this game up off a store shelf without knowing much about it. It’s rare that a game can live up to the hype and rarer still when a game surpasses it. I had no idea that Shovel Knight was going to be as good as it turned out.
It’s well documented that Shovel Knight takes on the style of 8-bit and the look is crafted masterfully. If you ever played a Mega Man game on the NES, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect in the visual and audio department. Each level has its own unique theme that corresponds with the boss and the tune complements the visuals perfectly. Let it be said that the soundtrack is downright awesome, from the title screen to the final boss. Don’t be fooled by the presentation, though, as this game wouldn’t have been able to fit in a NES cartridge. First of all, the game features nine save slots, but even without them, there are some great character animations that are well detailed and smooth
Even though it surpasses what the NES could do, it still relies on the “tricks” some games did to get the most out of the little grey box. One example is when you fight a big monster and the background fades completely to black so that the processor could focus on creating on very detailed and very large monster. The cutscenes are also done in the old style, with the top half of the screen showing still images while the text tells the story on the bottom half. Shovel Knight doesn’t half-ass anything with the presentation — it goes all the way with it and it fortunately takes that attitude into the gameplay as well.
I’ve already mentioned it a few times already, but Shovel Knight is very similar to Mega Man — from the characters, story, and how the screen scrolls into a new section of the level. That’s the easiest way to know if you’ll enjoy Shovel Knight: if you enjoy the blue bomber, you’ll love the blue knight. While similar, it isn’t a carbon copy nor does it suffer from an identity crisis; it truly is its own thing. The focus of melee combat changes the core gameplay, as now you have to get close to attack enemies rather than picking them off at a safe distance. It does take a bit to get used to, however, as some enemies will sort of “push” you back when you land an attack. It was incredibly rare, but when I hit an enemy near a bottomless pit, I would sometimes be pushed back into it. It’s not game-breaking whatsoever, as it probably only happened twice, and the game is smart enough to not put you in that position often.
For good measure, the game also throws in a bit of Castlevania and Super Mario Bros 3. Instead of receiving a power or skill from a defeated boss, Shovel Knight contains objects known as “relics.” These range from long-range weapons like a fire rod, potions that restore your health, or a fishing rod to pick up treasure from bottomless pits. All relics cost magic, similar to hearts in Castlevania, and are used by pressing up+attack. There are villages in the game where you may be able to buy new relics, increase your max health and magic, and buy new armour and upgrades for your shovel. It’s a robust package and with the exception of some armor upgrades, nothing feels pointless, as every situation in the levels can be dealt with in different ways. The game isn’t trapped in a time capsule, though; having all of the items on the touchscreen is a great feature and it beats pausing the game, scrolling through an inventory, and unpausing to get back in the action. And yes, the game is playable on the GamePad itself.
All of these upgrades don’t come cheap and that’s where gold comes in. The levels are completely littered with the stuff, from fallen enemies, chests, secret passageways in the walls, and beating a level. If you keep your eye open, you may notice cracks in some walls that will lead to treasure troves and some secrets don’t have any clues at all. It rewards exploration handsomely and it’s a great way to liven up an otherwise linear level.
From Super Mario Bros. 3, it borrows the level select screen by way of a map. Only a village, the tutorial level, and two boss levels are available at first, but as you progress, more of the map will fill out, including optional levels with massive amounts of gold and a fun side quest that I won’t spoil here. Sometimes, after completing levels, enemies will appear on the world map just like how the Koopa Troopas roam the map in Mario. It’s great that the game includes distractions, as it almost makes it an RPG. You could defeat the next boss or you could go hunting for treasure.
The meat of the game are the main levels featuring the bosses and these are rightfully the highlight of the game. These stages are crafted with such care that I can start to see why this game was in development for so long. From the placement of enemies to each stage’s specific traps and mechanics, it’s all put together with such love and care. It again has that Mega Man quality where, just because you’re good at one stage, doesn’t mean you won’t be good at another. One early stage takes place in a graveyard and sometimes, the level goes dark and only by the lightning that flashes every few seconds will you be able to see anything. Another great level makes use of the wind changing directions to make you jump further or send you flying uncontrollably into a bed of instant-kill spikes.
While nothing reaches the ridiculous difficulty of Ice Man from Mega Man 1, I do compare it to Mega Man 9. For people who aren’t as talented at action platformers, the game does not feature lives, so there is no risk of a game over. Upon death, you lose a percentage of your gold instead of a life. Sprinkled throughout the levels are visible checkpoints that can be destroyed for extra money if you desire, but be warned: if you die, you won’t be able to respawn at that checkpoint. If you can make it to where you died, you can collect it back; however, die again and it’s gone for good. I personally love the way this game handle its death system and I would like to see some other games adapt this play style.
The last way that Shovel Knight surprised me was with its story and characters. The story is about Shovel Knight and his partner Shield Knight — an obvious nod to Mega Man and Proto Man — and their adventures together. A magical curse from an evil amulet suddenly brings darkness over the land and the evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter take control. Couple this with the loss of Shield Knight, Shovel Knight retires to live by himself until he is called back into battle to maintain the peace, meeting quirky townsfolk and side characters along the way.
While it is self-aware and has some cheesy dialogue, it does a good job at pulling you in. Shovel Knight himself is somewhat of a tragic figure, clearly tormented at the loss of Shield Knight. This is driven home by his campfires; when he sleeps, he’ll sometimes have nightmares of monsters attacking while you also try to capture a falling Shield Knight. The ending itself actually managed to elicit a reaction out of me besides the typical “Yup, that’s an ending.” It’s serious when it wants to be, but always manages to be a little lighthearted as well. It’s very charming, to say the least.
This whole review honestly could have been condensed to two words: buy it. From the opening few minutes, I knew I was in for a great ride and it did not disappoint. I tried very hard to find faults in the game and what I did come up with aren’t that big. Firstly, some people may be upset at the length of four to five hours if you plan on just beating it without really exploring, but that’s countered by the shear replayable value. I can see myself playing this on and off just like old NES classics. One boss is a bit frustrating, but I still wouldn’t classify it as “unfair.” Lastly, there are hidden songs to discover, but I could not see which levels were fully completed at the time of writing, so I didn’t know which level was missing a song.
The bottom line is that Shovel Knight perfectly does what it set out to do. Yacht Club Games set out to make a challenging yet fair and fun game that Capcom used to make in the 80s and in my eyes, they did it. Many games attempt to play the nostalgia card, but this one really made me feel like a kid again — staying up later than I should to play through the last few levels to see what the final boss looked like. One minute, I was laughing and getting pumped up by the music and the next moment I was raging at a difficult part just like I did as a kid. It’s an amazing game in its own right, but I think the people who will truly get the most out of it are the people who grew up with the NES and SNES era of games. As a result, Shovel Knight truly touched me and made me remember why I personally play video games.
Low Score: 9 / 10
- One frustrating boss
- No way of knowing which stage you found all the music notes in
- Sometimes get pushed back into a bottomless pit from enemies
High Score: 10 / 10
- Tight gameplay
- Amazing soundtrack
- Masterfully crafted levels
- Lots of upgrades and items to find