Shovel Knight

Kickstarter has a mixed reputation but sometimes it produces a darling. If there’s one thing that strikes my notice from successful Kickstarter games however, it’s that promising a product which tugs at nostalgia seems to be a sure-fire win.

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Shovel Knight (3DS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Switch, Wii U, Xbox One)

Released Jun 2014 | Developed / Published: Yacht Club Games

Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 7 hours

Once upon a time, our hero, the titular Shovel Knight, and their partner Shield Knight defended the land. Suddenly, one day an evil curse struck down Shield Knight and sealed her away in the forbidding Tower of Fate. Shovel Knight fell into a grief-filled exile and the land was slowly taken over by the evil Enchantress and the menacing Order of No Quarter, an alliance of knights who terrorized the land. When the Tower of Fate becomes unsealed and evil spreads across the land, Shovel Knight takes up arms once again, journeying to save the world and rescue his beloved.

The narrative (retroactively titled to Shovel of Hope in the wake of the additional campaigns released for the game) is naturally kept very simple in deference to its 8-bit roots. While as a general story it is very straightforward, it’s impressive how much work has gone into crafting enjoyable characters. Shovel Knight comes across as almost dorky at times, with slightly stilted heroic dialogue, while each individual member of the Order of No Quarter brings a sparkling humour and life to the game. They’re hardly the world’s most effective villains, from the diminutive cackling Plague Knight to the overblown pompous King Knight, but they’re each excellent characters. In the various towns and settlements you come across Shovel Knight also runs into a swathe of NPCs, most of whom have only one or two lines but they’re all written with that same sense of humour, which keeps the game’s tone light-hearted and fun.

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Shovel Knight totally commits to being old-school and part of that is nicking elements from other games. At its core it’s a side-scrolling platformer but that doesn’t do it justice at all. Shovel Knight, as the name suggests, relies on their mighty shovel to defend themselves. Your attack is kept extremely basic – a simple swing of Shovel Knight’s eponymous weapon – but it’s enough to keep the myriad beasties of land at bay. That attack can be upgraded in a few small ways but it’s always essentially just the same swinging a farming implement. Shovel Knight has one other attack with the shovel, and that is to combine the downthrust from Zelda II: The Adventures of Link and the pogo jump from Ducktales: once in the air Shovel Knight can aim downwards with the shovel and bop enemies on the head and bounce away. Mastering the pogo jump is one of the keys to surviving many of Shovel Knight’s platforming challenges, as well as being a necessary part of exploring each level for secrets.

The Order of No Quarter is a big nod to Mega Man – they’re a set of bosses, each with themed levels and idiosyncratically named, and also just like Mega Man Shovel Knight can also acquire weapons related to each boss. For example, the flamboyant Propeller Knight can dash across the screen with their rapier, and Shovel Knight can do the very same once you get that weapon. There’s also a hint of Castlevania about it; not only do some of the weapons work identically to famous Castlevania ones – the Anchor for example is literally the same as Castlevania’s arcing throwing axe – but they also use a mana pool which acts much like that franchise’s heart system, and appropriately you can find refills by destroying the scenery.

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Speaking of destroying scenery, there’s an awful lot of that as well. Shovel Knight can, naturally, dig up piles of rubble and dirt to find gems and gold, which can be used to purchase attack upgrades, armour upgrades, new weapons, and means to increase health and mana. A thorough player can scour levels and absolutely rack up the cash, though if you do so you can often find that once you’ve made a few choice purchases there’s not that much else to buy. The additional weapons are useful but those uses are primarily in exploring, and while the additional armour upgrades are lovely, each suit of armour comes with a downside apart from one, so besides playing around there’s little reason to pour money into it.

The main reason to acquire money though is because of the way death works in Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight takes a leaf from Dark Souls – when you (inevitably) die, Shovel Knight leaves behind a portion of cash in floating bags at the point where it occurred. You then get one chance to get back there and recover your moolah – if you die, any uncollected bags vanish into the aether, never to be seen again and you permanently lose them. It encourages both careful play and learning the levels, which is thankfully a joy due to the exciting and fluid platforming, and excellent, creative enemy design. For an additional challenge, masochistic players can break the checkpoints that are scattered throughout the levels – you get a big cash lump for doing so but in return you don’t get that checkpoint and if you die you get sent back that much farther, possibly even to the beginning of the level. Between that and the achievements, there’s a huge amount of options to keep completionists and players in want of a challenge going far after the end credits have rolled.

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You might have noticed from these screenshots that Shovel Knight is, to put it bluntly, fucking stunning. The commitment to an 8-bit aesthetic is filtered through modern approaches to colour usage and technology. Some retro-inspired games take it extremely seriously and still often look good – I mentioned as such when I reviewed Squidlit – but Shovel Knight is more transformative. It is still obviously trying to look like an 8-bit game, but takes it a step beyond what the NES could display, and my word does it look good, especially the gorgeous parallax scrolling which makes the background feel animated and lively. I did notice some interesting things Shovel Knight does though to make itself feel very NES-esque – the single-axis camera shaking is a nice touch, and the limited animation count for sprites brings that nostalgic feeling to the foreground.

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The soundtrack for Shovel Knight was chiefly composed by Jake Kaufman, with some additional work by Manami Matsumae. In all honesty, I think I could write an entire article on it. It’s one of my absolute favourite soundtracks for a game perhaps ever. From the opening bars of the Main Theme the tone is set – the white noise explosions, the memorable, intertwining harmonies, and the soaring melody-led composition all immediately immerse the audience in a 90’s-fuelled nostalgia haze, and not once does it deign to slow down from there. Get a good earful of that main melody because it crops up time and time again – it has a slower, contemplative form in Steel Thy Shovel and has a tense reprise in The Inner Tower, which gives narrative weight, creating an almost opera-like movement of the acts through the soundtrack.

It would be easy to list every song on the soundtrack and say they’re my favourites. Strike the Earth must be one of the most pumped-up and energetic first stage songs I can think of, and I adore the glissando guitar lines in the middle of the piece; the rapid chromatic movements stick out so nicely. While all the Order’s stages have stunning music, the riff at the start of In the Halls of the Usurper is singularly powerful, while An Underlying Problem is my pick for best track of them all. It blends the sharp sounds of 8-bit melody with a gorgeous dirty bassline, the tiny swelled vibrato notes that punctuate the intro are just beautiful, and the second section features an exceptional prog-like riff that utterly enraptured me. As the riff comes in to repeat the drumbeat shifts gear entirely to a staggered hi-hat pedal beat and opens up the space in the high end for the harmonies to lift into.

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Interestingly, there are some differences between the alternative versions of Shovel Knight. The Nintendo consoles have access to the Streetpass Arena which gives an element of competition to an otherwise solitary experience, as well as Amiibo support that can unlock customisation options for the titular Knight. The other editions all have exclusive bosses – the PC and Xbox versions have a bonus fight against the Battletoads, while Kratos of God of War appears to challenge the player in the Playstation releases. The Kratos fight is fantastically dynamic while the Battletoads sees Shovel Knight fight them in stages lifted straight from their original game, including the rope descent and on the infamous speeder bikes.

As if there weren’t enough, Shovel Knight has been hugely supported since the initial release, and much of it has been free. A co-op mode lets any other local player drop in as a clone of Shovel Knight and take on levels alongside you. I’m also a really big fan of the Body Swap options that were added. These let you change the gender and pronouns of every major character in the game, complete with new sprites as well; some might mock this inclusion but personally I love it, and any chance at this kind of normalised inclusivity is awesome in my book.

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What else can I say about Shovel Knight? I’m very much looking forward to playing the additional campaigns, but this original still stands exceptionally tall in my estimations. It revels in its self-imposed retro aesthetic and sticks it brilliantly. It’s a nigh-on perfect platforming experience in my opinion, and I highly recommend you play it.

7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.

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