(For the purposes of this review, I played the PC/Steam version of Shovel Knight. All versions are essentially the same, except for street pass and quick keys for the relics on the 3DS version.)
In their role as a sort of primordial, digital soup, 8-bit graphics are practically synonymous with video games as a medium. Anybody who knows anything about game history is familiar with them, even if they were thought dead with the end of the NES and GameBoy’s lifecycles, leaving them a quaint relic rarely ever seen in the mainstream. That is, until about seven years ago; the recent indie explosion has allowed any developer hopeful with a great idea to produce it on their own, regardless of what art style, what genre, or even what console they would choose for it. The product of that new enthusiasm is a gaming industry that is now being flooded, almost overwhelmed, by more creativity and originality than we’ve seen in years, all from those smaller teams, all producing surprisingly refreshing new games in multiple game art styles we thought were long dead.
I’m saying all this, because, to be truthful, my preview article for Shovel Knight was fairly incorrect, and I apologize. There are no ‘lives’. The game doesn’t just give you eight bosses to choose from at the get go. It doesn’t just draw from a few famous NES games. I was actually wrong about most of the game in what I drew from the info we had available at the time – and I’m really glad I was. The full truth is that this game is so much more than any of that. Shovel Knight is more than I could have imagined or hoped for, or even really predicted ahead of time. This is a game that will go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the sole greatest, 8 bit game of all time, and I wouldn’t say that it was 25 years too late; I’d say that it’s right on cue.
Shovel Knight is not overly artsy, or envelope-pushing, or thought-provoking in the way Gone Home or Limbo are, and yet it succeeds even farther than those two ever could. Shovel Knight is the most well-crafted, lovingly-made, engaging, and fun game that this gamer has seen in a very, very long time. It’s a platformer, its’ 8-bit, and it has something for nearly every gamer out there to love.
The game starts with a simple but effective premise to build on: Shovel Knight, after losing his lover and partner (Shield Knight) on a very difficult adventure, has taken to a life of solitude to submerge his sorrows in quiet. All of that changes, however, when The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter take the land for themselves, prompting the noble (and very short) hero to put his past behind him and come out of retirement to save the land from the evil consuming it.
Thus he embarks. And not long after that, the game starts to slowly but surely, lovingly draw itself into your heart and mind.
After a brief intro level that wordlessly teaches you all the moves and mechanics you’ll need to master your hero, and introducing a nemesis (with his own shovel weapon, of course), the world opens up and the adventure begins. A world map becomes available with small towns for quests and upgrade purchasing, mini-dungeons, challenge levels, enemy battles, and campaign levels to choose from. Up to three boss levels are available in each section of the map, each with their own characteristic level you must fight through to reach them: a graveyard, a steampunk submarine, an airship, a buried city, and more. It’s a wild world that you get to take at your own pace, seeing things in the order of your own choosing.
Simply explaining the larger mechanics of the game really doesn’t get to the heart of what makes this game great, however, and that’s the extensive detail to which every major facet of the game was designed, all carefully chosen and calibrated to fit into one massive, breathtaking portrait. The platformers’ controls are the most tight and responsive that you could imagine, with the game never ceasing to find new ways to challenge you even as your only options are jumping, swinging your shovel, and bouncing on it. Each level and accompanying boss are unique, creative, and memorable, each with their own battle music (a remixed version of their level theme). The game shows a mastery of swaying your emotions, even with the limited pixels, as well-written lines and character expressions never fail to hit their mark, and yet everything is pervaded by a sense of quirky humor to it (endless shovel puns, a flying enemy that’s literally just a rat with a propeller strapped to it, the adorable dancing troupple creatures, the appropriately named boss “King Knight”, etc.). There are numerous hidden collectibles to find. There are so many facets to this game, drawn from so many other games, that I spotted at least over a dozen before I lost count entirely: the world map from Super Mario Bros. 3, MegaMan and Castlevania platforming, MegaMan 2 boss structure, Legend of Zelda and Ducktales combat mechanics, Zelda 2: Adventure of Link progression, Dark Souls inspired check-pointing… I could nearly go on forever pointing out how many games, from the past 30 years, this game draws inspiration and characteristics from. And yet none of it seems to clash or float to the surface, with all facets and cogs working together to form one very unique and complex game with a very unique identity all its own.
Similar to every other facet of the game, the overall music and sound quality draw from an untold number of influences as well, and deserve a mention for how fantastic they are. The sound effects are a hodge-podge pulled out of everything from the original Super Mario Bros. to even Final Fantasy 6, and everything in-between. All are more crisp and beautiful sounding than ever before thanks to modern sound quality, and all have the desired effect, from the nemesis’ cackle to the noise of a rat being bopped on the head by your shovel. The soundtrack is even more remarkable, owing to the impressive joint effort of Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae, each with their own impressive discographies (including the latter’s work on the original MegaMan soundtrack). The result is a collection that draws very clear influences from MegaMan, NES Castlevanias, and even some Anamanaguchi (that I could detect myself), and yet still manages to blend it into a final package that is extremely memorable, well-written, appropriately tailored to each situation, and catchy, all while maintaining its’ own unique sense of identity apart from those influences. I plan on grabbing the OST as soon as it’s available for purchase, and I know countless others will be doing the same.
The team at Yacht Club Games that put this game together was well-trained from their time in WayForward, and if anything, Shovel Knight proves a love, fandom, and knowledge of all videogames that would rival any elite veteran’s. In going back to a very simple art style that is nonetheless striking in how they use it, they were able to cultivate something far more impressive and detailed than almost any other AAA game of our time, making the exact game that these die-hard fans wanted, which just so happens to be what most of us want right now as well. All this, with the game not even really being complete yet – there’s a gender-swap mode, a multiplayer battle mode, multiple boss character campaigns, and more, all on the way later this year, all yours when you purchase the game for a mere $15.
In the end, I am honestly finding it very difficult to spot anything legitimately, objectively wrong with this game. Sure, I personally wish it would be harder, but generally it has a pretty staunch difficulty curve, and I know not all gamers are sado-masochists like myself that will gladly run multiple characters through the campaign of Dark Souls II. The difficulty curve is adjusted to allow the most gamers possible to enjoy it, with hardcore gamers still being offered an incredibly difficult challenge in New Game + mode. Sure, the game might also be seen as a bit short, clocking in at around six hours, but I know that any more length would likely have caused the overall detail of the title to suffer, and my frustration is more a result of the fact that those six hours I got with it were so full of childlike wonder and joy.
Everything about this game is literally of the highest possible caliber, even if it’s not necessarily perfect. The story is simple and straightforward, yet manages to hit emotional tones even major AAA games miss. The soundtrack is retro and one of the best. The bosses and levels are incredibly fun and challenging. The character progression feels effective. The characters are all unique and memorable. The controls are simple yet challenging. The jokes are always spot on. I could go on forever. Don’t be surprised if you sit down to try the first level and end up playing the whole thing in one sitting.
Shovel Knight is not just an homage to retro games. It’s not just an indie game, it’s not just a platformer, its’ not just one man’s artistic vision. Shovel Knight is a swooning love letter to every gamer who’s picked up a controller in the past 30 years, and to an incredible industry’s history of creativity and adventure. It’s a game by gamers, for gamers, encompassing everything possible that has made all of our favorite games so great. If the NES had been allowed to continuously evolve alongside every other console of the past 25 years instead of being cast off, this is what games of that world would look like. It’s the game that everybody’s going to be talking about, the game that’s going to explode upon release sending the entire medium (and Yacht Club Games) to untold heights. If you play only one game this year, Shovel Knight is the only acceptable option.
It is for these reasons that I humbly give Shovel Knight the coveted rating of A+.