Retro is all the rage, yet some games that are inspired by days gone by get things completely wrong. They focus purely on the limited visual aesthetic without tapping into just what made these old games a joy to play: Good game design. It’s of course the indie thing to do to make a platformer using old visuals, but Shovel Knight manages to tap into what made these games a timeless wonder.
Shovel Knight invokes the spirit of NES classics such as Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., and Duck Tales, but manages to do so in a way that isn’t a detriment to its own ideas. Even though he is only armed with a spade, the introduction level is by far the best of its kind since Mega Man X; teaching you all you need to know about the various moves with purposeful design and where to find the secret rooms.
But the great level design doesn’t end there, since each new location introduces its challenges in a fair environment before unleashing combinations of tight platforming sections and ruthless enemies. Checkpoints are plentiful throughout the levels, but you have the option to destroy them for more gold at the cost of a checkpoint.
Our titular hero handles as well, if not better than his NES counterparts. Whether you’re using controller support or the keyboard, it’s your fault if he should perish. Even his abilities are used as hidden treasures to buy, each providing the player with more options such as an anchor that resembles the Axe from Castlevania or a dashing fist used to break through blocks at high-speed. Shovel Knight creates a gameplay experience that feels wonderful, featuring a surprising amount of depth, but the more relics you collect the easier the game gets.
It seems that Yacht Club Games understand great character design too, as our hero’s plight is immediately understandable. We’re saving a damsel, but this damsel is no helpless princess. She’s his companion at arms that he grieves for, clinging onto a faint hope that she is still out there somewhere. The antagonistic Order of No Quarter is injected with more personality than anyone would have expected. Even the goofier of villagers in the game’s areas where Shovel Knight can upgrade health, magic, armour and shovel make these hubs alive.
At the heart of Shovel Knight is the gameplay, but the presentation is also top-notch. Sprites are distinct and detailed, truly capturing the 8-bit vibe. Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae’s amazing soundtrack of NES inspired chip tunes is what really sets this game apart from the pretender nostalgia trips. From the very first level you are greeted with an epic tune that would not be out-of-place in a Mega Man game, yet has its own unique spin that is catchy and ultimately memorable.
Each stage has its own vivid background, general theme, and accompanying soundtrack that oozes with the charisma of those timeless games; all centred around boss Knights that rarely fall into tried and tested characteristics. Polar Knight may seem like he’s going to have icy powers, but his fight introduces unexpected elements. Spectre Knight’s stage has a Halloween theme, but has its own stage gimmick that is unexpected.
If I was to fault Shovel Knight on one point, it would be that New Game + mode is not ambitious enough. Replacing all healing items with bombs and having all hits do double the regular damage to you is a start, but I would have liked a few more surprises. Enemies where there weren’t any before, or spikes in otherwise harmless rooms for example. Having all items transferable is nice, but the treasure collected is rendered worthless. With updates on the way, we’re hoping the free expansions deliver on varying the gameplay.
Shovel Knight isn’t just retro – it’s a timeless classic. From humble origins as a Kickstarter project, it just goes to show that with enough faith and talent, a really great game has the potential to find enough backing to be brought to life. It might be a while before Kenji Inafune’s Mighty No.9 takes the Blue Bomber mantle, but the Blue Burrower has successfully usurped Capcom’s classic franchise. I can’t wait for the sequel!