If I were in distress, the prisoner of an evil wizard on top of a gigantic tower, and from my window I saw Shovel Knight coming in the distance, I would be torn. On one hand, the little guy oozes confidence; on the other, he looks a tad silly. Well, Shovel Knight does not care. He knows better.
Shovel Knight is a kickstarter success, and the first commercial release from Yacht Club Games. From a distance, it looks like a typical 2D indie platformer, which is far from surprising given that the studio includes a handful of erstwhile WayForward developers — the people behind A Boy and his Blob (2009) and Bloodrayne: Betrayal (2011). But judging Shovel Knight at a glance would be doing it a disservice. It does much more than a typical platformer and, more importantly, it does so extremely well.
It tries to emulate original Nintendo-era style of gameplay and visuals — and does so with aplomb. Mostly, you will be traversing levels filled with traps, enemies, and secrets before facing a boss themed after the level. The levels are well designed, using both platform challenges and enemies to hinder your progress, but it is in the boss fights that the game really shines. Though often overwhelming at first, boss-battles are all about pattern-recognition and patience: knowing when to pounce, when to dodge, and how to retreat. Many of the encounters will be won by the skin of your teeth, leaving your hands shaking in excitement as you watch your rivals fall to ground.
Between levels, Shovel Knight has you travelling around a world map where you can engage in side activities and go shopping. Most of your spoils are money, which can be a little unsatisfying since you will acquire most of the upgrades just playing through the game. Skipping over the side activities, however, would be a mistake, since most of the bonus content is high quality — even if the rewards aren’t overly enticing. It feels as if the developers put the same amount of care into producing the game’s side-content as the main story. Side-quests never feel like boring one-offs: they offer new boss fights, additional story, and plenty of challenge. Nothing feels superfluous and it pays off wonderfully.
Nothing that Shovel Knight does is really new, and because of that some will probably write it off, but in the end what sets it apart is how enthusiastically it does everything. It feels like a game its developers were happy to be making, and this child-like glee is contagious. You could see the titular character as an ironic joke, but really, he is just happy to exist and be part of an adventure — one that you will be part of too, granted you can let cynicism aside for a moment. I like to think that under his helmet Shovel Knight is filled with bliss and smiling all the time. Playing the game myself, I sure was.
- It must be said that the game gets hard. Real hard.
- I hate it when people describe games using other games, but Shovel Knight is the gameplay of Zelda 2, with Super Mario Bros. 3′s world map, Megaman‘s boss fights, and Dark Souls‘ death mechanic. Sounds about right.
- Music is great hummable stuff. If you can hum chiptune that is.
- There is a New Game Plus mode that I did not have time to engage with for this review, but that I liked the game enough that I’m excited to try it — that’s telling in itself.
- The writing is nothing outstanding but plays a big role in why the game is so endearing.