Hear ye, Hear ye! The wave of retro games continues! Shovel Knight is a name that managed to stay afloat the huge sea of indie news. It has gotten quite the famous reputation as being one of few successfully kickstarted titles out there. But is this game reminiscent of ye olde’ NES times really worth your time? Do shovels really make a good weapon? And what the heck is a “Troupple”? Well don’t wait and hurry onwards, knave, saddle your steed and read on!
Have you seen my shield?
As you start the game you get confronted with two things: a pixeled menu screen and a gorgeous intro tune that instantly makes you hum along – the first impression is a really good one if you are into retro games as the presentation is spot-on! The name entry part also emphasizes that you’re playing a retro game here, instantly giving you that warm feeling of playing an old RPG or C64 games. So you hurry onwards, confirming your name with great haste as you instantly get drawn into a small but interesting storyline full of greater glory, staggering loss and epic adventure. Just within the first few minutes you realize that this game oozes with charisma, dragging you in with heaps of humor and attention to detail. The small story of the eponymous Shovel Knight losing his beloved female companion Shield Knight is well-told one, even more than you would hope to get out of a game which so much reminds us of the old Mega Man games and their cheesy intros.
It’s merely a flesh wound!
Speaking of Mega Man – this game doesn’t really try to hide its true nature: Shovel Knight basically plays and looks like a Mega Man title – in the best sense. The controls are tight and can be learned within a few seconds of playing (with a gamepad!). They better need to be, because you will need precise movements and well-timed jumps in order not to become Sir Die-a-lot.
The levels themselves look simplistic at first glance, but after playing them for a just a bit and maybe spending a second look you will realize how well-crafted they are. Jumps and gaps have the right size and new mechanics in the game are introduced in a steady pace which keeps you at your toes. There are hidden secrets and piles of dirt everywhere, just waiting to be moved by your unique weapon of choice. And like in every good Mega Man game you will be confronted with minibosses and an obligatory big bossfight at the end of each level, each of them having their own unique mechanics and little quirks. The first level kinda works like a playable tutorial in this regard, which is not handholdingly easy but fair enough to be quickly beaten. The first boss shall not be spoiled at this point, but let’s just say that he loves Shovels just as much as you do!
There’s loot to be found!
Once you beat the first level you will be confronted with a huge world map which instantly reminds you of games like Mario Bros 3. The game just basks in these references and homages, which cannot be ignored as there simply are far too many of them: hidden areas, patrolling enemies, unlocks and (warp) shortcuts – everything can be found. Huge parts of the world map are locked initially, requiring you to fight against other knights of the “Order of no Quarter”.
This acts as a kind of difficulty curve, because almost each level does grant you some sort of hidden relic. Each of these is helping you with your fight or exploration capabilities in some regards allowing you to phase out of existence or even punch through dirt. But it’s a really nice twist that barely any of those items are really necessary to progress through the game. Bossfights are really fair and there are no real “weaknesses” like in Mega Man games which would force you to have a certain weapon in this fight. All you need is your trusty shovel (and maybe a bit of health) and you will succeed! In-fact there are even achievements in this game that force you to avoid many (if not all) of these upgrades which might get very harsh in the last few levels.
Behold the many riches!
Coming back to the comparison with Mega Man series there is one twist these relics: instead of getting them from each boss they are usually well-hidden through the levels, forcing you to explore or sometimes come back to certain areas to find them all. Some of them even can be bought in the village you start at, making the gold you find in levels one of the most valuable resources you can get in this game.
This is also a (very smart) point where the game shuns some classic mechanics of player-death and rather follows the path of aroguelike: instead of losing extra-lives or even seeing a game-over screen after missing that last dreaded jump over a gap you lose gold based on your current wealth. After your demise 3 sacks of gold will float in the air where you died, teasing you to get them as you return to the same spot again. If you die again before reaching them – or die when trying to – the money is inevitably lost, giving you a feeling that is reminiscent of “Dark Souls”. Since many of the items, health and armor upgrades in the game cost quite a hefty sum to obtain you often find yourself “running for that extra bit of cash”, wich the added risk of losing just as much upon death.
This speed and greed mechanics is even amplified as (fair) checkpoints in the game can be destroyed for money, which of course nullifies their original purpose. It’s a great mechanic that keeps you on your toes without the sacrifice of momentum like a game-over screen. It’s also a sort of arbitrary “soft-difficulty slider” as pro gamers can just outright destroy every checkpoint during their run, trying to maximize their risk and benefits on the go.
Wait, there’s a propeller on your armor?
“But what’s the benefit of killing bosses” you ask? Well, first there’s the humorous theme to every “Knight of the Order of no Quarter”. For example, being confronted with “King Knight” you will be verbally degraded to a mere knave, but you will learn to overthrow the false regent quite quickly, which – in return – might make some villagers very happy. Usually you keep on with this pace of boss-killing and village-visiting, gradually improving your health and income on the go. And as you go, the list of enemies just continues to be more and more absurd, each of the enemies having a very unique personality and look to them. The levels that you have to pass through also follow this theme, which manages to convey all the details with a reduced color palette that is unique to each level.
Mentioning that, the overall presentation continues to impress throughout the whole game. Each level is consistently well-crafted with lots of funny details and a unique (and impressive) variety of chip-tunes. It’s just oh-so fitting that you can find and return music sheets to a bard in order to unlock and listen to all of the great music tracks again. This is old-school motivation at its best and it keeps you coming back to the same levels just to be a little better at it or find that last detail you missed out.
Shovel Knight is an awesome experience that just has one downside: its short play length of 5-7 hours, depending on how skillful you are at platformer. For everyone craving for more there is a New game+ to be unlocked plus many achievements (feats) and tons of cheat codes to test out – one of them involving butts!
So in case you managed to read through all of this i might bequeath just one thing upon thee: playeth this game, knight, for thou shalt not be let down.