Shovel Knight is fucking awesome. I’ll admit that’s not exactly the most sophisticated thesis statement ever made but it is the best way to describe how I feel about the game. Crafted by Yacht Club Games, a developer made up of former WayForward staffers, Shovel Knight combines an insanely accurate re-creation of retro side-scrollers with modern game design philosophy. While not exactly a fresh concept, Yacht Club does the Faux Retro thing so much better than other developers, probably because the company they originally came from (and assumedly some of the staff themselves) have actually developed games for the hardware that they’re trying to emulate. This gives the game a very genuine feel; rather than simply being another sloppy stab at nostalgia designed around overly chunky pixels and distorted square waves, Shovel Knight is its own game with just as much heart and passion as the classic games it takes its inspiration from.
Starting off with the gameplay, Shovel Knight features some wonderfully precise and very focused side-scrolling action. Similar to Mega Man or Castlevania, the game gives you a fantastic fidelity of movement and it’s all about taking it slow and mastering the controls. It’s the sort of game where everything becomes second nature, you’ll quickly stop thinking about things like jump height and attack distance as it all becomes instinct. This is especially present with the game’s signature downward-stab-pogo-bounce move upon which much of the level design is built, it’s a move that has a lot of punch to it and successfully chaining bounces across enemies feels incredibly satisfying. They really take advantage of that as well with lots of very smartly designed platforming puzzles that require good timing and an almost intrinsic knowledge of the game’s controls and mechanics. This means the game can be difficult at times but never unfair. While I certainly died a fair amount while making my way through the game (186 times to be exact), I never once felt like I hit a wall, each death taught me something new and got me one tiny bit closer to surmounting a tricky jump or defeating a challenging boss. Shovel Knight is just insanely well refined throughout and on a pure mechanical level, it’s supremely satisfying to play.
That’s not to say it falters outside of those base mechanics though, the game also features a very well paced upgrade progression that gives it a good treasure hunting angle. There’s a bunch of relics, new armors, health upgrades, and shovel enhancements to buy and as you pick this stuff up it can significantly change your tactics by providing new avenues of attack and movement. To afford all those wondrous things though you’ll need a veritable mountain of gold and thankfully the game will happily give you one via its wealth of hidden rooms, chests, and loot filled nooks and crannies. There’s enough extra gold hiding out in this game to keep you hunting for hours and the game handles death in a way that really encourages you to track down as much as you can. First off, any loot you find is considered permanently found so you can happily go on suicide runs to pick up hard to reach treasures. That’s not to say you won’t lose that loot though if you’re not careful because instead of lives whenever you die some of your gold goes flying out of you; to get it back you’ve got to corpse run after it Dark Souls style, this gives the game a nice addictive edge thanks to the push and pull between progress and procurement.
For as much as I love the gameplay though, my favourite part of Shovel Knight has to be the presentation. Visually it’s got a very authentic Game Boy Colour aesthetic going on. It has that distinctive GBC style where the sprites and backgrounds only consist of a few colours each but the game overall actually has quite a vivid palette. Similarly there’s a very specific undefined sharpness to the backgrounds, like the hardware wasn’t powerful enough and they started getting clever with the sprite work to make things fit; it reminds me exactly of how the better games back in the day pushed those older systems to their limits. It’s the soundtrack here though that really drives the game home for me. The minds behind it were Manami Matsumae, the composer who did the soundtrack for the original Mega Man, and Jake Kaufman, whose fantastic scores have won our Beardies for Best Original Sountrack for the last two years running. The whole OST has a very strong driving impetus behind it that does a fantastic job of pushing you forward through the levels. There are hints of Manami and Kaufman’s past work woven throughout as well as very subtle nods to games like Final Fantasy and Castlevania that give the soundtrack a lot of flavour. It’s clear that they were trying to do more than make a soundtrack that simply sounded chirpy and retro, they were trying to make actual good god damn music and they most certainly succeeded.
Let’s finish off by talking about the story, as expected it’s fairly light but it definitely has a certain charm. The premise is that once upon a time brave knights roamed the land collecting treasure and protecting the innocent, the mightiest of those knights was Shovel Knight, along with his partner Shield Knight. One day while climbing the Tower of Fate they happened upon a cursed amulet and with a blinding flash they were separated; Shovel Knight was cast from the tower and Shield Knight was sealed within. Afterwards Shovel Knight fell to depression and resigned himself to meager farm work but in the background an evil enchantress was taking over the kingdom with her cadre of fallen knights, the Order of No Quarter. Now Shovel Knight must redeem himself by taking out his former compatriots in the Order and defeating the enchantress to liberate the kingdom. It’s a very video game plot but that’s exactly what you want out of a game like this and it still manages to pack in some depth here and there. The ending has a not unexpected but well executed and meaningful twist to it and the characters you run into have a lot of charm to them, especially the bosses; you only get a couple of lines of dialogue with each one but it’s enough to give the world some nice narrative texture. In fact the world of Shovel Knight in general feels surprisingly well realized and the dialogue overall is nice and lightly humorous.
There’s really no negative argument to make here, Shovel Knight is absolutely fantastic and you need to own it. The closest thing to a complaint that I could make against it is that the New Game + content is a little lacking but even that’s not really an issue as they’ve already stated that more modes and content are going to be added in free updates. This a fantastic first effort from Yacht Club, and I’m looking very forward to seeing their next project. I’m happily giving Shovel Knight a 5 out of 5 stars and my complete and total recommendation, put simply GO. BUY. IT.