Review: Shovel Knight

An instant classic.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/30/2014 09:00 4 Comments     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Challenging but fair; innovative risk/reward checkpoint system; excellent 8-bit graphics and soundtrack; Shovel Knight and his cast are instantly memorable; meaty campaign; upgrade system well-implemented; Black Knight's laugh!
Poison Mushroom for...
Some glitches, but nothing game breaking.


Yacht Club Games’ premier effort, Shovel Knight, garnered quite a bit of attention when it was unveiled on fundraising website Kickstarter over a year ago. Billed as a love letter to 8-bit gaming, Shovel Knight was to be a 2D platformer that merges elements of Mega Man, DuckTales, Castlevania, and other celebrated titles from the NES era into something new. Designed with an equally retro visual aesthetic and soundtrack, Shovel Knight intended to take the sum of its parts and become a game simultaneously modern and old-fashioned. Flash forward to now, and it comes to be that Yacht Club succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Shovel Knight is an early contender for my own game of the year nominations, as it’s so perfectly balanced and expertly crafted, it easily stands head and shoulders with any so-called modern game on current consoles.

Shovel Knight, the titular hero, and wielder of the powerful Shovel Blade, has been separated from his love, Shield Knight, after she seemingly fell in battle at the Tower of Fate. Listless and distraught, from that point he spent his days in solitude, until the Enchantress and the Order of No Quarter emerged from that same tower and began wreaking havoc. Compelled to action, Shovel Knight returns to defend the people from this new threat. In typical NES fashion, the story is told through bold, colorful cut scenes of static images and text. While not the deepest narrative, the plot is nevertheless compelling, bolstered by excellent dialogue and characterization. Part of what makes the narrative work is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also isn’t afraid to show a little depth, too.

Unlike some of the ciphers that populate the cast of other games, Shovel Knight and company are genuinely likable, fleshed out characters. Portraying Shovel Knight as a true hero might have been enough for other developers, but Yacht Club took things a step further and lets players peek into his mind. Brief interactive dream sequences in which he attempts to save a falling Shield Knight help players understand Shovel Knight’s internal struggles a bit, which in turn emphasizes the personal demons that are fueling his quest. Even the bosses, who are thematically designed like Mega Man’s Robot Masters, show an incredible variety of personality types and motivations. Shovel Knight even has his own Proto Man in the form of the mysterious Black Knight, who slowly reveals himself as more than what he seems. Yacht Club crafted an entire universe in this freshman effort that any developer would be envious of.

While not a true recreation of NES capabilities (that award goes to Retro City Rampage), Shovel Knight is still a markedly faithful take on 8-bit graphics and music. The visuals are stunningly detailed, creative, and varied. Backgrounds are stuffed with content, such as raining skies and turning gears, and the character and enemy animations are fluid and diverse. It doesn’t matter which system Shovel Knight is played on, either; Wii U owners can enjoy HD crispness, while 3DS owners can enjoy it in 3D. The music, though! Oh, my goodness, the soundtrack. It freaking rocks, my friends. It sounds like it came straight out of the late eighties or early nineties, and it is infectious. Composed by Jake Kaufman with an assist from Mega Man veteran Manami Matsumae, Shovel Knight sounds as authentic as it looks. Anyone who falls in love with the music can head to Kaufman’s page and download the whole thing at a price of their choosing; I highly recommend it.

Shovel Knight is an awfully athletic guy, considering the suit of armor he’s lugging around. The horned hero plays like a combination of Mega Man and Link in Zelda II (with a dash of Scrooge McDuck pogoing), accumulating items that augment his abilities and grant new ones, and swinging his Shovel Blade to dispatch foes. Seasoned players will appreciate the game’s map and map encounters (which takes cues from Super Mario Bros. 3), as well as its towns that feel like a mashup of Zelda II and Castlevania 2. Enemies, instant kill hazards, and pitfalls are liberally peppered throughout each level, but the designers took special effort to make them both challenging and fair. Like the best 2D platformers, Shovel Knight calls for a certain measure of skill to complete, but it never takes a cheap shot at the player. Difficulty rises at a perfect pace, and Yacht Club’s take on checkpoints is one of the most brilliant design compromises I’ve ever run across. Players can either choose to take advantage of the checkpoints, or destroy them for additional treasure! This offers both new and hardcore fans a way of experiencing the game as they please, without upsetting either camp.

Death is something that many a player will experience in Shovel Knight, but Yacht Club took a creative approach to it, as well. Rather than use lives, players instead have some of their treasure hall taken away every time they die. The money is gathered in sacks that hover at the point where the player died, and can only be regained by heading back to that spot. There’s still a penalty for death, but with it so intrinsically tied to the player’s hard work, the stakes feel higher. It’s a much better motivator to keep from dying than simply having to hit the continue button after a lives ticker hits zero. The loot is important, too, as Shovel Knight can pay to upgrade his health, magic, and equipment throughout the game. Better still, all upgrades can carry over into a New Game + once the main game has been beaten. It took me around five hours to complete my first playthrough, but someone attempting to gather every collectible in their initial go will clock in around seven to eight hours. It’s a meaty adventure, and one that many players will continue to keep coming back to.

Shovel Knight did glitch on me during my playthrough; I was fighting Treasure Knight, when suddenly my character was sucked into a vortex and disappeared, which the game didn’t seem to notice. Yacht Clubs is aware of these small blemishes and is working to piece together a patch in the near future, but knowing this (and having experienced my own problem), I will say that there are some kinks to be ironed out. These imperfection are minute, though, compared to what an absolute pleasure Shovel Knight is. Outside of some StreetPass functionality (where players can transfer Shovel Knight ghosts to one another), the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game are identical, and both are worthy of a download on either system. It’s rare that a developer can not only capture the magic of 8-bit classics, but improve upon them, but Shovel Knight does exactly that. This game is a true classic, and hopefully the first of many more to come from Yacht Club Games. Bravo.

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