After playing games such as Actual Sunlight and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Shovel Knight was a real palette-cleanser. A pure and fun video game, which is light-hearted, easy to pick up and a genuine delight. Just what was needed!
Rose-tinted glasses are glorious things. Harking back to the ‘good-old days’ is something we are all guilty of at one point or another, not just in gaming but all over. However actually going back to experience these golden-oldies is more often than not, if we’re really honest with ourselves, a huge disappointment.
Shovel Knight is a game that wants us to feel nostalgic, remember how wonderful those days were and allow us some real old-school fun. The only difference is Shovel Knight is much better than any of the oldies ever were.
Recently there’s been a slight 8-bit resurgence, what with Rogue Legacy, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Hotline Miami and others released in the past few years; and arguably heading that list is Shovel Knight. What makes SK stand out so much though is that it’s not as obviously innovative, by which I mean it feels more like a game from the early 90s as opposed to one that references them.
Let me explain. Most games, including the ones mentioned have a ‘thing’. Something new or innovative that reminds you why the game is so great. For example, Hotline Miami has it’s soundtrack (and gore), Crypt of the Necrodancer has its unique ‘move-to-the-beat’ gameplay, and Rogue Legacy has it’s ‘Legacy’ system upon death. Shovel Knight though uses our own nostalgia as its main weapon (along with a shovel), and creates a game that plays brilliantly in the present while basing itself completely on the past.
That’s not to say SK doesn’t have it’s specific merits. It does have a wonderful soundtrack too, it is very funny, and it’s challenging enough without being unforgiving. Every screen, from the menu to the world map looks like it was taken 20 years ago, yet actually playing the game is so slick and enjoyable that putting it alongside the old classic platformers is frankly unfair, which in essence is the best compliment I can give.
Shovel Knight is a 2-D side-scrolling platformer, with the actions available limited to move, jump, attack/dig, and special move. There is also a down-attack that is used a lot, for damaging enemies as well as breaking through blocks, reminiscent of the knight from Kid Chameleon.
The story is rather straight-forward. You play as the Shovel Knight, once part of a great Kingdom-defending team along with Shield Knight. However, on an expedition to the Tower of Fate, Shield Knight is trapped forever by a curse, causing Shovel Knight great pain that forces him into a life of solitude. Eventually though he picks up the shovel once again to fight for his partner and bring her back from the Tower of Fate, ruled by the evil Enchantress, along her Order of No Quarter that patrol the rest of the Kingdom to stop Shovel Knight.
Throughout the game you must visit certain castles or sanctuaries ruled by a Knight of the Order of No Quarter. Like the platformers of yesteryear, they each have their own design as you’d expect. So there is a lava level, an ice level, a flying level, a water level etc (the water one is of course the worst, not sure if this is pre-meditated or not by the developers), with each area ending in a boss battle. There are also collectibles in the form of music sheets, which when cashed in with the Bard at the village can be played back for your enjoyment. Gold comes in the form of jewels, obviously as you have a shovel therefore you would automatically dig up jewels, which can be used to buy special powers or upgrade your armour and shovel, but also acts as your ‘extra lives’. Upon death you will drop some gold, which can then be reclaimed if you reach the point at which you died ‘Dark Souls’ style. If you die before reaching the gold, which is always a fraction of your total, it is lost forever.
Dying is something that will happen a lot. The game is tough, but when all is said and done, it’s not unfair. There is the odd tiny platform to land on, or the odd enemy that rushes at you annoyingly but overall if you concentrate it is an enjoyable challenge. The bosses are hectic at times, with plenty of debris flying around the screen, but with a few special powers (limited by your mana pool) the odds are evened. One aspect that did ruffle my feathers was the down-attack, which is sometimes triggered accidentally forcing you through an unintended block (its activated simply by pressing down whilst airborne).
The world map is another feature heavily referencing the game’s ancestors, and there are plenty of secret rooms and breakable walls to take you off the beaten track, and discover bountiful treasure chests and extra powers.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Shovel Knight. I’m just about old enough to remember the Mega Drive days from which it’s derived from. However, this isn’t just a re-release of an old generic title; it is very much in its own category and if compared to those fantastic games of the past, it outshines them in every way. The levels are varied, the dialogue is witty and amusing, the gameplay is slick and rewarding and the story is enjoyable enough. The kingdom is in safe hands with ye, Shovel Knight.
Available on practically everything: PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS. Reviewed and screenshots on PC.