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Platform: PC

Shovel Knight Review

A difficult, fun, and fitting tribute to a simpler time

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Nostalgia is, as Mad Men's Don Draper succinctly describes, “delicate, but potent.” In the world of independent game development, it’s a tool that we often see drawn upon – low budget leads to stylization, and a style that’s sure to inspire an audience is calling back to cherished and revolutionary titles that lit up faces and wore down controllers in the past. As the medium of “video games” already uniquely builds upon past innovations, celebrating the style of classics alongside gameplay is a natural extension of design. Regrettably, this “delicate” tool has often been abused, and as the barriers preventing the layman from game development continue to dissipate, there has been a saturation of “retro” games inspired by the NES, Genesis, and even more obscure consoles such as the ZX Spectrum. The overuse of chip tunes, 8 bit graphics, and simplistic game mechanics has led to a burden of originality on these retro titles, necessitating their differentiation from the crowd through smart updates to the formula they draw upon. Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight is the perfect illustration of this paradox of nostalgia: the game's extreme dedication to its inspirations makes a difficult, rewarding, and fun game to play, but curses it with a sensation of sameness that it can’t quite shake.

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight has a slavish commitment to recreating the style of titles from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The color palette, 8 bit graphics, and chip tunes all reminisce about a world where games were less brown, more difficult, and fully cooked chickens often resided in an alarming amount of castle walls. Even the game’s “cutscenes” – infrequent interludes with static graphics, text, and very slow wipes – feel like something from the era which Shovel Knight obviously holds in such high regard. While it’s questionable at best whether the game could actually have run on period hardware, it certainly knows how to evoke the idea that in some alternate universe, Shovel Knight could have been hailed as a classic NES title.

The story itself remains a throwback to the simplistic plots of the time, and is largely inconsequential to the experience. As the titular shovel-bearing warrior, you find yourself chasing after your adventuring buddy and romantic interest, who has been cursed by a mysterious amulet and imprisoned by the game’s Big Bad, The Enchantress. On the journey, you must contend with the “Order of No Quarter,” with each member conveniently having an affinity for a certain natural element that makes for varied dungeon designs. The game’s brief set up is, of course, an excuse to start your journey through the various dungeons that each belong to an Order of No Quarter Knight. After completing the brief tutorial area, you’ll find yourself dumped out to the game’s world map. Progress is periodically gated by completion of the dungeons, and you’ll also find access to a couple of towns and some tricky bonus loot areas.

Shovel Knight

The gameplay itself can almost be read off as a laundry list of tributes to the games it reveres: a pogo-stick-esque jump attack straight out of DuckTales, dungeon setup taken from Mega Man, and the return of the aforementioned wall chickens from Castlevania. Thankfully, the game feels less like a series of rip-offs and more like a reverent recreation of period mechanics with sparse, smart updates. In addition to the basic hack, slash, and pogo jumping that makes up your basic arsenal, you’ll purchase various Castlevania-esque items that use up your magic points in return for some varied powers such as a fireball attack, brief invulnerability, or a ball of acid that bounces around the screen. There are some other options for you to spend your hard-earned coin on, too, like health and magic upgrades, fancy new armor, and a couple of new attacks.

Your coin will be hard-earned, indeed, because the game’s difficulty is no joke. Each dungeon has a uniquely themed environment, enemies, and traps for you to test your build against. The enemies hit hard, the traps can be devious, and while the difficulty only occasionally becomes frustrating in its determination to break you down, you’ll die enough times to make From Software’s Souls games start blushing in excitement. Indeed, the game draws some inspiration from From Software’s efforts in its death system, which has you drop a portion of your gold each time you die. The gold can be recovered if you can pick it up – but of course, should you die again, that gold will be lost again along with some new coins. That risk/reward has been universally recognized as one of the strongest elements of the Souls series, and makes a smart (and soul-crushing) addition to Shovel Knight. Thankfully, the “corpse run” back to your riches is never too long thanks to the periodic checkpoints throughout the course of each dungeon– unless, of course, you’re a masochistic difficulty junkie and permanently destroy the checkpoint in return for some extra cash.

Shovel Knight

You’ll have some opportunities to earn cash outside of the game’s main dungeons due to the bonus loot areas and random encounters that dot the map. Each bonus loot area requires a certain item which must be bought from a dungeon, however, so you’ll have to spend some money to make some money. The random encounters boast no such restriction, but will block off your path to dungeons and towns and therefore require completion. The nature of these encounters varies, but they consist mostly of random miniboss battles or a short, challenging run with an above-average amount of loot. These different areas, combined with a New Game Plus mode which opens up upon completion, makes for a lot to sink your teeth into, should you desire.

Unfortunately, I had no desire to jump in for a second playthrough by the end of the game; as a matter of fact, I had somewhat run out of patience with the title before the credits had rolled. While I found the core gameplay loop to be satisfying, it had worn thin in advance of the seven or so hours it took me to play through the game. The lack of any serious depth or variation in play styles, combined with occasional frustration at some of the game’s more trying sections, led to a general fatigue and disinterest in continuing. Even if it was a new dungeon, I felt as though I had seen it before.

So once again, we are met with the paradox of Shovel Knight, a game whose deliberate homage to an era both elevates it and does it a disservice. It’s a game with a wonderful sense of humor, a distinct style, and satisfying gameplay. It’s a game that mostly transcends the pitfalls of sameness that “retro” indie titles often fall into, by making smart updates to the well-worn formula it draws upon. Above all, it’s a game that has a lot of charm and widespread appeal: simple-to-learn, difficult-to-master nature makes it easy to recommend to just about anyone. But in the end, it just doesn’t feel like it does enough to earn the title of “classic” that has been bestowed upon the games which it so obviously worships. A difficult, fun, and fitting tribute to a simpler time, Shovel Knight can’t quite dig its way to becoming an all-time great.

Our ratings for Shovel Knight on PC out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
Shovel Knight recreates NES-era presentation with rare accuracy and care. Nonetheless, it does little to differentiate its presentation from myriad other “retro” style games that are ubiquitous in the PC market.
The Castlevania and Mega Man inspired gameplay is precise and inspired, but the game can occasionally become frustrating in its high levels of difficulty.
Single Player
The game goes on a bit too long for its own good, leading to the title feeling stale about 60-70% of the way through the main quest.
The game ran smoothly at 60 frames per second and I encountered no technical issues in my playthrough.
A difficult, fun, and fitting tribute to a simpler time, Shovel Knight can’t quite dig its way to becoming an all-time great.
Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight box art Platform:
Our Review of Shovel Knight
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Shovel Knight is ranked #868 out of 1971 total reviewed games. It is ranked #61 out of 152 games reviewed in 2014.
868. Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight
11 images added Feb 11, 2015 17:31
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