Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo WiiU, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
The developer provided a copy of the game for the purpose of review.
Shovel Knight, born into a world full of imitators to the throne of classic platforming via Yacht Club Games, initially came at a time of market saturation. We were at peak Metroid-vania, or so we thought — then came along the new Blue Bomber, the next great hero that we’d all been yearning for but just didn’t know how to ask for. It is precisely the sort of game it appears to be: a loving homage to the games of yore such as Mega Man while also standing on its own as bona fide classic in the genre. There is a reason I included it in the upper echelons of my Top 10 of 2014 last year after all! Full disclosure: I have already played this game prior to reviewing the Xbox One version. I own it for PC and Nintendo 3DS already. I think it says a whole lot that I’ve completed the game several times through on both platforms.
Do Not Tarry, Sir Knight! There Is Shoveling To Do!
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Every time I hear Ryu let out that guttural “SHOOOOORRRYUUUKKEEENN!!” in Street Fighter IV during a Dragon Punch it stirs a feeling in me. I can’t help but reminisce to the days of the arcade when pride was all you had and, hopefully, you could be good enough to prove your mettle. The flood of retro-styled games that we’ve seen from indie developers over the past few years seeks to feed off of that want to hearken back to “the good ol’ days”. Games that traffic in pixel-art, beeps and boops and rekindling the fires that propelled an entire generation forward from the Nintendo Entertainment System towards the current day. The folks who left Way Forward Games to form Yacht Club Games took to Kickstarter in the hopes of bringing their vision of a “lost classic” to the current day. They sought to introduce a game that stood beside those classics of the genre, not merely rip them off.
Shovel Knight, for the unaware, is the tale of two heroes: Shield Knight and Shovel Knight. They did as heroes do and rid the land of evil, amassing a stack of jewels and gold in the process. Shield Knight, lovely and strong as she is, disappears due to mysterious circumstance and Shovel Knight is left to dig up the truth behind her disappearance and the burgeoning tide of darkness that threatens to sweep over the kingdoms. The vile Enchantress and her knights of the Order of No Quarter seek to put an end to our cerulean hero. It is in this setup we find the real meat and potatoes of Yacht Club’s platformer.
The villains of the Order of No Quarter range from Propeller Knight to King Knight, and each has their own properly themed level. Design influences draw from the likes of Castlevania, Duck Tales, and of course, Mega Man. If ever there were a spiritual successor to Dr. Light’s robotic warrior it has to be the Trowelin’ Tornado himself, Shovel Knight. He may not have a charged spade waiting for enemies big and small, but he certainly packs a punch as his weapon of choice can be upgraded throughout the course of the game. The upgrade system is robust and despite needing to hit menus a bit too often at times to switch between items (as only one can be equipped at time) it works well.
The branching world map including visits back to town, locked areas and roving boss characters are all here as well. One of the nice little additions the developers made were shortcut options. A good example I ran into more than few times was found finishing a level, then finding my way was blocked back to town by a roving bad guy. I was able to hit up a “Shortcut?” icon, hop my way through a brief level and get flung (literally, by a catapult) back to town to freshen up, talk with the local bard, etc.
Go Ahead and Jump
Jumping is crucial in Shovel Knight. That’s a big shocker isn’t it? A 2-D platformer that requires jumping?!
One of the ways that Shovel Knight stands apart from the games of yesteryear it so lovingly sends up is how well it controls. Few games in the last years, other than perhaps Bayonetta 2, feel as good to play through as this one. That didn’t change whether I was playing with a gamepad on the PC, working the 3DS, or holding a Xbox One controller in my mitts. That shovel that defines our hero, striking blue armor and horned helm aside, will aid in all this jumping along with digging up treasure, swiping at enemies (upgrades are available for it) and generally causing problems for any and all ne’er-do-wells, the baddies and the jerks. The thrill of bouncing off multiple enemies in a row with shovel firmly planted beneath one’s greaves (feels a bit like Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales doesn’t it?) has a satisfaction to it that can’t rightly be explained.
Those who aren’t well-versed with platformers will have a rough go of Shovel Knight in the early hours. This is a game that isn’t easy by any means, but it is fair. Those games that writers like me love to wax poetic about from the halcyon days of Big N and Sega will always go back to that idea: “games were hard and we liked it! We loved it!” I used to jump on platforms so damned high that you might need six jetpacks to get up there now, bucko! I did it all with a pair of patent leather boots and my legs, Johnny! MY LEGS! The difficulty of those older games has been well documented, and those who are in the know will feel right at home with Shovel Knight. It is far more fair in dishing out punishment for bad play and, for the most part, has few frustrating moments. There’s a Medusa Head instance or two occasionally but nothing to write home to Mum about. Here’s a tip, though: for those on their first trip through the game, keep those Check Points intact. You’ll die a lot. Better to be able to pick up where you left off than to start the whole friggin’ level again. Those who fancy themselves the badass though can smash those checkpoints for cash and prizes, but are those upgrades worth the blood spilled?
The penalty for death isn’t so bad, really. The loot acquired along the way will be dropped, fat sacks of glittering gems and coins awaiting the return of the player where they last bit the dust. It won’t always be easy to reclaim, but that next item is worth the risk, right? Of course it is. This applies to the boss encounters throughout the game. They are very much in the same vein as infamous names like Cut Man and Shadow Man, but they aren’t quite as unforgiving. There are patterns to take into account, of course, but deaths never feel cheap. They are decidedly old school yet modern at the same time. It is a balancing act that applies to the entire design philosophy of the game. Take the old, marry it with the modern and produce a game that is the best of both worlds.
Looks Old But Has That New Car Smell
Yacht Club Games’ approach to the aesthetic is one that embraces the 8-bit constraints to a point. The richly colored pixels call back to the games that made so many of us believers in the form yet they are touched with more detail. Developer David D’Angelo goes in-depth on a post on Gamasutra way back in regards to this but the skinny is that this game runs far better than the NES could have hoped to. It is “nostalgia with rose-tinted glasses”. The games late in the life of the original NES were still “8-bit” but looked and ran far better than their predecessors. Shovel Knight takes that idea and runs with it: like sprite flickering, parallax background scrolling, a richer palette of colors than the original system could provide, and other subtle changes that essentially “broke the NES.” Purists might balk at the approach as it isn’t exactly true blue 8-bit but really, this game is what could have come from the platform if development never stopped. If the lessons learned from years of development and so forth were applied and modern tech was pushed into that 8-bit framework. The result is a gorgeous game that not only looks like some sort of digital paradise but it also sounds so much better than anything the original NES could produce.
Turn It Up
Jake Kaufman, a noted name in the field of game soundtracks, somehow managed to reach another level with Shovel Knight. The OST, composed using Famitracker, makes use of the original Famicom’s sound tech to introduce more channels into the sound. The result is a far more robust and advanced sound that fits right in with the audio of the time yet surpasses it (at least from a technical standpoint). That’s well and good but toss Manami Matsume (the original composer for the Capcom classic, Mega Man) into the mix as well, and this is a soundtrack whose pedigree speaks for itself. I listen to this soundtrack on a weekly basis myself, and its been in rotation since last year for me. It’s just so good.
But Why Do We Shovel Things?
Few games on the original NES come with “fantastic” stories attached to them. It was, after all, a simpler time. Outside of a small handful of titles there weren’t many reasons to care about the motivations of a character’s actions. Shovel Knight‘s narrative is a simple one but it hits every high note so well. Dialogue comes between boss battles or during time spent in town. Be sure to talk to the Frog that loves puns. Seriously worth going through all them. The emotive nature of our hero and his interactions with the turn of events imbues the gameplay with a bit of weight but never impedes it.
One of the best additions to the game ports to the Xbox One and PS4 has been the additional content exclusive to each platform. Particularly, the Xbox One version brings in a few familiar faces to the mix. The inclusion of the Rare creations, The Battletoads, is a welcome one and I must say that Yacht Club Games did Rash, Zitz, and Pimple proud. They even managed to stick in a reference to one of the most infamous levels of the entire series.
Shovel Knight does so many things right. It is both a loving homage to the games of yesteryear while being a classic in its own right. Platforming hasn’t felt this good in ages as the controls for this game are taut. The game mostly stays within the 8-bit framework of its predecessors with some subtle improvements that make it a wonder to behold. The soundtrack is fantastic thanks to the Kaufman and Matsume collaboration. Few games ever feel like an instant classic in this landscape of remakes, nostalgia cash-ins and big budget boredom, but Shovel Knight is one of those few exceptions. It feels like a dusty tome of a cartridge that one may have found in a garage sale, tucked away among the rest just waiting to be unearthed. Do yourself a favor and play this game. Right NOW.