W hile the AAA gaming industry hurries towards bigger explosions, a few thousand more animations and months of work to add a woman into their yearly expansion, it’s easy for a gamer to become cynical. A fresh take on something can show up in this environment of course, but fundamental game design does unfortunately take a back seat to the presentation much of the time.
Being the squires of the land, indie titles tend to rely much more heavily on strong mechanics to sell themselves, as they can’t rely on such expansive budgets. Shovel Knight was one of those many Kickstarter success stories, as it raised nearly $312k, well above its funding request. The end result of that money? A tantalizing tribute to gaming past, and present.
As the curtain rises after you press start, the Mega Man vibes are immediate. In the vein of those 8-bit classics a basic slideshow opening plays. The serviceable story tells of Shovel Knight and Shield Knight, and the tragedy that separated the duo at the Tower of Fate. A grieving Shovel Knight retires and leaves the land open to oppression by an evil enchantress and her knights, the Order of no Quarter. The Tower of Fate open once again, Shovel Knight seizes the chance to find his beloved, regardless of anybody in the way.
At first, the tale is as old as the visuals it uses, but slowly, unobtrusively, it opens up through brief exchanges between Shovel Knight and the boss knights. Without spoiling too much, this manages to leverage Shield Knight as not just a damsel in distress, but a full partner and character of her own. Someone who the other is lesser without, which is pretty good for how little she appears. It’s rather intriguing to see such a minimalist approach to story go as far as it does here.
The 8-bit stylistic choice is smooth and detailed, sneaking in advanced technology like parallax scrolling. Environments are mostly easy to read and picking out what can be interacted with is rarely a problem. The limited colour palate is the most questionable part of the presentation, since they don’t seem to have any qualms with cheating in other areas in the name of making the game feel dynamic. Overall though, the art style was pleasing throughout and the eclectic chip tune soundtrack fits with it like a glove, with amazing musical pieces in spades.
Shovel Knight’s repertoire of moves doesn’t dig very deep. His shovel swing is close range and easily likened to Zelda 2, and mobility reminiscent of Mega Man. He’ll also take a leaf from DuckTales to Scrooge McDuck (that is a verb) off the heads of his foes and collect gems galore. This isn’t to say that he directly rips off the act of any of these other heroes, rather he takes all these lesser parts and leverages them into a very flowing gameplay style all his own.
While it would be disingenuous to call it momentum based like Sonic or Rayman, the level design and the abilities of Shovel Knight himself promote jumping headlong into battle, maybe with a touch of forethought, and making it work afterwards. Patterns have no power here, rather the antithesis of Mega Man in this way. Every foe from the boss knights all the way down to lowly enemies shirk the pattern mould so often seen in this genre, creating a far more reactive, satisfying type of game.
During the journey, you’ll come across relics that work much like Mega Man power ups and function like Castlevania sub weapons. They share a single upgradable pool of magic and you cannot lose them once you have them, but they can make many situations much easier to tackle, such as a locket that can make you untouchable momentarily, even to deadly spikes, or a pair of gauntlets that literally punch through dirt, whether or not your on the ground or over a bottomless pit. Later on, you’ll even get the opportunity to purchase new shovel abilities or armours that grant even further effects.
The other Zelda 2 connection comes from the map screen and towns you’ll visit. You’ll be sectioned off to a few stages at a time, sacrificing some of the freedom you might find in something like Megaman for a better progression curve. Wandering enemies dot the valley like the Hammer Brothers of Super Mario Bros. 3, helping inject some world building into the otherwise rudimentary goings on, and providing some excellent side attractions to test your skill or earn extra gold.
A handful of the wandering foes are actually given a personality and dialog, giving the world of Shovel Knight depth that other like titles rarely see. There is more going on in the world of Shovel Knight, and it’s shown to the player through engaging encounters that play to the strengths of the rest of the game.
You’ll head to town to purchase upgrades to health and magic, as well as Relics and armour upgrades and pursue the handful of side quests. A major one requires you collect music sheets for a bard and return them to him in exchange for gold and the game’s version of a sound test. This quest is one of the only tedious elements throughout, as each stage has at least one music sheet, and each time you grab one you need to make the trek back to the bard to reap the rewards, as opposed to just giving you the gold up front. It might seem to be a nitpick, but like the single skittle in a handful of M&Ms it comes off as something weirdly janky in an otherwise butter smooth package.
Falling in battle is an inevitability in Shovel Knight, and it’s here where one of the most interesting mechanics of the game comes into play. Taking a leaf from Dark Souls, death means losing a chunk of money at that spot. Should you make it to where you perished, you’ll get the chance to restore your lost loot. The twist comes in the checkpoints themselves, where breaking them can net you a lot of extra cash, but it will cease to be a checkpoint. Think of it as if Dark Souls allowed you to put out a bonfire in exchange for a large pocket of souls.
Should you fall in battle after breaking the checkpoint, you’ll be returned to the last valid one, or the beginning of the stage. This simple layer on an idea done before created an amazing risk/reward dilemma, giving me pause frequently as I bet my skills against what the stage might throw at me, and positioned death not only as a real setback, but something the player has agency over as well, all without falling back on an antiquated lives system.
To call Shovel Knight a sum of a bunch of parts does it a disservice. The game unashamedly reflects on many classic franchises to be sure, yet manages to produce a style and charm all its own, with modern twists and applications of old ideas in exciting ways. While the stylistic choice of 8-bit sometimes comes off as unnecessary and even slightly resented, once you dig into the world of Shovel Knight, it’s surprisingly deep and easy to get buried in (with allegedly more to come through free updates).
Even tunnelling right through to the end is a solid five hours, and then extras like new game plus open up. Summer game droughts aren’t such grave situations when games like Shovel Knight fill hollow gaming hours and dig deeper into what made games fun to begin with. Shovel Knight isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well worth its weight in gold.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Wii U.