It is no secret that I am a fan of retro video games and because of that I was eagerly anticipating the release of Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. Were they able to capture the essence of playing an old school game from the SNES era? I can safely say that for better or worse, they succeeded.
Let’s start with the obvious. The presentation in the game is exactly what you would expect it to be, a retro throw back that creates a feeling of nostalgia even though it is the first time through. Graphically everything is spot on, colorful and as detailed as possible with a pixel based art style. There is even a world map akin to Mario 3 that takes the already retro graphics and scales them back even further. Similarly, the soundtrack is absolutely superb with tunes that keep you bobbing along for the duration of the adventure. While the sound effects in the game are great, be prepared to hear the sound effect associated with dying- a lot, but more on that later.
I cannot stress how much fun it is to platform through the levels using your namesake shovel to whack enemies in the face or to bounce off their heads. The shovel is also a tool for digging up treasure or breaking the lock off of treasure chests, the character truly is a Knight with a shovel. There are a ton of reasons to explore every inch of the levels to uncover things like hidden sheet music, gems to purchase upgrades back in town and the hidden relics, of which there is one per level, that grant magical abilities. While the actual use of the magic spells and armor or weapon upgrades is situational and scarcely required it does at a lot of incentive to go back and replay levels for completion.
Back to the part about dying, in this game it is not attributed to poor controls or a limited health pool, it is due to the abundance of instant death conventions that were the bane of old school games. You could be near the end of a level, not having been hit once but then touch a spike even slightly from the side and just like that you are dead. If an enemy hits you it will cause you to be stunned for a second as your character is knocked back ever so slightly. Regardless of where you are standing this knockback will almost always find its way into a set of spikes or a bottomless pit. This is an infuriating occurrence as of the hundred or so times I found my way into a bottomless pit only one or two of those times was it attributed to my own miss timing of a jump.
Level designs are well done and their settings diverse, taking the Knight through forests, air ships and frozen tundra’s. As unique as they are, they didn’t offer as much resistance as the boss battles against one of the Knights of no Quarter that awaited you at the end of each stage. These bosses were given their own graphical designs, color palettes and even different tones to sound out the scrolling of their dialogue. To put it another way each was infused with their own personality. Each boss had a unique attack pattern and strategy, which until learned, could result in one of the few non-pit related deaths found in the game.
Yacht Club has also done an admirable job of focusing on the little details of the game to keep it fairly light hearted. Townsfolks, whom normally have nothing useful to say, will provide you with a few tongue in cheek puns such as telling you they can “dig it” in reference to your preferred weapon of choice. Since the story in a game of this nature is not necessary and doesn’t provide much context, the extra attention put into the banter between Knight and his opponents goes a long way to add a bit of flare and allude to a history of the characters.
Shovel Knight is a fun game. There isn’t too much else that needs to be said about it in that regard. If you find yourself in need of a game that will remind you of your gaming past but with an all new experience you can’t find anything better. Yes, some of the cheap deaths will aggravate you but this is definitely a situation where the good outweighs the bad.