Digging up those retro feelings
By Corey Dirrig
Note to the Reader: This review is based off of the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game. Their will be an update after the full review after we play copies of the PlayStation 4, Vita, and Xbox One versions to look at the exclusive content on those platforms. On with the review….
Yacht Club Games’ retro-style platformer Shovel Knight has become one of the most talked-about titles to come out in a very long time. Coming off it’s highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Yacht Club Games, a new independent developer made up of some former WayForward employees, has more than fulfilled its promise to create a compelling new experience while harnessing the essence of what made the classic games that inspired it so great. With a charming art direction, near-perfect gameplay mechanics, and a roster of incredibly quirky yet awesome characters. Shovel Knight is the perfect combination of innovation in the genre while being the perfect love letter to Nintendo’s original console.
Shovel Knight is a retro-style platformer that pulls inspiration from classic games many of us grew up playing. While Mega Man is a clear source of inspiration, as each level is styled and themed around bosses with Knight names and can be completed in a semi-nonlinear fashion, there are also callbacks to games like Castlevania, Zelda II, and DuckTales, and even has an overworld similar to Super Mario Bros. 3. But Shovel Knight is much more than a throwback to gaming’s old days. Yacht Club has meshed the elements of those old games that we feel so much nostalgia for and the modern gameplay mechanics, creating almost the perfect gameplay experience.
Players take control of Shovel Knight, who is tasked with defeating the evil Order of No Quarter, a group of Knights who protect and serve the Enchantress. Shovel Knight must defeat them so he can save his lost love, Shield Knight. Though the story is weird and somewhat non-sense, the opening pixel art cut scene really hits a soft spot for me. The tale soon after is intentionally melodramatic tale, as Shovel Knight takes his new mission seriously, creating a hilarious tone throughout. Most of the story is told during the levels, with text and character portraits, but even with those there is such a sense of personality to each character. With a combination of funny dialog and breathtaking pixel art, Shovel Knight and his enemies are some of the most lovable new cast I’ve experienced in a long time. And even though that art reminds us about the 8-bit style, Yacht Club has cleverly designed the art to be exactly that: how we remember it, not what they actually were. The levels are painstakingly designed with intricate detail. A technique called parallax scrolling creates dynamic backgrounds and foregrounds, really adding to the immersion of the experience. The sprite animation is second to none, probably even making some guys at Nintendo jealous.
The excellent presentation would obviously mean nothing in a game like this if Shovel Knight’s gameplay didn’t deliver. And boy does it. Shovel Knight sets a new standard in terms of it’s gameplay. it is masterful, as it is simple enough to understand from the get go, but can become complex and challenging as that game goes on, giving platforming gurus a real challenge in the later stages. Using the shovel, players can not only take out approaching enemies, but can also dig up treasure, secret rooms and volley items back at enemies. But possibly the downward shovel bounce that is clearly inspired by Scrooge McDuck’s cane bounce from the NES DuckTales game. It is a versatile move, as it can be used to kill enemies, get across some pretty tricky platforming parts, and even required to do both in some instances. There’s a spot in King Knight’s stage with the Magic Books that requires players to use the shovel jump across enemies and platforms, a really tricky section but feels really rewarding to finish.
I want to point out that each boss battle is unique and cleverly thought out. The beginning bosses follow a pattern that is easy to track, with definitive points to attack, dodge, and repeat, really serving the purpose of teaching how the mechanics and design works. Though in later boss fights, I found myself stuck and searching for better strategies, as they are not as consistent in their patterns. While the boss battles are immensely challenging, they’re always fair and never cheap. It feels rewarding to take down a boss after several tries, and it always makes me want to just keep trucking along. Spector Knight and Plague Knight are some that really stand out for me, aesthetically and overall design.
Shovel Knight can use the treasure he collects to purchase upgrades to his health and magic as well as new items and armor. Treasure is such an important part of Shovel Knight that players will often be faced with difficult choices throughout the many levels as when you die, you lose some gold, but the gold you lose floats up in the air where you died, which taunts you. If you die before you reach it, that treasure is gone forever. If you are greedier than the average player, the checkpoint globes also contain treasure if you break them. But as always with this game, there’s a catch. If you break the checkpoint globe, that checkpoint no longer exists, sending you back to the one before when you die again. Break all the globes and you start from the beginning.
Shovel Knight is a game that feels like what I remember from my childhood, yet fresh and modern in it’s own right. Its design, characters, and aesthetic are timeless. Shovel Knight is a good reminder that good game design does age but can never die and that simple mechanics can still be just as satisfying as the next big budget title. This is an indie game every gamer will remember, right up there with the likes of Limbo, Bastion, and Journey. I have played the game through several times, and I still find myself wanting to play more of it. The Xbox One and PlayStation versions may be getting exclusive content down the road when those games come out down the road, but this game was made AS a Nintendo game. Yacht Club Games’ freshman outing is a must play by any gamer, delivering a near perfect experience and providing everything you’d ever want from a retro-inspired game.