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'Shovel Knight' review (Wii U/3DS): Justice in spades

Shovel Knight

Rating:
Star5
Star
Star
Star
Star

(This review is based on Wii U and 3DS review codes provided by Yacht Club Games.)

'Shovel Knight' gameplay screenshots.
'Shovel Knight' gameplay screenshots.
Yacht Club Games
Meet retro platforming's newest hero: Shovel Knight!
Meet retro platforming's newest hero: Shovel Knight!
Press Pause Radio

It would be easy to say that Shovel Knight is what you would get if Mega Man, Castlevania, DuckTales, Zelda II, and Ninja Gaiden got together and had a really awesome baby. It would be easy to say that Shovel Knight is a great retro platformer that borrows elements from all those beloved NES classics and leave it at that. It would be easy – but it wouldn’t be fair. Because the reality is Shovel Knight is so much more than that: with their inaugural title, indie developer Yacht Club Games have shown they understand that, yes, they certainly know what a retro platformer looks and sounds like. But more importantly than that, they have demonstrated that they understand exactly what made Shovel Knight’s beloved forebears tick and what made them so great, and they’ve used that knowledge to craft a retro platformer that succeeds not just on nostalgia, but also its own merits.

Shovel Knight thrusts you into the role of the titular Shovel Knight, a noble warrior of short stature who wields a mean spade. We learn in the game's intro that some time before the events of the game, Shovel Knight spent his days journeying with his equally heroic companion Shield Knight, the two of them thwarting evil and hunting treasure at every turn. Their adventuring days eventually came to a tragic end at the Tower of Fate, however, where Shield Knight was lost to the powers of an evil amulet. With the tower sealed and his spirit broken from the loss, Shovel Knight entered a life of solitude. But with no heroes to protect it, the land was eventually overrun with evil led by a villain named the Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter, who have mysteriously emerged from the Tower of Fate. Knowing what he must do, Shovel Knight emerges out of retirement to confront the Order and the Enchantress, save the land, and find out the truth behind what happened at the Tower of Fate.

It’s an uncomplicated, barebones plot, but I found myself surprised by just how much heart Shovel Knight’s tale has. The story is told through little more than a few 8-bit cutscenes peppered throughout the game and short dialogue exchanges between various characters, but by the end, you’ll care about how it all ends and it’s all quite endearing. The main tale is punctuated by several charming secondary characters and NPCs who really help flesh out the land Shovel Knight is trying to save, and it’s a land I wished I could see more of and wasn’t ready to leave by the time the credits began to roll.

I have to highlight Shovel Knight’s incredibly well-written, painstakingly edited and proofread text here, as it’s one of the biggest reasons the game’s story and characters work as well as they do. Polished and typo-free text and dialog in games is the exception rather than the rule these days, and Shovel Knight proudly shines as one of those exceptions. It shows just how deeply the folks at Yacht Club Games cared about every last aspect of Shovel Knight’s presentation, and the result is a cast of characters who – even though they may be no more than humble collections of pixels - exhibit an incredible level of personality and heart.

As a video game hero, Shovel Knight can run, jump, swing his Shovel Blade, and perform a downward thrust with his Shovel Blade in mid-air to simultaneously damage and bounce off of enemies, not unlike Link’s downward thrust in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (a DuckTales comparison here wouldn’t be completely accurate because Shovel Knight doesn’t bounce continuously off of the ground like Scrooge McDuck does). All of these primary actions feel instantly familiar and just as they should, and the controls are as responsive as you’d expect from a genre that requires so much precision. The physics are somewhere between Mega Man and Castlevania; not quite as pixel-precise and granular as the former, but not nearly as weighty and momentum-heavy as the latter. Shovel Knight’s 12 primary stages and numerous optional levels are designed perfectly around these physics, and by the end of the game, you’ll be shovel-hopping across multiple enemies suspended over giant bottomless pits like a pro. Refreshingly, Shovel Knight is content to stand back and let you learn the ins and outs of its gameplay on your own; there are no tutorials to be found here, and the intro stage adopts the Mega Man X style of dropping you right into the game while gradually introducing gameplay elements and letting you figure them out on your own.

Besides the excellent platforming itself, fighting enemies feels particularly visceral and rewarding. Shovel Knight recoils just far enough away from an enemy after a successful strike that you feel a satisfying “weight” behind each hit, and the momentary flash of color an enemy gives off when hit punctuates that satisfaction even more. It actually feels incredibly similar to Zelda II’s combat in a very good way; Shovel Knight recoils back from successful strikes almost identically to the way Link did in the 1987 classic, except the Shovel Blade is far more fun a weapon to use than Link’s tiny, dinky sword in The Adventure of Link.

The Shovel Blade is not the only weapon Shovel Knight has at his disposal. Taking a page from the Castlevania playbook, there’s also a variety of sub-items to be found and/or bought (called “Relics” here) that expand Shovel Knight’s attack options. The Flare Wand, for example, allows for long-range fireball attacks when getting up close and personal is too risky. There’s also the Throwing Anchor, which flies in an arc exactly like the classic Axe from Castlevania! The Relics aren’t just weapons, either; the Fishing Rod humorously allows you to fish loot out of sparkling pits, while the Alchemy Coin causes enemies it vanquishes to leave behind more Gold. Experimenting with the various Relics and the different offensive and movement options they offer is a ton of fun and can pay off in ways you might not expect as well.

But even the greatest gameplay mechanics in the world can’t help a platformer if its level designs aren’t solid, and here again Shovel Knight not only delivers, but excels. In an obvious nod to Mega Man, the eight members of the Order of No Quarter each sport their own obvious level theme, and there are fresh gameplay elements present in each one that don’t reappear in other stages and keep things feeling fresh. Specter Knight’s graveyard stage, for example, has platforms that rise or fall depending on how much weight is placed on them, making for some tricky shenanigans as you have to keep track of not only yourself, but the enemies on the platform with you. Mole Knight’s underground ruins have a particularly fun gimmick wherein fatal lava pits are rendered temporarily harmless by dropping green globs of goo onto them, allowing safe passage… as long as you move quickly and smartly. Treasure Knight’s underwater lair takes cues from Bubble Man’s stage in Mega Man 2 and Dive Man's stage in Mega Man 4, lining the walls with instant-kill spikes and altering Shovel Knight’s physics while submerged. Polar Knight’s chilly domain has some especially tricky areas with devices that emit a rainbow-colored platform when struck, allowing safe traversal over pits… but the rainbow platforms disappear quickly, forcing you to move quickly and adapt on the go. For those keeping track, those examples cover just half of the main boss stages, and I haven’t even covered all the different ideas seen in those stages. Shovel Knight surprises and delights with its level design throughout the entirety of the adventure.

In a stroke of brilliance, the Shovel Blade is not just Shovel Knight’s weapon – it’s also a very handy digging tool (surprise!), and this is used to wonderful effect throughout the game. You’ll come across many piles of dirt in your travels, all of which can be dug up for extra Gold and recovery items – an activity that is quick, rewarding and surprisingly never gets dull. Every stage in the game is also absolutely littered with hidden alcoves and secret areas, many of which are found only by digging at the right wall. These hidden elements usually have small visual cues to alert eagle-eyed players to their existence, but they’re not exactly obvious either. Yet other hidden areas are stashed behind clever nods to the platformer genre’s past – heading left instead of right at the beginning of a stage á la Donkey Kong Country, for example, or running along a ceiling into what looks like the screen’s border but actually isn’t (hello Super Mario Bros.!).

It could be said that one of gaming’s oldest, most base joys is collecting pickups, and Shovel Knight seemingly knows that, because literally everything you do in the game rewards you with jewels and coins that add to your overall Gold count. Killing enemies, shoveling dirt piles, finding hidden areas - all of it rewards you with tons and tons of Gold. The little experience numbers from Zelda II even pop up above Shovel Knight every time you collect some Gold, telling you how much you just got. It’s a small touch, but it makes your efforts feel that much more rewarding. Of course, no currency is worth collecting without stuff to spend it on, and Shovel Knight’s village hubs offer tons of increasingly expensive upgrades and equipment to spend all that hard-earned loot on, making sure your Gold-collecting efforts remain worthwhile and rewarding.

Speaking of Gold, another very smart design choice present in Shovel Knight is the checkpoint system, which offers a huge and very compelling risk/reward scenario for more daring or seasoned players. It works like this: each stage has a fairly generous number of checkpoints from which you can restart if you die. Shovel Knight also has infinite lives and you can restart from these checkpoints as many times as you wish… but each checkpoint can also be destroyed for lots of Gold, allowing you to farm cash quickly. But here’s the rub: if you destroy each checkpoint you come across for the loot within, you’ll have to start all the way back at the beginning of the stage should you die. Making things even more complicated is the fact that you lose a set percentage of your loot every time you die (which means the more you have on you when you perish, the more you lose). This loot is left behind in floating bags right where you fell and can be recovered if you can make it back there, but if you die again before recovering it, it’s gone for good; you’re only able to recover the loot lost from your most recent death. The only flaw in this system is that the game lets you exit a stage at any time without recording your progress, meaning you can back out anytime if you end up losing too much Gold as long as you don’t mind starting the stage over. This is disappointing only because it rather handily undermines the otherwise brilliant risk/reward scenario at play here.

Perhaps running counter to genre expectations, Shovel Knight is not a particularly difficult game. The liberal checkpoints, very gradual difficulty climb, constant health pickups, and Shovel Knight’s infinite lives mean even the least skilled players will eventually make it through if they keep at it long enough. The game does finally grow some fangs and present some considerable platforming challenges toward the end of the game, but even then, it’s certainly nothing anyone who’s beaten a Mega Man or Castlevania game can’t handle. That said, the majority of the game’s many bosses are disappointingly easy and, because their attacks do little damage, can be brute-forced through with little regard for avoiding attacks or learning patterns, which is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d say the game falls somewhere between Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 5 (by far the easiest classic Mega Man games) in terms of difficulty, and this is actually refreshing considering the recent trend of retro-style platformers being unforgivingly difficult as a rule (1,001 Spikes and Cloudberry Kingdom, for example). I would have preferred somewhat tougher bosses, however.

Shovel Knight looks marvelous and boasts gorgeous pixel graphics and animation that – while too advanced to actually have been possible on the NES – really pop on an HD display and sell the NES illusion effectively. The game’s various colorful, detailed backgrounds all contain multiple layers of parallax scrolling that are put to especially impressive use on the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D display, and the game’s various character sprites all have a simple but deceptively detailed look that is especially reminiscent of Mega Man’s iconic sprite style. Shovel Knight’s graphics simply ooze charm, and the pixel animation seen in the bosses’ various attacks and poses stands out as especially impressive. The only area in which Shovel Knight’s visuals fail to impress is some of the enemy designs. While the Order of No Quarter and other bosses boast iconic and immediately recognizable designs, many of the regular enemies – skeletons, slimes, wizards, and the like – fall flat as they’re both uninspired and reused in various color variations throughout the game.

As pleasing to the eyes as Shovel Knight is, though, it’s even more pleasing to the ears. Simply put, this game has a ridiculously outstanding soundtrack that more than does justice to the timeless NES platformer soundtracks from which it pulls its inspiration. Composed by popular chiptune musician Jake “virt” Kaufman of WayForward fame (the Shantae series, DuckTales Remastered, Wonder Momo: Typhoon Booster, etc.) with two contributions from Mega Man 1 composer Manami Matsumae, Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is absolutely packed with epic and dramatic 8-bit anthems that will stay stuck in your head long after the quest has come to an end. Even the game’s occasional quieter, emotionally resonant moments are perfectly complemented by Kaufman’s 8-bit musical accompaniments. (If you're wondering why Shovel Knight's music sounds fuller and more layered than the NES soundtracks you're familiar with, it's because Kaufman smartly and liberally emulates the VRC6, an expansion chip found only in later Famicom games that added additional sound channels for composers to use.) Quite simply, this is a soundtrack that is more than worthy of being purchased and listened to of its own accord (so it’s a good thing Yacht Club Games is releasing the soundtrack along with the game!). The sound effects are also authentically and pleasingly 8-bit, only adding to the game’s already overflowing charm. I dare you to try and not smile the first time you hear Black Knight’s pre-battle cackle.

Coming in at around 8-10 hours for an initial playthrough with quite a bit to do beyond finishing the story, Shovel Knight offers plenty of value for its $15 price tag. Besides purchasing all of the equipment, finding all the Relics, and hunting down all of the 46 Song Scrolls hidden throughout the game (which add tunes to the in-game music player), there’s also a New Game + feature that lets you keep all your equipment and Relics from the previous playthrough while considerably jacking up the difficulty. There’s also a list of 45 "Feats" (achivements) to try and complete, from the fun and inventive which force you to play the game in creative ways (complete a stage without getting any Gold or eating any food), to the daunting which only the most hardcore of players will attempt (beat the game in under an hour and a half or without dying). All told, Shovel Knight offers a lot to do and a great deal of replayability, and there’s even more stuff coming throughout the rest of the year in the form of free DLC, such as playable boss characters, a gender swap mode, and more.

Shovel Knight is available on both the Wii U and 3DS, and each version offers its own distinctive features. The Wii U version includes Miiverse support, off-TV play, quick Relic selection via the Wii U GamePad’s screen, support for multiple controllers, and (naturally) HD resolution. The 3DS version sports stereoscopic 3D, the StreetPass Battle Arena, Play Coin support (allowing you to swap Play Coins for in-game Gold), and quick Relic selection via the touch screen. Both versions have their advantages and drawbacks, but after fully playing through both versions, I’d give the Wii U version the edge and recommend going with that version if you have the choice. While Relic selection is most convenient via the 3DS’s touch screen and the stereoscopic 3D is some of the best I’ve ever seen on the 3DS, the StreetPass mini-game isn’t particularly compelling (a comment I don't make lightly as a huge StreetPass fan) and Gold is more than abundant enough that being able to trade Play Coins for more of it doesn’t make a difference. The 3DS version also looks significantly worse if you play with the 3D slider off thanks to the system’s low-resolution screen, significantly detracting from the aesthetic experience. On the other hand, the game simply looks better and the pixel graphics absolutely pop in HD on the Wii U, and though the game controls perfectly well on the 3DS, Shovel Knight just plays like a dream with the Wii U Pro Controller and offers the ideal play experience if you have one (though the Wii U GamePad is a serviceable substitute). Miiverse support is nice to have too, and the overall experience simply feels more at home on a console than a handheld in my opinion. All that said, portability is a big plus for some people and different people care more about different features. In the end, while I may give the Wii U version a slight edge, what’s most important is this: Shovel Knight is fantastic no matter what platform you play it on. Just make sure to use headphones if you go with the 3DS version! (There is one minor glitch I came across that prospective Wii U players should be aware of: no matter what controller you’re using, if you let the Wii U GamePad run out of power while playing, the game tends to crash and require a hard reset of the Wii U. It’s not a big deal and it’s something most players will never encounter, but it’s worth noting and will hopefully be removed in a patch.)

It was clear right from the very beginning of the game’s Kickstarter campaign that Shovel Knight was shaping up to be something special, and I’m happy to report that the final game both meets and exceeds the weighty expectations placed upon it in the intervening months. Shovel Knight is indeed the astonishingly well-crafted retro platformer those who have been following its development hoped it would be, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also a wonderful game in its own right, not simply riding on the coattails of the beloved classics it’s inspired by but often improving and innovating upon them, digging out an identity all its own.

PROS:
- An incredibly well-designed retro platformer that borrows the best elements from beloved NES classics while introducing its own unique mechanics
- Sharp controls and rewarding risk/reward checkpoint and death mechanics
- Great level design with tons of hidden areas to find
- Fun, iconic character and boss designs with a simple but surprisingly engaging story
- Stunning soundtrack
- Excellent 8-bit style graphics that especially pop on the Wii U version, with multiple layers of parallax scrolling and excellent pixel animation
- Some of the best stereoscopic 3D on the system (3DS version)
- A sizable main quest with much to do, lots of replayability and a good deal of extra content

CONS:
- Regular enemy designs feel flat and uninspired
- Boss fights are far too easy and can usually be brute-forced through
- Risk/reward mechanic is undermined by the ability to quit stages with no penalty
- Visuals look significantly worse with the 3D slider off (3DS version)
- Game tends to crash and require a hard reset if the Wii U GamePad runs out of power while playing (Wii U version)

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