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Review: Shovel Knight – An indie love letter to retro platformers

This post has not been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

Shovel Knight is an indie 2D platformer from Yacht Club Games for the 3DS, WiiU, and PC. This marks the developers first release. The game uses 8-bit graphics, and the gameplay is a throwback to old-school NES platformers like Mega Man, Ducktales, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania. The soundtrack reflects that same sentiment with a robust lineup of chiptune beats. Difficulty steals the show however, proving itself to be every bit as punishingly hard as the games it homages. There are one-hit kill spikes, pitfalls, and enemies created for the sole purpose of making you set the controller down and count to 10. Anyone with a low tolerance for losing should turn back now. This is going to be a rough ride folks, but if you stick with it the feeling of accomplishment is worth it.

The story of Shovel Knight focuses on the titular character and his quest to find his friend and fellow knight, Shield Knight. Prior to the game, and while exploring the Tower of Fate, both are stunned by a cursed amulet. When Shovel Knight awakens, the Tower is sealed and his beloved Shield Knight is nowhere to be found. Shovel Knight hangs up his shovel and calls it quits on adventuring. After some time of self seclusion, an evil Enchantress takes power and spreads dark magic across the land while unsealing the Tower of Fate and taking residence. Soon after a skirmish with Black Knight, Shovel Knight learns of this treachery and jumps back on the proverbial shovel horse. Shovel Knight must trek through a series of stages guarded by the Order of No Quarter; a group of 8 knights that protect the Enchantress who now controls the Tower of Fate and presumably has Shield Knight held at. Along the way, he’ll encounter friends, foes, and dangerous monsters. It’s a very simple but well executed story and combined with the soundtrack, even has quite touching moments.

You've got a lot of work to do..

Above: You’ve got a lot of work to do..

The gameplay is also simple but stays difficult and varied enough to remain interesting. You will be put through some grueling tests. Armed with only your shovel, a few magical relics, and shovel/armor upgrades, you’ll face a range of enemies and unforgiving traps. There are checkpoints throughout each level to ease the pain of dying (and losing some hard-earned gold you can recollect), but there is a twist. You can destroy these checkpoints for extra loot, but you won’t be able to use them again, which forces you to make a perfect run to the next checkpoint without dying. Levels contain secret areas with treasures and musical pages to collect, but you’ll have to work for them and possibly die, losing all your hard-earned progress and getting sent back to the last unbroken checkpoint.

The gameplay combines elements from the aforementioned games and integrates them with finesse. You’ve got Mega Man style bosses with levels that fit that particular Knight’s theme, such as: a castle for King Knight, a submarine for Treasure Knight, an airship for Propeller Knight, ect. There are shared Castlevania/Mega Man elements with Relics; which serve as items or arm cannon upgrades respectively. Ducktales gives a special influence with the inclusion of “pogo-ing”, where you use your shovel to bounce off enemies, damaging them and possibly boosting you to a higher platform or ladder. The overworld is exactly like Mario 3, including enemies that appear on the map that you have to defeat in a quick skirmish. There are also Feats, which serve as achievements, ranging from beating story mode to specific tasks like beating a level without getting hit once.

Strike the earth!

Above: Strike the earth!

Shovel Knight was created by former WayForward developer Sean Valesco and funded by Kickstarter with the goal set at $75,000 and reached an impressive $311,000. After meeting many stretch goals, free DLC is on the way, including story mode for several of the ‘Order of No Quarter’ Knight bosses and a challenge mode to be released as free updates throughout the year. The soundtrack has been made available for free or pick-your-price on the game’s Bandcamp. It was produced by Jake Kaufman with a few special tracks from Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae. The graphics follow the old standard flawlessly and adheres to Nintendo’s exact NES color scheme. I personally can’t wait to see what Yacht Club Games has up their sleeve for their next project, I truly enjoyed this game from start to finish. This is Kickstarter done right.

My only complaints would be that a few relics are almost too powerful and that it could be a little longer, however all the other parts that make up the whole overshadow those complaints easily. I’m now starting on my New Game+ run which turns all health pickups into bombs and increases enemies number and health. You’ll be allowed to keep your hard-earned items and you’ll need them as you take more damage in this mode. I’ve already gotten a good 10 hours from my first playthrough and will probably get at least 10 more before I finish NG+. I’m still listening to the soundtrack and lately the Treasure Knight theme has been playing in my head on loop. The game was fairly priced at $15 USD but if you can’t afford it, wait until it goes on Steam or GOG sales because this isn’t one to miss if you love wonderfully frustrating retro platformers.

This review was done using the GOG 1.01 version of the game.


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