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I grew up on Mega Man. The little blue robot going up against themed enemy robots spoke to my childlike heart and captured my imagination. I couldn’t get enough even though those games were as hard as nails for a child like me at the time. It’s that love of Mega Man which Yacht Club Games managed to tap directly into when they announced Shovel Knight back in 2013, A blue knight armed only with a shovel going up against eight themed knights? It was like they were speaking directly to my inner child.
Shovel Knight is a game that wears it’s inspirations on it’s sleeve. It cleverly marries so many old school gameplay elements while still managing to successfully push forward with it’s own ideas on top. Players will notice the bosses and stages are reminiscent of the Mega Man games, the overworld map and roving bad guys give off a distinctive Super Mario Bros 3 vibe, with a dash of The Legend of Zelda II and a pinch of Duck Tales all rolled into a solid and fun package.
While many developers would stand pat with these inspirations, Yacht Club Games takes those ideas and forges their own path creating a unique and distinctive personality for Shovel Knight. It oozes with care and love from the great retro style visuals, to the catchy chip tune soundtrack by Jake Kaufman, and a story that was more interesting than I initially figured.
The game introduces us to Shovel Knight and Shield Knight, a fearsome duo on the hunt for treasure and gold. Things start to go bad when The Enchantress takes control over the kingdom and Shield Knight vanishes. On a quest to defeat the Enchantress and discover the fate of Shield Knight, it’s up to you to kick the helmets in of her “Order of No Quarter”, basically 8 themed boss knights. If you’ve played Mega Man, this will feel very familiar. What I enjoyed however were the scenes between boss stages where Shovel Knight enters a dream state in an effort to catch a falling Shield Knight while fending off waves of enemies. These moments are subtle but really helps drive home the point that he’s concerned about her well being. Sure, it’s no “The Last of Us” but for a game like this, the story fits and works really well.
While I was expecting a somewhat straight Mega Man style clone, I was shocked to find that the aforementioned Mario 3 like world map allows you to tackle things how you want to. The map is broken into four areas but the bosses in those areas can be dealt with in any order. Once the area is defeated, the next section opens and so forth. That sense of freedom is welcomed rather than selecting a boss from a menu. Various villages, mini-boss characters, and other non-boss stages dot the map giving you plenty to accomplish. Stages seem to have a greater focus on platforming skills with enemies mixed in, but thankfully I never had a “rage quit” moment due to the responsive and tight controls. Not only that, there are a ton of secrets jam packed into each stage including the ability to collect music sheets you can turn in to a village bard who will play them for you when you want.
Defeating boss characters gave me another surprise. Unlike Mega Man, Shovel Knight isn’t awarded a new ability. Relics are unlocked once stages are beaten but need to be purchased from an oddly dancing vendor named Chester. One thing to note here is that the “Phase Locket” which is acquired early on after defeating Specter Knight, is incredibly powerful almost to the point of game breaking. The relic makes you invincible for 5 seconds rendering normal “game over” type of things harmless. You can walk on spikes, dodge attacks, and basically negate any and all damage. This item is purely optional though so you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.
Shovel Knight also comes with a dash of role playing games mixed in as you can purchase new armors with different properties, increase the shovel blade’s abilities and increase his life meter and magic meter.
Typically, old school 2D action platformers are/were hard as nails. Shovel Knight does it’s best to give you as much difficulty as you want by introducing a really well thought out checkpoint system. Checkpoints are scattered around levels and appear to be a glass orb sitting on a gold pedestal. When you cross them, a gem appears inside. You can leave this as is, or if you’re looking for a challenge, you can destroy the orb and claim the gem for cash. Keep in mind that by doing this, the checkpoint is no longer active so dying means you’ll start further back. It’s a nice risk/reward touch and and option for people who want a bigger challenge. Not only that, Yacht Club has completely done away with the need for “lives” as death is met with a portion of your cash being left where you died. In a move from a game like Dark Souls, it’s up to you to recover it by getting back to that point and grabbing the lost funds. In the event that you die before getting back there, the money is lost.
Visually speaking, Shovel Knight features a wonderful 8 bit look but does manage to utilize the abilities of modern technology to “enhance” the game beyond what a typical NES could pull off. Specter Knight’s level for example features a section where the rooms are dark forcing you to use the flash of lightning to see the platforms ahead. It’s a neat visual trick and does wonders to help vary the gameplay and graphics. Even though it’s based around 8 bit games, Shovel Knight is extremely easy on the eyes and has a lot of fun visual tricks going on.
|+ Nails old school design with modern advances
+ Wonderful visual style
+ Addictive fun
+ Wonderfully ear pleasing soundtrack
|– Phase Amulet item makes game almost too easy|
I came in to the experience already knowing that Shovel Knight would be a game that appealed to me but I came out of it way more impressed than I expected. It’s not just the simple Mega Man clone I expected by any stretch. In fact, Shovel Knight pulls inspiration from some of the greatest NES classics and works that magic into a modern marvel. Don’t be surprised if you see Shovel Knight on my last of Game of the Year nominees for 2014. It’s a must play.
Shovel Knight digs up a 5, out of 5