I wasn’t really sure if I would enjoy this game. I’ve seen a few “8-bit” titles recently, and some of them turned out to be pretty good, I suppose? However, here was yet another one, and I wanted to know what would differentiate this game from others. I watched the trailer and thought it had some potential: A knight that uses a shovel as a weapon and digs for treasure was certainly quirky enough. The overall vibe I got from the trailer was that this was a game that very competently recalled a much-loved era of gaming. The era of the NES. There was so much nostalgia for me because I remember those days fondly as I stroke my chin and rock back and forth in my cane rocking chair. Thus, I decided I would give this game a go and see how it went. I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s start from the beginning, though.
Shovel Knight tells the story of a knight who uses a shovel as his weapon. His adventuring partner, Shield Knight, is abducted at the beginning of the game, so he sets out on a quest to retrieve his partner and restore order to the land – which has subsequently been taken over by some evil antagonist. Although the plot is fairly simple – the classic hero sets out to rescue a person that needs rescuing – Yacht Club Games have done a fantastic job in fleshing out the world of Shovel Knight and adding depth with the stories of individual characters you meet along the way. The story is further exposed as you meet each of the boss knights that you must defeat, and the world you are journeying through takes on more depth as you go. The story itself is light-hearted and sprinkled with good humour.
Those of you who are as old as me, or simply avid students of this art, will recognise Shovel Knight as “an old-school platformer.” The game is made up principally of side-scrolling platform levels where all the action takes place, and there is a lot of it. As you vanquish foes, you will collect treasure which can be used to buy upgrades for your health, magic, armour, and weapon – which is a shovel. You can also use your shovel to dig up things which will net you more treasure. In between levels, you move around a map in a similar fashion to Super Mario World; in as much that you have to complete various parts of the map in order to unlock other areas. There are also friendly places you can visit to obtain the aforementioned upgrades. Occasionally, you’ll encounter other travellers on the paths between points of interest that launch you into a surprise boss battle or a bonus level to collect more cash. It all fits together very well!
Shovel Knight incorporates a lot of gameplay features that many of you would be familiar with. They’ve packed it all in. There’s platforming, collecting things (treasure), and attacking enemies with a shovel. There are lots of environmental distractions to keep you busy while enemies attack you, as well as many secrets scattered throughout which encourage exploration because they net you more treasure and other hidden unlocks. The action is fast and furious. The platforming is tricky, and you have to be very quick at times. It’s a game that requires lots of dexterity, but thankfully there’s no time limit on levels as per Super Mario Bros. Enemies regenerate if you go back to a screen, and this can be utilised to your advantage; allowing you to re-try getting to hard to reach places by respawning enemies.
Make no mistake, however. This game is really hard! Duck Tales hard. There are checkpoints, but no saving between checkpoints. There are no places to hide behind walls to regenerate health, although you can find health in food platters to help you along the way. The only gripe I have with the levels is that they are of significant length and you cannot quit mid-level. Your game is only saved when you complete a level. If you quit, it’s back to the beginning for you. Depending on your time schedule, this can make the game hard to access. A nice touch is that you can smash checkpoint bulbs to get more glorious treasure – and they make it worth your while – but then you can’t use that checkpoint if you die. This will test your self-control because it’s easy loot, but will you kick yourself later?
Another nice touch is that when you die you drop treasure bags which you can go back and recover. There are no lives in this game. Dying costs you money. This can turn into a bit of a losing proposition when you keep going back to capture that loot you dropped and lose more in the process, repeating the cycle over and over. At what point you choose to just let it go is a test of your character and resilience. This feature also works well with the boss fights. Basically, you will get unlimited retries because every time you try again, you’ll easily collect all your lost treasure, and you’re going to need a few of those retries. Luckily there’s a checkpoint just before each boss fight, so I recommend that you do not smash those ones. All of the boss fights are frenetic and fast paced, and while the attacks from the bosses do come in patterns, they are randomised and fast. It will increase your heartbeat, I guarantee, but the thing is you’ll absolutely feel joy and accomplishment when you finally defeat the boss. That’s the thing about this game. It’s just so rewarding when you finally complete a level and defeat a difficult boss; again, it’s that old-school feeling.
While many games have recently sprung up emulating that old school vibe, Shovel Knight absolutely nails 8-bit in every way. The colour palette is deliberately limited, so there are no smooth gradients here; although, the developers did use some subtle tricks to make the game a little slicker than was possible on the NES. The music is 8-bit all the way, and the sounds are, too – perfectly recalling the NES era. The character animations have not escaped the same scrutiny; everything about the game screams 8-bit and appears to be extremely polished. Yacht Club Games have obviously gone to great lengths to make sure this game hits all the marks. I did not find any bugs or issues with the game either, which is a welcome change from some of the buggy fares we’ve been forced to swallow of late.
I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this game, but to the contrary, I was blown away by how good it actually is. While the game is fairly hard, it isn’t frustratingly so and completing levels and boss fights brings a great sense of achievement with it. The game is thoroughly fun and addictive, and you won’t want to put it down until you’ve beaten a boss – maybe you’ll play just one more level while you’re at it. The presentation is fantastic and the gameplay is balanced and enjoyable. If you want to recall the old days or just play a game that’s a lot of fun and a little different, get shovelling!
Please Note: This review was based on the PC version of the game, and provided to us by the developer for the purpose of review.