Being reductive you could describe Shovel Knight as another retro style indie game platformer but it’s so much more than that. It’s a perfectly crafted love letter to 8 bit (NES) and 16 bit (SNES) eras but it’s also not afraid to borrow from some more recent games where it makes sense. Steel Thy Shovel
You take control of the titular Shovel Knight, a treasure hunting adventurer. While exploring the Tower of Fate with his partner Shield Knight they uncover an ancient amulet that traps her inside and locks Shovel Knight out. When he hears that an evil Sorceress has unlocked the tower he grabs his trusty shovel and sets out on a rescue mission.
I get that they were trying to stick to an overall retro game feel but they could have at least tried modernize the whole damsel in distress trope. Even Nintendo has tried this over the years for Princess Peach in the Paper Mario series and they’re the ones who made their money on this cliché back in the day. It’s disappointing that in a modern game there is virtually no strong female presence throughout most of the story.
Strike the Earth!
As you may have gathered a lot of the gameplay revolves around the shovel, this is your main form of attack. You can use it to bash enemies, smash blocks, dig up treasure and even bounce on like a pogo stick which can be used as an attack. The controls feel great, you never feel out of control of the character which is good because there are many tricky jumps ahead.
You navigate the overworld via a Super Mario Bros 3 style map complete with enemy encounters patrolling around. Each level is usually themed around whichever boss resides inside, there are 8 Knights to defeat at the end of their own themed level almost exactly like Mega Man’s robot masters. For instance Specter Knight’s level is a creepy graveyard/haunted house and Mole Knight’s is an underground labyrinth.
The boss battles are a great event to cap off the stages. Each Knight has their own unique attacks and they come after you relentlessly. It’s really exciting when you’re down to your last bit of health and you land that final well deserved hit.
There are Zelda II style towns you can visit to buy supplies, upgrades and maybe find a few sidequests if you talk to the right person. This is where you can shop for the game’s many items, they slowly unlock as you defeat more Knights and range from fireball spells you can shoot to a spell that makes you intangible so you can’t be harmed. It really lets you play the game however you want. Whether you focus on upgrading your health so you can take more hits or upgrade your magic power so you can use the items more often, it’s up to you.
A Lust for Gold
Each level is brilliantly crafted, fitting the theme of the corresponding Knight and also slowing increasing the difficulty as you go along. The game does a great job of teaching you how to be better without straight up telling you what to do. It also rewards exploration, there are secret passages hidden everywhere full of treasure.
Collecting treasure feels great in this game. Nintendo figured out early on with Mario that it’s just fun to collect coins and such in video games but all they did there was give you an extra life every now and again. In Shovel Knight treasure is everything. You use it to buy all your upgrades, extra weapons and to gain access to certain areas. Taking out a huge enemy or digging up a mound of earth and getting showered in riches is fun for everyone.
When you die in Shovel Knight you lose some of your gold and are sent back to the last checkpoint but you are given a chance to retrieve what you lost. In the area that you died there’ll be floating bags of cash and if you can make it back there without dieing again you’ll get all of it back. I really appreciated this system because when making retro style games developers always seem to be tempted to make it super difficult but this really takes the pressure off and made it way more enjoyable to me. You can make it a bit more risky for yourself (if this seems too easy) by smashing the checkpoints you come to during the levels. You can get gold out of them but then you won’t have anywhere to respawn if you fall down a pit.
This system is very clearly borrowed from the Dark Souls series, where your experience is left in the area you died. it’s good to see that they weren’t afraid to borrow from some modern games, where it makes sense.
A Bard’s Tale
One thing that can’t be faulted in this game is the music. Jake Kaufman creates a masterpiece of bleeps and bloops that is very authentic to the 8 bit era while also feeling modern due to the complex song arrangements. Just listen to this and tell me it doesn’t get you all pumped up and ready for adventure:
I’ve had songs from this game stuck in my head all week which to me means they did something right with this soundtrack. You can even collect the songs in game and give them to a bard in town who will play them back to you whenever you want. They are usually pretty well hidden in the levels so it made me want to check every suspicious looking wall, sometimes at my own peril.
They even get Manami Matsumae (a composer who worked on the original Mega Man soundtrack) to compose a couple of songs for Shovel Knight, Just to take this nostalgia trip full circle.
But Shovel Knight is much more than that, it in no way relies on nostalgia to get a free pass. It’s an excellent game that could be enjoyed by anyone whether you were around in the 8 bit era or your first video game was Call of Duty. This is video gaming in it’s purest form and I loved every second of it.