There’s been a resurgence in games that trade in the nostalgia surrounding the 8-bit NES-era in the last few years. Where many of the games that seek to capitalise in the look and feel of those games, they rarely capture what really made them special. Shovel Knight isn’t one of those games. Shovel Knight doesn’t just look like a NES game, it plays like a NES game and that’s what makes it so amazing.
Mechanically, Shovel Knight is a mash-up of any number of amazing NES-era classics. It pulls from Mega Man with its core gameplay, its level design and style of boss battles. It’s world map is a near-exact duplicate of the one from Super Mario Bros. 3. There’s a bit of Duck Tales, some Legend of Zelda 2, and just a pinch of Castlevania. The thing is, for all the games it clearly borrows from, Shovel Knight never once leans on them to get by. Instead, it takes the best parts of these games and combines them into something wholly distinct.
Developer Yacht Club have clearly spent a lot of time looking at the inner workings of all of the games they’re drawing inspiration from and figuring out what it was about these components, specifically, that made them fun. They’ve then applied their own look, story and music to the proceedings, all of which are outstanding and perfectly evoke the mid-80’s vibe the game is shooting for.
The game begins with Shovel Knight’s partner Shield Knight being kidnapped by the evil Enchantress. The Enchantress then overthrows the kingdom and deploys her Order of No Quarter, eight boss Knights, each one tougher than the last. These guys wouldn’t be out of place in a Mega Man game with each having a specific move list and stage built around their theme. The intro stage takes its cues from Super Mario Bros., teaching the player how to play the game and manipulate its very simple controls. From the jump, if you’re well-versed in the language these games employed then you’re going to have no trouble getting your head around the basic mechanics.
There’s loot and currency to be earned too and it’s a crucial component in playing the game successfully. Every part of the world is full of items that are worth their weight in gold. This currency can be used to buy all sorts of upgrades from health and magic to armour and weaponry. There’s also a secondary weapon slot, for example a wand that shoots small fireballs and an axe that you have throw in a curve like Castlevania.
All of these goodies come into their own in various parts of the game. It keeps the challenge at a nice simmer, never too difficult but never so easy you’re just breezing through it either. While I did, at times, wish the game was a little stiffer in the challenge it presented, that’s not going to win the hearts and minds of anyone who wasn’t around during the Golden Age.
It is possible to make the game harder by simply wrecking any checkpoints you come across – this limits your ability to respawn nearby and carry on but it also grants you an absolutely bananas amount of loot. Playing this way will keep you in a steady stream of fresh lives and continues but it can put you really far behind if you aren’t careful. To make matters worse, you lose a lot of money if you end up dead and you can only get it back by returning to the spot where you died. If you are careful, you’ll be fine. If you rush, you will get the gaming equivalent of a rather sharp bop on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
Each new level hands you some new mechanic to deal with, the way classics of the genre would. You get a single shot at getting the new move right without being in any danger and no readily apparent tutorial. Got it? Alright, cool. Here’s 30 enemies in a row that can only be defeated that way. Hope you get good at it quick! Sometimes the levels felt a little light on enemies but there’s more platforming sections to make up for this so it actually balances out quite nicely.
In terms of baddies, the regular goon squad don’t offer much in the way of resistance or personality. They all sort of bleed together after a while and no amount of palette-swapping makes them seem any livelier. The bosses, on the other hand, are fantastic – challenging and entertaining to deal with.
This version of Shovel Knight knows exactly what it’s doing. There is a level of design smarts behind this title that you don’t often get to see anymore and it’s refreshing. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve but never borrows too heavily. If you’re a fan of old-school platformers or you just love a game with a retro aesthetic, you should definitely dig this.
Come on, you all knew that pun was coming when you clicked the link. Don’t you judge me.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Retro look and feel; Clever design; Amazing music
Lowlights: May not be a stiff enough challenge for some
Developer: Yacht Club
Publisher: Five Star Games
Released: October 17, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4
Reviewed on PlayStation 4