Review: Shovel Knight

Originally published on on June 26, 2014.

+ Fun, diverse platforming and level design | A charming tale | Ace chiptune soundtrack

- Quick weapon-switching limited to touch screen | It ended

Playing Shovel Knight will result in you knowing more puns about digging than you’d ever wager.

Seriously, indie developer Yacht Club Games even has a town NPC dedicated to making as many puns about the titular game hero’s weapon of choice as possible. And yes, I chortled at almost every single one.

It’s been more than a year since that fateful reveal of the retro-styled action platformer on the eve of PAX East 2013. With Ex-Wayforward folks and composer Jake “virt” Kaufman working on it, it’s easy to understand the hype.

But like with every crowdfunded project, there ultimately comes the time when an indie developer has to start putting its money where its mouth is.

So dig deeper to find out if Shovel Knight really is the retro bombshell that everyone was hyping it up to be. Or is the game too grounded in the 8-bit days of yore?

My adventure to the top of the Tower of Fate lasted a little over seven hours, and New Game Plus mode aside, I wish it could’ve kept going for longer.

In Shovel Knight, you play the titular hero, a blue knight with a curious choice of a ShovelBlade as a main weapon. You’re tasked with finding and rescuing Shield Knight, a long-lost love who went missing in the Tower of Fate. Unfortunately for you, the way to the tower is peppered with a diverse cast of boss knights that are trying to stop you.

You can already feel the big influence Mega Man has on this game, but it goes far beyond that, as the design diverges in some interesting ways.

When it comes to indie games inspired by the classics, you can’t help but describe Shovel Knight by lumping a bunch of NES games all into one. Imagine if you poured a ton of Mega Man and Castlevania’s music and level design into a cauldron, a sprinkle of the pogo jump mechanic from DuckTales, and stirred in a sprig of Zelda II’s town structure and Super Mario Bros. 3’s world map. You’d pretty much get the basics down for Shovel Knight.

There’s a heightened focus on collecting loot in the form of various sized gems that are littered throughout the game’s levels. Attacking walls to reveal secret areas is a must, and yes, you can expect to find a full plate of chicken in a random wall. But there’s an interesting mechanic involving the loot and checkpoint usage that feels refreshingly inventive.

The game’s checkpoints, visualized by a torch of sorts that activates when touched, are breakable. In doing so, you can get some particularly pricey gems from it, but then you lose that checkpoint for the remainder of the level. This creates a neat risk/reward mechanic that proves useful for both casual players and those who prefer a challenge.

This is tied to the fact that the game has a death system more in line with Dark Souls, where dying causes you to lose a chunk of your loot, but can be reclaimed by returning to the area where you died. Using this system, rather than lives, makes it less frustrating than the NES days but still offers a challenge if you feel a bit greedy.

While the game is far less difficult than NES Castlevania, I still had my fair share of deaths: 82 in my first playthrough. I attribute a lot of these to falling victim to spikes, pitfalls and nearly everything that one of the final levels throws at you (a great many expletives were thrown then). Shovel Knight happens to bounce back when he’s hit, much like Simon or Trevor Belmont in Castlevania. A bunch of the deaths I experienced were due to getting knocked back into a pit, which was admittedly annoying. This can eventually be rectified by upgrading to a particular set of armor that nullifies knockback.

Shovel Knight brims with an ingenious level design that encourages players to experiment with their acquired items and abilities in order to learn the level’s mechanics. One example involves Mole Knight’s level, where you eventually encounter a gelatinous floor that causes you to immediately bounce when landing on it. Following this, you are later introduced to similarly-colored slimes that you can smack into specific locations and use as a means to bounce up to specific points.

Egoraptor of Sequelitis would be weeping with joy right about now.

As I mentioned before, there are several items (called “relics”) that one can find in the levels that allow Shovel Knight to perform different moves and spells, including a flare rod, fishing rod and a dust knuckle that can carry Shovel Knight across dirt clusters and punch foes alike. One can quickly equip an item from inventory using the Wii U GamePad and/or 3DS’ touch screen as opposed to opening up the menu. Nevertheless, I found the lack of a quick-switch using the shoulder buttons to be a little disappointing, as I played most of the game using the more comfortable Pro Controller.

The game’s NPCs are as diverse as they are colorful, offering a ton of tongue-in-cheek humor and puns that left me smiling. Take for instance the town bard (who I imagine is composer Jake Kaufman in disguise), who works as both an in-game music player and as comic relief, always having a fun story to tell for each musical scroll you collect.

The game’s music deserves its own article, as I think it’s one of Kaufman’s best soundtracks to date. His dedication is readily apparent in its construction, having used the same VRC6 audio processor that was utilized in the Famicom version of Konami’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The game’s melodies, two of which were done by none other than Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, invoke the best of that era. Whether it’s the dance-like drive of Mole Knight’s theme or the desolation felt in Polar Knight’s theme, the music always kept me engrossed in the action.

Also worth mentioning are the game’s dream interludes. Following a boss fight, Shovel Knight experiences a dream in which he has to catch a falling Shield Knight while fending off enemies on the ground. I found myself feeling particularly touched during these moments, as simple as they were.

Shovel Knight has the interesting distinction of being heavily inspired by the classics of the late 80s and early 90s while still introducing its own neat gameplay concepts and a unique, charming world. Some worry about the over-saturation of retro-styled indie titles these days, and I’m inclined to agree with that line of thinking.

With that being said, however, Yacht Club Games has certainly set the bar pretty high with Shovel Knight.

(Editor’s note: A developer’s Wii U code of the game was provided for this review. Review copies are provided as a courtesy, and do not influence the opinions of Pixelitis.)