January 17, 2016

Review Redux: Shovel Knight

The year was 198X. A small but dedicated development team was creating the ultimate NES game that drew from the most popular titles of the time while introducing some innovative new mechanics. Mere weeks away from shipping, the team came into work and their game was gone. Not a trace of it was found. No concept art, no music tracks, no design documents, no computer files. Nothing. Fast forward to 2013. New development studio Yacht Club Games asks for $75,000 to create a game called Shovel Knight. But Yacht Club held a dark secret. They didn't use the money to create Shovel Knight; they used the money to build a time machine. And with that time machine, they traveled back in time to 198X and stole the development materials for Shovel Knight, modified it to run on modern platforms, and took all the credit.

That's what Shovel Knight feels like. Unlike many indie games today, Shovel Knight isn't "retro inspired". It's just retro. Shovel Knight was built from the ground up to feel like a game that would have existed on the NES. Measures were taken to replicate the color palate, sound channels, resolution (though in wide screen), and gameplay of those games. You will never ever find a shout out or reference to the games that inspired Shovel Knight. It feels so genuinely retro, like a game that could have existed at the time of the NES. Even the default control scheme is just four buttons: jump, attack, pause, and inventory. It's clear that Yacht Club painstakingly attempted to replicate the games of old, to great success. The result is a game that will appeal most to those who grew up with NES games and gamers who missed that boat by a few years and always wondered what it would be like to experience a new NES game for the first time. 

I'm in that second group. I missed out on the NES, but I've of course played those games once they were already retro. I've never gotten a new and genuine NES release experience. Back then, the games were tough and packed with secrets that you'd only find through dedicated exploration and discussion with your friends. Shovel Knight is indeed tough and full of secrets, but Yacht Club handles these experiences with a modern twist. Each stage has a number of checkpoints in it that can be destroyed for a monetary reward, but this disables that checkpoint forever unless you exit and reenter the stage. So if you're feeling like the Ultimate Video Gaming Master™, then you can destroy all the checkpoints in a stage and give yourself the Ultimate Punishment for Failure™: total stage restart. You also drop three magical flying money bags when you die that account for 25% of your total treasure. You can try to recover these bags upon respawing, but if you die again then those first bags are gone forever. The other feature is the Digger's Diary, which is unique to the Wii U (my platform of choice). Here, you can leave messages to other players about the stage you're currently playing. So basically like Demon's Souls. Except this time, when Yacht Club said the Souls series was an inspiration, they actually meant it. 

Although the game uses four buttons by default, you can customize the controls however you like and use a multitude of controllers with the PC and Wii U versions. Though the digger's diary and touch inventory is nice, I prefer the good 'ol Wii U Pro controller for an authentic experience. More importantly, the simplicity of the controls means Yacht Club had to get really creative with the level design since your only moves are jump, attack, hop, and magic. The shovel hop is used in just about every conceivable way without ever getting boring, and the magic relics give Shovel Knight useful abilities that make the game easier without ever being necessary to complete a level. Each stage is themed around the boss at the end of it (a la Mega Man) and feels wholly unique, with distinct challenges that are never repeated again. Unlike Mega Man, however, items are obtained mid-stage by finding a hidden chest, are usually based on the ability of a minor foe in that stage, and are never necessary for completion of the game. It's a nice system that gives you options, especially as you delve later into the game. Eventually, you can use them to aid in solving tricky platforming sequences or for taking out enemies in new ways, which adds an element of strategy.

Unfortunately, this does also add a few balancing issues. For example, the game gives you a series of three stages at a time you must complete before you can move on to the next three, but you can complete them in any order. After the introductory level, you have the option of going on to Specter Knight's stage which is incredibly difficult for something that could potentially be the second stage in the game. Some stages are easier than others, but each batch has at least one that's hard as balls. Specter Knight turns out to be one of the hardest bosses in the game because at that point you barely have any relics, health upgrades, or magic power. (Protip: buy the chalices and chaos orb as early as possible!)

That being said, it's a relatively minor complaint for a game that gets it 99% right. Shovel Knight simply oozes charm and has a ton of content packed in, with more on the way via free updates. There's three playable bosses coming for use in the campaign and a full four player battle mode featuring all of the game's bosses. It's nice to know that if you invest now, you won't have to pay extra for these features down the line.

Finally, I think it's worth mentioning how absolutely stellar this game's soundtrack is. Right from the start of the tutorial level, you know this game's music is going to rock your skull. Composer Jake "Virt" Kaufman has created a soundscape that beautifully blends the authentic flavors of the Famicom with the modern flare of today's chiptune music scene. There are even two tracks from original Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae that sound like they're genuinely torn from a classic-era game. Each stage has its own theme and each boss fight has a battle theme that's based on it. It gives the stages and bosses so much character, and Matsumae's pieces feel suitably Mega Man inspired. The soundtrack is pay-what-you-want, and I highly suggest you buy it.

*UPDATE* Shovel Knight continues to get better with additional content, much of it for free. The expansion, Plague of Shadows, is now available for free for all platforms and contains an all new campaign for Plague Knight. The Shovel Knight amiibo for the Wii U version adds an exclusive co-op mode as well as the ability to create a custom knight that can be leveled up with new abilities. Still coming soon are battle mode, gender swap, and two more campaigns for Specter Knight and King Knight. None of that was factored into this review which was originally written in 2014.


Shovel Knight is a pure video game, lost to the ages and then dug up from the sands of time. It represents a simpler age when basic game mechanics were pushed to their limit. It's a retro game with modern flair, oozing with charming characters, excellent music, and tight gameplay. Shovel Knight is, quite simply, a gamer's game. It doesn't hold your hand and it doesn't hold back. Don't let the pixel aesthetic fool you because this is not your typical retro-inspired indie game of today. It's so much more.


Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: You and me! (Kickstarter)

Platforms: PC, Wii U (reviewed), 3DS, PS4, Xbox One, Vita

Genre: 2D, sidescrolling, shoveling-platformer

Number of Players: 1-2 (Wii U only), eventually up to 4 on consoles

Price: $15 download, $25 retail

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