A game inspired by the past, Shovel Knight is based off of the 8 and 16-bit platformers from the golden age of video gaming. While numerous games have endeavored to take advantage of our nostalgia for the era, none have combined the best characteristics of the genre as well as Shovel Knight. If you dreamed of merging your favorite ‘80s and ‘90s platformers together, then this is the game you’ve been waiting for.
The charm of Shovel Knight is how it achieves this combination without sacrificing originality. Often, these kinds of retro projects are praised as being the “best game never made.” However, Shovel Knight provides a very authentic experience and may truly be worthy of that title.
Platformer done right
Though influenced by many early NES games, one of the most apparent comparisons can be made to 1990’s DuckTales from Capcom. Much like Scrooge McDuck’s cane, Shovel Knight’s distinctive weapon of choice allows the protagonist to bounce atop enemies, hop over obstacles, or dig up buried treasure.
Bouncing is a key aspect of the game, allowing you to slay foes without placing yourself in danger, as well acting as a mechanism to cross gaps by moving from one head stomp to the next. This simple action is important all the way through the game. Learning how to combo-bounce allows you to overcome a variety of obstacles, including maneuvering through flying enemies or projectiles and over fatal spikes, which are present throughout Shovel Knight’s adventure.
Design mistakes fixed
While the game revives the good things from 8-bit games, it also leaves out the less charming aspects of the era. While the games Shovel Knight took inspiration from could become a bit witless, there is none of that here. There are no repetitive portions as you travel around, and how systems operate is easily apparent. The game feels less like a satirical take on retro and more like something that could have genuinely existed, and done outrageously well, on the NES.
Along with its nod to retro gaming, Shovel Knight also has a few modern designs that make it stand out. Dying forces you to drop most of the gold you’ve collected. However, you are given one chance to return to the place where you died to reclaim your riches. This is challenging and makes you constantly assess the risk versus reward of returning to regain your loot. While you may get your gold back, you may also die again before you’ve reached the point of your original demise.
The game also makes use of checkpoints to save progress. If you find that you are making progress a little too easily, you have the choice to destroy a checkpoint and gather a large stash of gold inside it. Should you die, you will start farther back. With levels that run about half an hour of play time, this can become a daunting prospect.
Make no mistake, you will die frequently in Shovel Knight. The early levels contain a few surprises while you’re learning the basics of the game. The later levels contain obstacles left and right. Hazards such as spikes and pits kill with one hit, and many of your adversaries are very good at shoving you into them.
The main weakness of the game is the financial system, which weakens the ingenuity of its death mechanism to some extent. There are many items for sale in Shovel Knight, including upgrades and equipment, but you’ll be able to purchase all of them before the end of the game, making your progress at the end a little less exciting.
Shovel Knight: our verdict
As a nod to old-school games, Shovel Knight is spot on, having both the look and feel of a NES classic game. The setting is remarkable and filled with unusual characters, like a goat-man magician or Troupple King, a humongous fish shaped like an apple who spits out a variety of useful potions. This creates a strange, but endearing world that rivals the original games it emulates.
We remember the games we played so long ago for the way they made us feel. Shovel Knight manages to capture that nostalgia brilliantly by including the aspects we loved from retro games in every area. Shovel Knight is more than an acknowledgement of a classic genre; it is destined to become a classic in and of itself.