In the mind of many gamers, the classic 8 bit and 16 bit consoles represented a golden age in gaming. As graphics enhanced, mechanics complicated, and game development costs exploded, the current market might offer technical wizardry so advanced that it would take a lifetime to count the polygons in your musclebound rocket launcher toting character’s moustache, but with a rose-tinted view, one longs for the pure and simple joy of the gaming in the late 80’s early 90’s. The New Super Mario Bros. franchise is loads of fun, but nowhere is it near the classic that Super Mario 3 was, and Megaman 9/10 were nostalgic and unforgiving in their level of challenge, but they seemed more of a retro fix than a true recreation of the magic once brought to us by primitive consoles, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was such an abomination that it fits right in with every other post-Dreamcast title featuring the Blue Blur. It seems today, that Old School Cool is a fashionable fad for old franchises to try and stir up some reminiscence in a fan base that skews older than 20. Never again will that magic be conjured up in an original title that can appeal to gamers new and old, for it has gone the way of the Dino… Wait…. Is that..? Could it be? It is. Our Shovel Knight in shining armor!
Ladies and Gentlemen, the time has come at last to re-experience what we thought was lost to the ages. Before digging into Shovel Knight (please, don’t let these puns bury you) I had seen articles here and there about its development, but to be honest 8 bit indie titles are a dime a dozen these days. Using the aesthetic is one thing, but tribute is not enough, the gameplay needs to engage like the frenzied platforming days of old. Then Shovel Knight was released and met with universal critical acclaim, but the skeptic and hipster wasn’t about to believe the hype, especially if I was late to the party after it was already cool.
After 30 minutes of playing the game, my expectations were not only satiated, they were floored. I have not had this much fun playing games in a long time, not in this way, since say… the 90’s. My first thoughts about the developers of this game were ripped straight from a Star Fox boss, “Who are you guys?!”
Yacht Club Games is an indie studio founded by a former director from Wayforward games, creators of already side scrolling classics like Shantae, and have been in the industry since 1990. Shovel Knight however, is the first game from Yacht Club Games and its shadow is going to be a long one for whatever they do next.
Shovel Knight’s story is simple in the right sort of way. In a land once full of treasure seeking medieval heroes, darkness falls. Shovel Knight has lost his best friend and lover, Shield Knight, in a black enchanted Tower. Powerful magic has sealed him off from returning, so he chooses a life of isolation. During his self-exile an evil Enchantress has taken over the land and her elite bad bosses known as the “Order of No Quarter” rule with ruthlessness. One day, it becomes known that the sealed Tower has been opened, and Shovel Knight sets out to enter the Tower to find his lost love.
Shovel Knight’s presentation provides an undeniable charming tone throughout. Every single Boss and side character has something to say. Once you and all your friends have played through the game, the memorable colorful cast is will provide you with plenty of material for fan favorites, inside jokes and inevitable T-Shirts. The soundtrack is also superb, with memorable chip tunes that we all hope Smooth McGroove will remix acapella style. Although things are light hearted and comical, there were moments of striking beauty, particularly in the intermittent dream sequences. This game drew me in in ways that “modern” games with their “Robust” story telling rarely do. Prepare to be shocked.
Graphically, the game remains true to the NES almost to a T, but some graphical flares pop up here and there that certainly would not have been possible on the old console. Only the most jaded purist would find issue with these effects, as they only add to the game. Flourishes notwithstanding, the color palette, the character and level design are 8 Bit like you wouldn’t believe. On the 3DS, the 3D effect is well done, however I kept it off for most of the heavy action, saving it for the story bits. However, as lovely as the retro graphics are, they are quickly forgotten once the gameplay gets under way.
Shovel Knight covers the pitfall of so many retro- tribute acts and carves out its own identity as a fresh and fun title. You may have already heard that that level design is Megaman inspired, the overworld Super Mario, the town Zelda II, and the pogo function Duck Tales, but taking the best parts of classic games to make a super hybrid often turns out more like a Frankenstein monster than a mythic and majestic Griffin creature. I cannot remember a case in which so many inspirations have coalesced so seamlessly. Action is satisfying, power ups are exciting, and platforming is breath taking. Do you remember leaning into your jumps back in the day, well despite all my years of expert gaming I found myself back in the old habit.
But taking the best pieces of proven mechanics isn’t the only thing Shovel Knight has to offer. Yacht Club Games introduced another concept that upends tradition and for me mitigates frustration and ups the fun factor. There are no lives and continues in Shovel Knight. Instead the game recalls the kid friendly Kirby’s Epic Yarn and places an emphasis on treasure collecting. Gold is used to buy new weapons, armor, and to upgrade your health/mana. This is imperative for success in this game. Every time you die, a portion of the treasure you have gathered throughout the level is lost. There is a chance to regain some of that treasure, as it will be in floating sacks at the place where you last died, but this can be risky and often isn’t worth an additional death. On challenging levels, only the most skilled or upgraded players will be able to keep their stacks intact. Additionally, the game offers a risk/reward mechanic, allowing the gamer to destroy check points for a hefty amount of treasure, but at the risk of having to start further back. It all adds up to tremendous fun, even though some might decry the lost threat of having to restart an entire level after lives run out. To them I answer: Try the hard mode after the initial run through.
Playing Shovel Knight did not feel like playing an old game, it felt like a time machine that took me back to my 9 year old self, glued in front of a screen, completely sucked into a bright world with adventure and challenge, screaming “One more time!” after every ill-timed jump. Let me say it one more time: I have not had this much fun playing a game since I don’t remember when. With a hard mode, street pass features on the 3DS, tons of collectables and some more features, such as switchable genders and a battle arena on the way, Shovel Knight is the epitome of consumer surplus at only $15. If you are a retro games fan and you want to relive gaming’s golden age, buy this game. If you are either too young to have grown up with 8 but gaming or just not a fan, still buy this game. I guarantee you’ll dig it.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 3DS version of the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games.
- Fantastic gameplay
- Gorgeous old school graphics
- Great amount of content