If you were to tell me that in 2014 there would be an NES game that meets the quality standards set by classics such as Mega Man 2, DuckTales, and Super Mario Bros. 3, I would look at you in disbelief and then probably get excited to the point of numbness. There is a level of fidelity in the controls and the design of those games that is matched by very few. Many independent games recently have attempted to capture the feeling that those games give, but few get as close as Shovel Knight from Yacht Club Games.
Shovel Knight tells the story of two legendary adventurers – the titular Shovel Knight and his partner Shield Knight – as they venture into the Tower of Fate. There, a magic curse is released, knocking the Shovel Knight unconscious. When the Shovel Knight awakes, he finds that the tower has been sealed shut and the Shield Knight has disappeared. Grieving, the Shield Knight retires from adventuring and picks up a life of solitude. That is until a bunch of baddies by the name of The Order of No Quarter realize that the world is free for the taking now that the two heroes are out of commission. As the world is overrun by The Order, the Tower of Fate is unsealed, and Shovel Knight once again picks up his trusty shovel and sets off to rid the world of evil and find out the truth to what happened to Shield Knight. While the story is just there to give you an excuse to set off on your adventure, it is pretty well written and has a great sense of humor. The characters you meet all have a certain charm to them, and the story concludes in a more unexpectedly heartwarming way. Story doesn’t really matter for this sort of game, though.
Shovel Knight has many inspirations and it wears all of them on its sleeve. Each level literally starts with an onscreen “Ready” message exactly like Mega Man. In fact, the blue bomber is easily the biggest source of inspiration in Shovel Knight. The controls are similarly tight and responsive with a jump that feels fantastic. Shovel Knight cannot duck. Screens will range from long stretches of difficult jumps and enemies to small rooms with tricky challenges. You will do your fair share of jumping and catching onto a ladder. The transition animation from screen to screen is lifted directly out of Mega Man. Bosses are of a similar style, confining you to a small room to fight a boss nearly the size of you. Yacht Club Games clearly like Mega Man and they aren’t afraid to show it.
While Mega Man inspiration might be the basis of the foundation of Shovel Knight, there are plenty of other nods – big and small – to other games of the NES era. The overworld map is almost directly lifted out of Super Mario Bros. III, complete with enemies that move across the map that you have to fight if you come in contact with them. It also takes the core gameplay mechanic out of DuckTales – you can use down to use your shovel to bounce off enemies (although not the ground like DuckTales). And while the game seems to be just a simple level-to-level platformer, there are also a surprising number of RPG and adventure elements. There are towns you can visit to upgrade your health and equipment with gold you’ve collected, talk to villagers, and engage in minigames. This is very similar to Zelda II, although the writing is obviously a whole lot better.
Unfortunately, for me, Shovel Knight relies far too heavily on its influences. The game feels like a mish-mash of a bunch of ideas done by games on the NES, but not a lot new is done that has not or could not have been done on that system. Every new mechanic that was introduced – with few exceptions – reminded me of one of those games. As a new release that you pay actual money for in 2014, I was kind of hoping for a little bit more invention.
With that being said, they use all of their inspirations in such fun ways that it’s easy to overlook that. As I mentioned, the controls are just about as perfect as they can be. It feels absolutely fantastic to run, jump, and shovel your way through these levels. The levels, too, are so expertly designed to give you a pretty decent challenge while remaining completely fair. I can honestly tell you that every single time I died, it was due to my own fault, and that is a testament to great game design. If you want an even greater challenge, you can opt to destroy the checkpoint markers for more gold, search every nook and cranny for the cleverly placed secrets, take on the different “feats” in the game (like completing a level without taking damage), or, after you’re done with the initial five hour adventure, jump into new game plus for a greater challenge with all of your accumulated equipment. The one minor gripe I had here is that the items you acquire throughout the game are just about useless. The most powerful weapon you have is your basic shovel, and no other weapon or item (save for the few times you are required to use them for optional levels) ever stacked up to it. This is minor, though, as the levels around you alter the way you use your basic abilities of jumping and shoveling that I never really needed anything more.
While the gameplay is the most important aspect of these types of games, it wouldn’t feel like a proper NES classic without the look and sound of those games. Fortunately, Shovel Knight absolutely nails it. The second you load up the game and are greeted to an action packed 8-bit tune, you are instantly transported back to childhood. The menu itself might as well be able to accept the Konami code with how accurate it looks. When you are asked to input your name, you get the layout of keys in alphabetical order instead in the layout of a keyboard. This sucks, but it sucks in the ways that typing in NES games sucked. When you jump into a level, you’re greeted to some extremely catchy songs (all of which can be collected throughout the game and played in the village). I found myself humming the vast majority of these tunes by the end of each level, and that is a sign that they got it right. In fact, if you were to tell me that this game featured a soundtrack from a canceled Mega Man game, I just might believe it, and that’s not a bad thing. In terms of the visuals, while they aren’t exactly something that could be pulled off on a NES – it’s widescreen, there’s no sprite flicker, it’s far too colorful – it looks about how my mind remembers games on that system looking. Sprites are big and distinct and enemies can be easily told apart from each other. Backgrounds are limited, but detailed enough to give you a sense of scope. It’s rather interesting how this graphical style can still be viewed as looking nice, but Shovel Knight’s visuals prove that it can. If I had to name a gripe, I wish the game didn’t fall for the platformer level tropes of fire level, ice level, forest level, etc. There really aren’t that many interesting environments.
Shovel Knight doesn’t do a whole lot that its inspirations didn’t do, but it’s so well-made that I didn’t really care that much. Shovel Knight fits right up there in the pantheon of NES platform heroes like Mario, Mega Man, and Scrooge McDuck, and that’s about the biggest compliment I can give it.
A PC Copy of Shovel Knight was provided by Yacht Club Games for this review.