There have been so many tributes to the gaming of yesteryear through indie releases over the years that it has started to get tiring for some. They would usually be some sort of reinvention or reinterpretation of an old genre like a platformer, adventure game, shmup, puzzle game, or so on; which is then topped off with some sort of 8-bit or 16-bit sprite graphics that is either faithful or merely a modified version, as if they’re placeholders for the real thing. Many of them turn out to be modern classics, but a lot of them also turn out to be either mediocre or straight-up duds.
Shovel Knight is an action platformer by Yacht Club Games for various platforms, and it has attracted quite a bit of attention even before its release due to its Kickstarter campaign. It’s a pretty good attempt at recreating many of the elements that are common in sidescrolling platformers and fantasy games from the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, so it’s one of those games that cynics and detractors would put up as the prime example of “retro” games that have oversaturated the market. To counter their arguments though, this particular game stands out with its quality.
You play as the eponymous Shovel Knight who wears a horned helm and uses a shovel as a weapon, which enables him to manipulate the terrain and subdue enemies along the way. He has come back from an exile after he lost his partner, the Shield Knight, and the land having been conquered by the Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter. Now he must return to the Tower of Fate and bring peace back to the land. It’s basically your standard good versus evil fantasy storyline that fits a game like this.
The visuals are very retro, using 8-bit graphics with parallax scrolling, as well as the authentic chiptune music, that makes it look and feel like a real 8-bit game from the mid to late 80′s. It’s not the usual pseudo-retro faux-8-bit sprites that we tend to see in most other games as the developers did everything they could to make this look like the real thing by using the NES’ original color palette. While the cutscenes are in 4:3 aspect ratio though, gameplay itself is in 16:9, so it’s not like it’s a complete throwback to the old days, but it’s very close to it.
In terms of controls, it’s a two-button game like a real NES game, so it would be pretty cool if you have one of those NES USB controllers for the PC. You have a jump button and an attack button, and you can execute a few crucial moves in order to traverse the levels and survive against enemies in the way. Instead of just headbutting or jumping on enemies to kill them and objects to get jewels that add to your score, you use your shovel to hit them. If your path is blocked by a wall or a block, you can clear it with your shovel, which sometimes uncovers secret areas that may yield treasure. Unfortunately, you can’t dig your way down the level like in Terraria or the classic game Dig Dug, so it doesn’t go that far.
Aside from attacking with your shovel up front, you can jump over a target and press down to do a downward attack to either damage an enemy or bounce off an object like a bubble to gain more distance off a jump. When you do that downward attack, you just move straight down, so you have to master the technique of going down, then moving forward immediately after bouncing off. This need for thumb dexterity is something that would have been bad if the controls were not responsive enough, but they’re crisp and solid in this game.
While difficult, it does respect the time you put into it, so there are well-placed checkpoints and unlimited continues so that you don’t have to punch a nearby wall whenever you do die. If you do die, you lose a good bit of your accumulated wealth, which then separates into three bags that you can recollect by getting back to where you kicked the bucket. It’s a good thing too that the first level has been designed well to teach players how to play the game in the old-school style, wherein you learn as you play and not have to read intrusive tutorial hint boxes to get it. Gameplay mechanics, new enemy types, and so on get introduced in a well-paced manner.
Shovel Knight isn’t just an off-hand tribute to retro games, but a love letter to gaming from the past and the quality that titles brought to the table during that time, despite the technological limitations and niche audiences. Kids these days may not be able to appreciate how good Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man was, but they can be made to understand by proxy with this game. Whether you are someone who looks at “retro” games with a frown or not, you can’t deny that this is one gem of a game.
It’s just too bad that it’s shorter than it should be, but at least every moment of it is worth all the hype. But don’t think of it as just a title that merely lives off the glory of the old days as it truly does stand on its own.
Tested in PC. Final Score: 9/10