While not exactly new, Shovel Knight is certainly one treasure of a game.
I tried my hardest to avoid writing about Shovel Knight for the millionth time, but I just can’t stay away. It’s re-released on all consoles in April under the name Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, and was a launch title for the Nintendo Switch. It’s just a tad too old for a full review; as such, I felt it was apt to simply praise my precious indie darling once again.
There are moments in life where you feel two emotions at once. Awe and fear; fervent dedication and quiet timidness. I can say that as I step up to the mic to discuss Shovel Knight once again, I feel much the same. An unabashed love, and a hand-trembling anxiety.
It’s difficult to explain what Shovel Knight is exactly, in terms of a modern indie title. It’s the same as other pixel-art games around it, yet unlike any other piece of software. Yacht Club went above and beyond in their creation, in that it plays into the recent “retro gaming” craze while abhorring it. Shovel Knight, by all accounts, is an NES game. It is an indie game. Yet it’s also neither. It’s a singular entity–a modern classic.
Shovel Knight puts players in the shoes of the eponymous Shovel Knight, as he journeys across the land to save his friend. Along the way, he’ll face off against a quirky, colorful band of villains named “The Order of No Quarter,” who have each holed up in unique settings in the world. These levels play just like any regular NES platformer, with the beloved knight slashing enemies, collecting loot, and gaining usable items to aid his quest.
Tearing mechanics and styles from nostalgic classics is always a risky maneuver, but Shovel Knight pulls it off gracefully. It nabs sword techniques and town layouts from Zelda II, boss fights from Mega Man, world maps from Super Mario Bros. 3, and items from Castlevania. It even steals the “lose currency on death” system from Dark Souls. Yet Shovel Knight expertly uses each technique as a nod and tribute instead of a blatant ripoff. Each detail sprinkled throughout the journey tickles a sort of nostalgia, but never openly infringes on a copyright. It’s reminiscent, but not a mimic or parody.
With this reverence for players’ past, Shovel Knight shines. It’s not competing with NES games themselves, but rather the memories and stories that have transcended decades. After spending a few hours with an NES Classic, I can assure you: Shovel Knight plays much more smoothly and quickly than any game from the 80’s. Yet most people don’t remember the flaws of yesteryear, but rather recall the lasting good experiences. Shovel Knight undertakes a large task, and straddles a harsh line: it pretends to be a retro game, but never is one. It evokes NES software, but is not beholden to the same rules or hardware restrictions. Such a small, satisfying distinction works in its favor.
This theme permeates throughout the land. Whether it’s a water-filled submarine or a quaint blacksmith village, every town and level feels familiar. Each item feels as if you’ve used it before, yet the Propeller Dagger and Chaos Orb definitely liven up your trek to stop evil. I want to say I’ve played a million games like Shovel Knight, but I really haven’t. That’s the key that Yacht Club so meticulously forged: the game is pitted against your nostalgia, but also tricks you into thinking it’s a piece of your past.
As I said, though, Shovel Knight needs to surpass your memories. I truly believe it does. Perhaps it’s due to my recent playthrough of Mega Man 3, but I remember rage-quits and pouting all too well. Certain older games, while near and dear to our hearts, have an unmistakable “clunkiness” to them that we simply familiarized ourselves with. Mario would slide just a bit too much, or Link moved a bit too stiffly. Thanks to modern consoles, however, Shovel Knight had a chance to make things right. And indeed, it did.
However, Shovel Knight could certainly play with its formula more than it actually does. The game could stand to be longer, more complex, or even more difficult. Once you gain a simple mastery of the mechanics, Shovel Knight no longer feels like a challenge. That doesn’t diminish the experience, but it can dampen replayability.
Thankfully, Yacht Club has been updating the game to include content promised in their Kickstarter stretch goals. Remixed campaigns (dubbed Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment) allow players control two very different boss characters: Plague Knight and Specter Knight. Each come with their own attacks, animations, and mobility options that, once again, are partially derived from older games. While not necessarily as fleshed out or as polished as the original campaign, both are free, interesting updates to all owners.
Due to its superb quality and adherence to years-old promises, Shovel Knight is an everlasting pillar in the indie community. It’s an exemplary game, against which all indies and “retro-styled” games should be held. The noble title serves as a lamenting touchstone to the past and a beacon toward the future. Its character and style allow it to impersonate our memories while freeing itself from the shackles of nostalgia.
Even with a few small complaints regarding difficulty and length, I can’t help but love this game wholeheartedly. As I said, “An unabashed love, and a hand-trembling anxiety.” Though I fear some may disagree or toss vitriol, I can’t deny it: Shovel Knight, without a doubt in my mind, is one of the perfect games in this world. I obtained the platinum trophy for the game on PS4/Vita and completed it on 3DS and Wii U. Even then, I eagerly dug back into it with the Nintendo Switch. In a life where I seldom replay video games, I can’t get enough of Shovel Knight.
If this were a review, I’d give it the full 5 stars.