An ode to the games of yesteryear, a beautiful love letter to 2D platforming genre and a mesmerizing 8-bit masterpiece that was made possible with the help of a community willing to take a risk. The game I’m talking about is the amazing “Shovel Knight”. The game that shines amongst its peers and makes it as one of the best 8-bit 2D platformers to have come out in recent times.
Shovel Knight is a kickstarted 2D platformer with 8-bit visuals developed by Yacht Club Games. It took the gaming industry by surprise, because nobody expected it to do what it did; it provided a very solid gaming experience all-around. Taking inspiration from the best games of the NES era like Zelda II, Duck Tales, and Castlevania. Shovel Knight bundles these together to make a masterpiece that pays homage to its predecessors. It understands where it comes from, and what players yearn for from a 2D side scroller. It’s not nostalgia bait that shoves a bunch of old, familiar themes down your throat. It’s beautifully executed in a way that feels just right: the difficulty curve, the frustration, the feeling of achievement after getting through a rather difficult part of a level are all done superbly well. I can even go as far as saying that it is a bit like Dark Souls in that sense.
The game follows a knight by the name of “Shovel Knight” (Shovelly). Shovelly is on a quest to find and rescue his love, the Shield Knight, from a sorceress known as the Enchantress. The Enchantress spreads evil, and plagues the kingdom with her magic, and her group of eight rogue knights known as “The Order of No Quarter”. Each of these rogue knights has a gimmick that feels almost like something straight out of Mega Man. One of these knights, for example, is the Specter Knight. He is a specter who wields a huge scythe, and whose stage is a dark and spooky graveyard with skeletons and ghosts.
In the game there are various stages and levels that the player must complete to unlock more of the map. The map is very reminiscent of the Super Mario 3 map, and each of the levels ends with you fighting one of the eight knights who are protecting the Enchantress. There are also bonus levels to get more loot for upgrades, and even random solo encounters with other characters — just as Mario would engage with the Hammer Bros while on his way to a new level. It is simple and easy to navigate between levels. There are various hubs, which have NPCs that you can talk to. These NPCs will tell you a secret of a particular level, a general tip, or they might even say something completely random. These hubs allow you to upgrade your character, buy relics (which are essentially usable items), buy new moves, and even purchase armour.
And now onto the gameplay – a vital part that can either make or break a game. The controls are fairly simple with one button mapped to jump, one to attack, one for using a relic, and two buttons assigned to switch between relics and your standard directional keys. There’s also the Start/Pause button that pauses the game, and the Select button which brings up your inventory whilst the game is paused (great for when you’re stuck in a tight spot and want to switch relics). The controls are tight and responsive ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°). They’re so responsive that you’ll rarely die because of “stupid controls not working properly”. Getting hit by characters will make you lose health, but it can be regained by finding and eating food that tends to be hidden throughout the levels. Along with health there is also magic that is used as “fuel” for relics; different relics have different points per usage of magic.
If you die, and trust me — you will — then you will drop a certain amount of loot that is currently on your character. Want to get that money back? Go back to where you died without dying again, and pick it up. This is a great game mechanic as it punishes players who just want to rush through every level without playing it properly. It forces you to be cool, calm, and collected while playing. But don’t fret as there are multiple checkpoints on each level at which you re-spawn in case you die. These checkpoints can be broken for a huge amount of loot but you won’t be able to spawn at them so you can add even more challenge to your journey.
Let’s talk a bit about level design, as it is an underrated subject in game reviews. Shovel Knight has an amazing level design, not only in terms of level flow and look, but also in terms of introduction to new mechanics, story progression, the storytelling itself, and world building. Each level has its own unique mechanic that is introduced in an easy way so that you won’t fail, however, once that is done — you’re on your own. Levels are challenging and fun with the difficulty slowly ramping up as you progress. If there’s one thing about the levels of this game I have to make note of it is that they never get stale, feel reused, gimmicky, or even difficult for the sake of being difficult. Every level challenges the player to think, act quickly, and use new mechanics and relics that were introduced previously in order to progress. This gives the player a challenge to overcome which feels extremely satisfying. Enemies add to that challenge; from being really simple to defeat, to being insanely annoying and difficult. However, while every enemy has a pattern that you must adapt to in order to get past them, they will still sometimes take you by surprise.
Moving onto the level art and the visuals of the game: both are fantastic to say the least. It takes the game back to the roots of gaming. Levels have their own unique touch that is inspired by the boss of that level and his gimmicks. Whilst taking everything you loved about the way games used to look back in the day it also adds a new and fresh flavour to the game that works out very well. It is safe to say that the art style will not bore you, and will even wow you in some instances.
Accompanying the visuals of the game is the 8-bit chiptune music and soundtrack. I can only describe it as being composed with a lot of love and care. It manages to not only capture the spirit of the game, but impart Shovelly’s emotions through the stages. It also invokes a lot of emotions throughout the whole game: be it facing the perils of the dangerous castle that you’re infiltrating, the calm and peaceful nature of a small rural town, or even just general tension. Rest assured you will fall in love with the music as soon as the title screen pops up.
Shovel Knight is truly a wondrous game that will stand the testament of time for being one of the best retro-inspired games that has come out, definitely more than recent games of the genre. If you’ve grown up playing NES games, then it is bound to bring back a lot of fond memories of that time. And if you haven’t — this game is one of the best ways to experience a lot of what the classics of the NES generation had to offer in a very modernized way.