Shovel Knight

3DS, PC, Wii U


A love let­ter to the NES era, Shovel Knight is pun­ish­ingly dif­fi­cult, a game of quick re­flexes and ex­act­ing pre­ci­sion

Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Yacht Club Games For­mat 3DS, PC (tested), Wii U Re­lease Out now

Shovel Knight is rub­bish. Not the game, you un­der­stand, but its azure-ar­moured star. Which de­fender of the realm in his right mind would head into bat­tle with noth­ing but a stubby lit­tle spade and only one way to swing it? He’s nim­ble enough, and a ca­pa­ble jumper, but the only thing he has in his ar­se­nal be­sides that sin­gle shovel swing is a pogo-like move bor­rowed from Scrooge McDuck, ac­ti­vated by press­ing down on the D-pad or ana­logue stick in midair. Un­like Duck Tales’ feath­ered mon­ey­man, how­ever, he can’t can­cel it by sim­ply re­leas­ing the in­put, so he will keep on smash­ing break­able blocks be­neath him un­til he falls to his doom, he strikes terra firma, or you can­cel the an­i­ma­tion with a reg­u­lar shovel swipe.

He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, in other words, so per­haps it’s lit­tle sur­prise that his part­ner, Shield Knight, fell in bat­tle against The En­chantress, a sor­cer­ess whose Order Of No Quar­ter has over­run this 8bit-styled world. Luck­ily, he’s not alone in his quest: the world con­tains a num­ber of ci­ti­zens with the means to help this diminu­tive loner and his laugh­able ar­se­nal save the world. The Gas­tronomer cooks up plat­ters to ex­tend your health bar. The Magi­cist will give you ex­tra uses of Relics, a se­lec­tion of spe­cial abil­i­ties sold by Ch­ester the jester down­stairs in the pub. The Ar­mourer of­fers up stat-mod­i­fy­ing suits, while the Shovel Smith adds new prop­er­ties to your spade.

In the ab­sence of a bet­ter melee weapon, it’s the Relics that do the most to help Shovel Knight save the day. Some of Ch­ester’s wares give you ex­tra com­bat op­tions – the arc­ing Throw­ing An­chor, the bounc­ing Chaos Sphere, the smart­bomb-like War Horn – but many ex­pand your range of move­ment, too. The Mo­bile Gear de­ploys a plat­form with a spin­ning cog be­neath it, which helps you cross large gaps; the Pro­pel­ler Dag­ger is an air dash with a sword on the front. Some Relics are more use­ful than others, and we spent most of the game us­ing the hor­i­zon­tal Flare Wand pro­jec­tile. Ef­fec­tively bring­ing a gun to a shovel fight proves an in­valu­able aid in a game where the odds are so stacked against you.

Pitched to Kick­starter as a love let­ter to the NES era, Shovel Knight is pun­ish­ingly dif­fi­cult, a game of quick re­flexes and ex­act­ing pre­ci­sion that presents you with your death tally when the cred­its roll, and seem­ingly en­joys do­ing so. It’s sadis­tic in other ways, too. Botch a jump and you’ll fall through to the screen be­low, which you might have once con­sid­ered easy; per­haps it con­tains a floor of spikes and two plat­forms, each of which moves across the screen when you hit a switch. It’s only as you’re sail­ing help­lessly down to your fi­nal im­pale­ment that you re­alise you’ve been had.

Yet Yacht Club Games’ rev­er­ence for 8bit con­ven­tion goes far be­yond mere dif­fi­culty level. This isn’t just the work of a stu­dio in thrall to the hal­cyon NES days, but one that wishes they never went away, that de­vel­op­ers had spent the past three decades ek­ing out in­cre­men­tal per­for­mance im­prove­ments. Shovel Knight takes the rules of NES devel­op­ment and bends them so that it feels au­then­tic with­out need­lessly sub­ject­ing it­self to the orig­i­nal hard­ware’s lim­i­ta­tions. It runs at the same ver­ti­cal res­o­lu­tion as a NES game, but ex­tends the hor­i­zon­tal pixel count to suit widescreen dis­plays. Its sound­track is made to the same rules as a hand­ful of games re­leased late in the sys­tem’s life­span, whose ex­tra au­dio chan­nels couldn’t be heard on hard­ware out­side Ja­pan. It uses four or five colours per sprite rather than three. One of the few NES lim­i­ta­tions sim­ply ig­nored is sprite flicker – some things are best left in the past.

Much of Shovel Knight’s de­sign is tra­di­tional, too, a pro­ces­sion of themed lev­els with themed bosses. There’s an ice world, with a boss that wields a snow shovel; an air­ship level, whose fi­nal en­emy flits around the screen thanks to the pro­pel­ler on his back. Yet there are plenty of ideas bor­rowed from more mod­ern times, too. Die and you’ll leave a quar­ter of your ac­cu­mu­lated cur­rency where you fell, and only have one life to get it back. The ap­pear­ance of an en­emy sprite on the world map in­vites you back to a level you’ve com­pleted for ei­ther a scrap or a plat­form­ing chal­lenge. Yet even when it’s play­ing to clas­si­cal con­ven­tion, Shovel Knight has some fine ideas of its own. You’ll nav­i­gate much of the air­ship level on the wind, whose abruptly shift­ing cur­rents will pro­pel the leaden of re­ac­tions into walls of spikes. In the oblig­a­tory fire level, globs of bright green goo can be thwacked from plat­forms to the red-orange abyss be­low, turn­ing lakes of lava into lurid tram­po­lines.

Each of these lit­tle hooks is mas­ter­fully pre­sented, too. Text is used only for ex­po­si­tion, and a game of so spe­cific a de­sign phi­los­o­phy has no place for tu­to­ri­als. You learn through play and play alone. The first level opens on a screen that is empty ex­cept for our hero and a pile of rocks, so we learn how to dig gold from the ground. It’s a re­cur­ring theme: ev­ery new el­e­ment and idea is in­tro­duced in a sparse screen, the dif­fi­culty then ramp­ing up steadily, a check­point ar­riv­ing just as you’re on the brink of giv­ing up. It’s a sober­ing re­minder of how re­liant games have be­come on help text.

In this sense, Shovel Knight is as re­spect­ful of the player as it is the NES era. Sadly, that still hasn’t driven Yacht Club to de­liver on all of its Kick­starter prom­ises at launch; the ab­sence of its gen­der-swap mode, in par­tic­u­lar, feels like an own goal at this point. We’d also have pre­ferred the check­point-free late-game boss rush to have stayed in 1985. But taken as a whole, Shovel Knight is a mar­vel­lously ex­e­cuted con­cept piece that sets a new stan­dard for vin­tage homage. The next time some­one Kick­starts a spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to some beloved game of yore, it’s go­ing to need a lot more than merely pixel art and chip­tunes.

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