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.