Digging deep, Shovel Knight brings new ideas to a classic 8-bit genre.
Do you think that things used to be better? Do you find yourself saying “back in my day” a lot? I try to avoid the allure of such nostalgia, but I must admit I loved this mostly uncompromising revival of 8-bit platform gaming.
It evokes warm fuzzy memories from the era of cartridges and CRT television, by virtue of excellently composed chiptunes, beautiful character sprites and backgrounds, and pixel-precise controls. But while it seems to play like those old games, in reality it improves upon them in many ways.
If nothing else, it proves that we weren’t crazy to obsess over primitive, two-button games. As the Knight who Shovels, you can jump, shovel, jump and shovel at the same time, or jump and then shovel for a downward, pogo stick attack.
You get a few other special items, like the phase locket that makes you temporarily invincible, a war horn that deals damage to all around you, and some other upgrades, but basically you’re just jumping and shoveling throughout, and it never gets tired because every level makes you carefully rethink how to use this minimal moveset.
Different enemies require different strategies, there are many secrets and collectibles, and the platforming alone is challenging enough to demand your full attention at every jump. Shovel Knight also keeps you on your toes with clever tricks. I particularly enjoyed the gothic-themed Lich Yard level where the screen would occasionally go dark, leaving me to navigate by the shape of silhouettes, or to wait for a lighting strike and illuminate the way for a second.
Other tricks included the physicschanging water level and the enemies that could only be killed by shoveling certain objects at them. The game is full of these clever modern ideas. The gold with which you buy upgrades was constantly informing my decisions. If I felt confident enough, I could destroy a checkpoint for extra gold. If I died, however, not only would I have to start the level over, I’d also lose a huge chunk of gold which I’d only get one chance to recover from the spot where I died. Shovel Knight was always tempting me with risk/ reward opportunities.
These new ideas are what’s best about this game, not the history it riffs on. In fact, I only have issues with it where it’s referencing old games for references’ sake. Games weren’t inherently better in 1990. A lot of things about old games suck, like their crippling reliance on pattern memorization, or the notion that difficulty automatically generates value. Shovel Knight occasionally flirts with both tropes without irony or a new perspective.
However, this is a minor, mostly philosophical gripe with what is otherwise a great game, especially since I’m fond of the era. This is a beautiful tribute to what was best about the games from that time.
Shovel Knight pogoing a dragon to death.
The Mario Bros- inspired world map.
Shovel Knight can get pretty metal.