Shovel Knight

Dig­ging deep, Shovel Knight brings new ideas to a clas­sic 8-bit genre.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Emanuel Maiberg

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.

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