Shovel Knight (PC): A Short Pause Review
I was faced with a dilemma.
Shovel Knight, the Kickstarted retro-wunderkind in development at Yacht Club Games, had finally arrived on the Nintendo Wii U, 3DS, and PC via Steam. Vigilant readers will note the lack of PlayStation platforms on the aforementioned list. I generally play my games via a PlayStation device, whether that be PS3, PS4, or PS Vita, and I often find it difficult to enter into the relative gaming unknown outside of Sony's monolithic ecosystem. I'm like that scared little kid who's afraid to open his closet door because he heard the Boogeyman breathing heavily in there last night. The Xbox One is that Boogeyman. Which makes the Wii U the monster underneath my bed...and I swear this sounded better in my head. My friends, my Trophies, my gaming identity; it's all tied to the PlayStation. Sure I could play Titanfall on the PC, but I'm so close to the Platinum Trophy in Strider! Mario Kart 8 is now out on the Wii U, but I haven't started Transistor yet! I've been eyeing Dead Rising 3 on the Xbox One from afar for quite some time, but I've got an Insane run to attempt in Outlast!
So along bounces Shovel Knight, gardening tool of justice clasped firmly in hand, and I could no longer resist the allure and mystique of gaming outside my comfort zone. I had a fancy — one built of hyper-techno chiptune tracks, punishing platforming stages, and stylized 8-bit boss battles — and Shovel Knight tickled it mightily with his ironclad fingers. I grew up and honed my gaming chops playing Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., Ducktales, and The Legend of Zelda on my NES. Thus, when I heard there was a game that combined all of these legendary classics under one 66-color roof, and it was an amazing game at that, I had to play it for myself. I volunteered my reviewing services for this fine establishment we run here at ShortPause.com, and I'm so glad that I did!
The internet chatter was right. Shovel Knight is a spectacular game.
With neither a 3DS or a Wii U to my name (a fact that will change once a certain four-player mascot brawler hits store shelves), Steam is the only option I currently have access to with which to experience Shovel Knight for myself. And honestly, it's the platform I would have chosen to play the game on anyways, regardless of if I had owned Ninty's two current consoles. With full controller support, the game allows me to play it with my DualShock 4 connected to my PC, making it almost as if I'm playing it on the PlayStation platform I wished it was already on - almost. With my DS4 firmly in USB port 1, it was time to dive headfirst into the 8-bit world of Shovel Knight and find out what all the hoopla was about!
For those unaware, while Shovel Knight most closely resembles a Mega Man game in structure and function, it smartly infuses elements of the 8-bit games mentioned earlier to create an amalgamation of retro-gaming goodness. The themed stages and boss battles were inspired by Mega Man, while the world map, its wandering bosses, and the ability to choose stages in a variety of orders were clearly influenced by Super Mario Bros. 3. Shovel Knight's downthrust attack would make Scrooge McDuck proud, while the sub-weapon system, and its collectible potions that replenish the number of times you can use each item, is a gameplay feature the Belmont family mastered long ago. Throw in a few towns full of lively, personality-rich NPCs reminiscent of Zelda II, and you have a game that takes many of the great aspects of its predecessors and stirs them into a mixture that is at once both new and familiar.
Yet, while many of the aspects of Shovel Knight are tried and true — especially to old school gamers weaned on the milk of the NES and SNES — what makes this game extra special is how it takes all of these wonderful, well-known elements and saturates it with a personality and style that is all its own. And that all starts with the story and fiction of the world itself.
Like other games of its ilk, the story found in Shovel Knight is secondary to the gameplay, but that doesn't make the imaginative yarn on display here any less engrossing. The titular Shovel Knight is in a sort of self-imposed exile after his partner-in-justice, Shield Knight, turns up missing following a mysterious amulet unleashed in the Tower of Fate. With no heroes left to protect the land, the evil Enchantress and her Knights of the Order of No Quarter have seized control of it for nefarious purposes. And so Shovel Knight must once again strap on his blue armor, grab ahold of his death shovel, and set out to put an end to the Enchantress and her evil schemes.
"Shovel Knight is a new classic, and the modern game by which all 8-bit platformers will be measured by."
The world of Shovel Knight is just fun. I mean, the main character is a blue knight with a shovel. He fights evil with a shovel. A SHOVEL. The art direction in the game is terrific, and I am especially fond of the designs behind the Order of No Quarter. Polar Knight and Spectre Knight are personal favorites, but it's hard to pick between them because they're all so good. The themed levels are also highly entertaining, running the gamut from graveyards to flying ships, and everything in-between.
Not to be outdone by the enchanting backdrops and inspired character designs, the gameplay in Shovel Knight is where the title really shines through. Utilizing a control scheme fit for an old NES pad, the game only requires the use of an "A" and a "B" button. With one button for jump and one for attack, the sub-weapon by default is mapped to Up + Attack like in the old NES Castlevania days (although I chose to map mine to the right trigger on my DualShock 4. What? We have more buttons now! We should use them! I know, I know you're a purist and...wait... is that a pitchfork?!). Simply pressing down on the d-pad/control stick when airborne will execute Shovel Knight's Ducktales-inspired downward thrust attack, which is integral to both combat and environment traversal throughout the game. Controls are tight and responsive on a control pad, a necessary requirement for a precise platforming game such as this, and I never found myself cursing the controller as a result of a cheap death. While purists may scoff at this next sentence, the analog stick controls surprisingly well in this game too, giving prospective gamers even more options when it comes to controlling our little blue hero. The controls are also fully customizable, should you choose to do something weird like map jump to L2 and attack to L1. Come on, you know you are out there!
"I had a fancy — one built of hyper-techno chiptune tracks, punishing platforming stages, and stylized 8-bit boss battles — and Shovel Knight tickled it mightily with his ironclad fingers."
As an NES inspired platformer, a moniker with which comes a notorious level of difficulty, Shovel Knight lives up the challenge presented by its forebearers. While not as difficult as the toughest Mega Man games, or anywhere near as impossible as something like Battletoads, there is a fair bit of challenge to be found within Shovel Knight's hallowed walls. There are several platforming sections that will test your patience, especially in the later Order of No Quarter levels and the Tower of Fate, and those looking for a good test of their gaming prowess should be pleased by what they find inside. By the time I had completed the game, I had died 149 times, and I consider myself fairly adept at these kinds of games. Now, before you start yelling about how much I suck at gaming in the comments section below, a good chunk of these deaths were me trying to get my gold back that I had lost on a previous life, which is by far Shovel Knight's most frustrating feature.
I actually love the idea behind it. Should you die in a particular stage, you'll be transported back to the last checkpoint you crossed. If you can make it back to the location of your previous death, the gold you lost — in the form of three, cute little floating money bags with wings — will be waiting there for you and you'll be, er, "rewarded" by being able to reclaim the gold as your own, once again. The problem is, depending on where and how you die, sometimes the gold bags can be in places you can't get to. A few times, I found myself dying over and over again trying everything I could to get the money back in my possession. For example, I met my end in one level after falling into a pit. The gold bags spawned in the area above the pit that I died in. The problem was, there was no way for me to recover the bags without falling into the pit again. I had to jump in that pit over and over again, recovering the money I had lost previously every time, until I could slowly inch the bags of flying gold into an area I could recover them from without dying. The fishing pole sub-item is useful for obtaining gold bags that are in precarious positions, but some locations, such as those underneath platforms, are still inaccessible even with this item. This would not be a big deal if I didn't have a lot of gold in my possession, but oftentimes, I would find myself playing multiple levels, or saving up for something expensive, before visiting the village to spend my spoils. This just made these instances of lost gold that much more frustrating. In the grand scheme of things, this is really a minor negative pittance, and the initial deaths that caused the gold bags to be in compromising positions in the first place were always the result of my careless play. My advice to would be Shovel Knighters? Spend your gold early and often, and avoid the same fate!
This game has a really cool checkpoint system, too. I love that you can sacrifice the checkpoint in exchange for gold, and it adds an extra layer of strategy/challenge/foolishness to the proceedings. There's even an achievement (or an in-game Feat) for making it through the game while destroying all of the checkpoints. And to those foolhardy enough to attempt this Feat, I bid you bonne chance. Oh, and make sure you don't accidentally destroy a wanted checkpoint in the heat of battle. Yeah, this is a thing that happens.
I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on Shovel Knight's soundtrack. Composed by Jake Kaufman, It's a phenomenal piece of chiptune wizardry, and I personally can't stop listening to it...even when I'm not playing the game! It hearkens back to the glory days of all of those fantastic Mega Man soundtracks of yore, yet it still has this modern edge to it that makes the sound all its own. Two tracks in particular, "Strike the Earth!" and "In the Halls of the Usurper," have spots already reserved in the Chiptune Hall of Fame (if this is not a thing, it needs to be). You can hear them below to see, er *ahem*, hear what I mean.
Shovel Knight is a new classic, and the modern game by which all 8-bit platformers will be measured. Its inviting world and inspired design, is eclipsed only by the excellence of its gameplay. The controls are tight and responsive, and allow you to experience Shovel Knight as the precise platformer it was meant to be played. Replayability is high, as sidequests and secret areas abound throughout the game's myriad of stages. Going back and trying to perfect your runs through each stage is always enjoyable, and for those looking for that extra level of challenge, a New Game Plus mode awaits adventurers should they complete the first campaign. New Game Plus ups the ante by including less checkpoints in each level, replacing all of the health items with hazardous bombs, and littering the screen with tougher enemies. The game can be tough at times, and there are some frustrations to be had with the money recovery mechanic, but it's never overly daunting to fans of this genre. Those who didn't grow up on NES platformers may give up half-way through, but those who persevere will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
The only question left now: When is this thing coming to PlayStation Vita?!
Shovel Knight is available for the Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, and PC via Steam now!
- Imaginative game design and art direction
- Great gameplay
- Phenomenal soundtrack
- Secrets, sidequests, and replayability
- Some frustrating segments
- Gold money bags are not always able to be recovered