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Shovel Knight Review: No Quarter For The Weak


There are way too many retro style, 8-bit NES inspired indie platformers vying for our attention today. While some stand out, often many of them don’t have anything special to offer outside of their old-school visuals. As more games release with retro aesthetics the whole “old is new again” cliche rears its ugly head, making it hard to not ignore all of these retro style platformers outright.

And then there comes a fantastic game like Shovel Knight that teaches us to never ignore a popular genre because you never know what ingenious creation will come out of this crowded market. Shovel Knight is that game, a unique title that doesn’t just take inspiration from classic 8-bit era games but pushes forward with its own traits and quirks.

Yacht Club Games makes an excellent debut with Shovel Knight, a studio comprised of former Way Forward staff. With a pedigree like that it’s no wonder Yacht Club gets 2D platforming so right.

Mechanically Shovel Knight should remind older fans of DuckTales, as the Shovel Knight can hop on enemies just like cane hopping in Capcom’s NES classic. With his trusty shovel the Knight can avoid direct combat and also reach higher parts of the stage. This mechanic hasn’t been done very much in the past 20 years and Yacht Club uses it to its fullest. It serves as both a safe way to avoid face to face combat and an interesting way to navigate stages and find hidden secrets.

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While the game can be pretty hard and at times frustrating, it isn’t difficult to the point of absurdity. You’re equipped with a fair amount of health at the start and can upgrade your life meter but enemies (especially bosses) will do everything in their power to push you into spikes or bottomless pits. Death is made more interesting due to a system that Zombi U fans would be familiar with.

Each time you die in Shovel Knight you drop some of the loot you’ve collected up to that point in the stage. When you respawn you can try to grab your lost stuff and conquer the difficult area that claimed your life just minutes before. This isn’t abused however because if you die again before you get your possessions back you lose them for good. This adds another, tense layer to the levels that hasn’t been done in any recent platformers than I’m aware of.

Additionally checkpoints are well thought out too. Players can either pass through check points, usually 5 are scattered through each stage, and respawn their if they die at a later point in the level. Players also have the option to destroy these check points and not use them at all, gaining more gold and jewels but at the same time running the risk of being sent further back in the stage should they ended up dying before beating the stage boss. The superb checkpoint system adds yet another layer of difficulty that makes the game all the more fun and challenging.

Stages as a whole can take 15-20 minutes to beat so each level is pretty long so this risk-based mechanic of deciding whether or not to use the checkpoints really spices things up. There is also a wealth of items to collect and upgrades to equip throughout your shoveling adventure so don’t think this is some sort of bare-bones platformer. There is plenty to do on the side to keep you interested for weeks.

Any other ordinary indie platformer would probably get praised for having any one of these features as its only unique trait but thankfully Shovel Knight has a lot more to offer than just these few tricks.

Enemies have a lot of variety and the art design is absolutely beautiful. The plot with the Enchantress taking over the world isn’t amazing but it isn’t a throw away either. The story has its moments and the characters are charming enough, never coming off as generic. Each character you met along the way is highly original, never feeling derivative of being in a game that is aimed at being “old school” in its design.

The music is exceptional, Yacht Club crafted a superb soundtrack that would have been one of the most iconic, celebrated scores of the 8-bit era had Shovel Knight released during the genre’s height of popularity in the 80’s and 90’s.

As a whole there isn’t much wrong with Shovel Knight. At times it can border on becoming too difficult but never quite gets there. There could be more variety to the normal enemies found in most stages as they tend to repeat but the clever and unique boss battles make up for this.

Shovel Knight is a step above all other retro indie platformers. In a crowd it stands out just enough to drive its magnificent shovel into the skulls of its competitors by adding several new mechanics to the retro platformer. The music and visuals are top notch and the death/checkpoint mechanics add twists that haven’t been seen before in an 8-bit style platformer. Don’t let the onslaught of similar titles fool you, Shovel Knight is one of the better platformers in recent years even when you consider the recent adventures of Donkey Kong, Rayman and Mario.

Most of the recent retro platformers are games designed today to play like yesteryear. Yacht Club wisely developed Shovel Knight to be a game that also plays like it was designed today too with modern twists on an old formula.

Gameplay 90%
Visuals 90%
Depth 85%
Intangibles (Charm, Audio, Personality) 95%
Entertainment 90%
Final Thoughts

Shovel Knight is a must-have game for all 3DS, Wii U and PC owners, 3DS version played, review copy provided by Yacht Club Games.

Overall Score 90%