Draw your steel and dig deep, my knights! For adventure! For shovelry!
Okay, I’m being slightly disingenuous here. Shovel Knight, the little indie game that could, is not, chronologically speaking, a retro game. The title was release across several consoles in 2014 and was ported to Sony systems in 2015. Still, Yacht Club‘s award-winning debut title is aesthetically and spiritually a classic title, with graphics, music, gameplay, and gumption all hearkening back to the brighter, simpler days of the 1980s.
Shovel Knight is a tale of adventure, magic, and shovelry. Our titular hero, the brave Shovel Knight, embarks on a quest to defeat the evil Enchantress and her rogues gallery of treacherous knights, The Order of No Quarter, in order to rescue his beloved partner Shield Knight. The story is both absurd and endearing, providing just enough emotional impetus and intriguing mystery to provide an engaging but never overwrought experience. It is the perfect complement to the simple but compelling gameplay.
Shovel Knight’s intuitive control scheme is a throwback to the very best games of the 8-bit era. Aside from guiding our hero with the d-pad, you’ll only ever have to use two buttons: attack and jump. Like Link in Zelda II or Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales, players can attack horizontally with a simple press of the button or can perform a down-thrust by leaping into the air and pressing down. Thankfully, Shovel Knight’s handy shovel serves as both tool and weapon, allowing for a surprising complexity in both combat and exploration. This depth is supplemented by a number of magical relics that Shovel Knight can acquire through his adventures. None of these, including a propeller dagger and a projectile anchor, are required to navigate the dungeons or to best the wily bosses, but they do enrich the experience. It’s a genuine thrill to cruise across spike pits with the gear or to fell nefarious wyverns with fireballs. Yacht Club have achieved a near perfect balance in game design, both embracing linearity in individual stages and rewarding exploration with extra treasure and other secrets. Completionists will want to seek out every piece of sheet music and every secret chest, but those seeking a quick romp will be able to progress quickly. The game caters to your style with a unique and always rewarding experience.
One key to that experience is the difficulty. Although the use of relics may diminish some of the challenge of the game, it by no means completely eliminates all of the hard components. The bosses, your fallen knight adversaries, each move and attack in distinct patterns that must be studied and countered with precision in a way reminiscent of the glory days of Mega Man. Even more challenging though are some of the stages; I found myself cursing as I died over and over trying to avoid a giant angler fish in the Iron Whale. However, the game is so well designed and such a joy to play that despite occasional frustration I never found myself tempted to rage quit. Shovel Knight is the kind of game you’ll pick up and won’t want to put down until you’re finished.
A key component of this engaging atmosphere is the presentation. Yacht Club have squeezed a lot of beauty out of the 8-bit engine, presenting a vibrant, detailed world in lush, retro glory. Whether it was the falling green rain in the Tower of Fates or the zany chemical vats in the Explodatorium, the designs in Shovel Knight’s adventure are a visual treat for those who grew up in the 80s. Enhancing this is Jake Kaufman’s wonderful chiptune score. The tracks range from frozen dirges to bouncing disco rhythms, but every track presents a delightfully old-school sense of adventure that should appeal to fans of classic new wave music like Gary Numan or dungeon synth like Sequestered Keep. These tracks can be played by a bard in the village after you’ve found the requisite hidden piece of sheet music, or you can just go to Jake Kaufman’s Bandcamp page. Those seeking a true retro experience can also download the soundtrack in a special NES compiled version and play it through a special cartridge on your old Nintendo Entertainment System.
Ultimately, Shovel Knight is a gem of a game that oozes charm and embraces elegant simplicity. The story is heartfelt, entertaining, and downright fun at times. The gameplay is expertly tuned and rewarding, and the complete package is a joy to behold. It’s no wonder the game has gotten such rave reviews. Even better, Yacht Club’s initial kickstarter campaign was so successful that they have a smattering of free updates planned. The first, an expansion that allows you to replay the game from the perspective of the nefarious Plague Knight, has already been released! Really, there’s no reason not to play this game if you enjoy great video games. I give Shovel Knight five gleaming shovels out of five.
Shovel Knight is available for pretty much all major consoles out there, so pick it up today and praise the Troupple King.