Review: Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight Banner

Initial Release Date: June 26, 2014

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Platforms: PC, 3DS (reviewed), WiiU, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One

Publishers: Yacht Club Games

 

Introduction

Taking control of our hero, Shovel Knight, you play as exactly that – a Knight that wields a shovel.  While that may not seem that exciting, the throw-back themes in which Shovel Knight immerses are a great nostalgic trip.  The game combines solid gameplay with varied environments and bosses, while including quality of life improvements that 8-bit games should’ve had 25 years ago.

Shovel Knight at Fire GIF

Story/Narrative

In replicating its NES roots, Shovel Knight augments the experience with interesting characters while mimicking the basics of 8-bit stories.  NES games were never known for their grandiose storytelling (or any storytelling), especially in platformers.  The basic premise in Shovel Knight centers around The Enchantress, who has taken other Knights to her evil side, all of which are opposed to Shovel Knight’s ultimate goal — saving his best friend Shield Knight, who has presumably been kidnapped.

Shovel Knight and Shield Knight

The basic progression is a level by level map a la Super Mario Bros 3, where you move across the map and beat each discrete level.  There are towns that you can enter to stock up and also talk with the local populace.  The bosses for the levels are the aforementioned Knights.  Polar Knight uses the obvious ice attacks in a snow themed arena, while Plague Knight bounces about in a laboratory, flinging beakers of explosives.  Each of these Knights taunts Shovel Knight before and after, helping to flesh out, slowly, the fate of Shield Knight.

Shovel Knight Map

Overall, the narrative is anything but monumental.  The drive to save a friend is one step removed from saving a princess, but given the direction of the title, meets expectations.  For an 8-bit platformer, Shovel Knight hits the right narrative notes — interesting characters, cool and varied environments, and a satisfying climax at the final boss.

Gameplay

Where the 8-bit platformer lacks in story, it must make up for it in gameplay.  Shovel Knight manages to hit a great balance of nostalgic flair, combined with modern sensibilities.

As previously mentioned, the basic progression is to clear the map level-by-level, beating each Knight along the way.  The levels themselves are typically based on a theme, and often have an associated item that helps clear its secrets.  These items include effects such as shooting a fireball or becoming temporarily invincible.  While geared for combat, these items are also helpful in accessing little in-level puzzles to access secrets.

Alongside finding Shield Knight, Shovel Knight apparently harbors an unsatisfied avarice for gems, coin, and jewels.  Throughout the level, enemies and chests contain said treasures, which are also a proxy for Shovel Knight’s “lives.”  While Mario has a life counter, Shovel Knight’s deaths result in a reset to predetermined checkpoints, along with a loss of treasure.  The treasure remains in the level with each retry, often hovering as sacks with wings above the numerous pits and spikes that caused the Knight’s demise.  Of course, more deaths that fail to regain this treasure result in less treasure outside the level, which is critical to buy upgrades, equipment, and items.

Shovel Knight Floating Bags

Shovel Knight is hard.  “Back in the day” NES games were hard too, but Shovel Knight manages the frustration of constant death with the treasure drops.  You can replay the level over and over without worrying about a true game over.  Platforming while dealing with a plethora of enemies can get difficult, but given some of the items, can be made much easier.  Shovel Knight has a basic slash attack (which can be upgraded) along with a bounce attack similar to DuckTales.  Items add ranged attacks or defensive capabilities.  It had been a while since I had delved into a old school platformer like this one, so I had to undergo a lot of trial and error to beat a few levels.  Once I had completed the game, it was incredibly satisfying.

Shovel Knight Pit of Spikes

The greatest challenge I faced were the boss battles.  Conveniently, checkpoints are located right before the battles and you can easily regain the loot you lose when you die, although the bosses still took me some time.  After beating a particular tough boss, I checked YouTube for how others had managed, and it appeared the optional items can really speed up these fights.  In the end game (SPOILER) you must take on all the previous bosses one after another.  Having honed my rusty skills throughout the challenge of the regular game, this fight was intimidating, but did not ultimately take that long for me.  Why is that relevant?  It shows that the game really does build up your confidence and skill progressively, making each encounter more challenging, but not unfair.

Shovel Knight Aqua Knight Fight

Overall, Shovel Knight is a tough classic platformer that adds modern features that help ease frustration while maintaining its roots.  Precision platforming and strong bosses are balanced with checkpoints and lack of game overs.  I’d really like some of these features in games of old (Megaman for instance) just to make things a little easier now that I do not have oodles of time to throw at it.  I consider that high praise.

Additional Factors

Shovel Knight’s secret success is in the additional factors.  The music is spot on for the 8-bit feel, and matches the environments in each level.  The sound also follows, with the pings of loot and hits of the shovel feeling satisfying with each effect.  Characters are not voiced but they shouldn’t be — a modern upgrade here would have diminished the game.

Plague Knight DLC

Replayability is high.  The game is not particularly long (6-8 hours), but packs a lot of additional content.  First, there are the secrets you may have missed on the first go round.  Second, there are leaderboards and speedrunning ingame, that will appeal to those who have the skill to move up (not me).  Lastly, there is a large DLC that lets you replay the game from Plague Knight’s perspective, with all new attacks and levels.  This is a really cool twist after completing the main game and helps satisfy any lingering need for hard platforming.  In addition, there are cheats activated through different profile names (you get four profiles) that can add a fun way to replay the game.

Conclusion

Shovel Knight is an all around solid, fun experience.  The difficulty may be frustrating at times, but the blow is lessened with built in help.  The progression, themes, and level uniqueness keep the game fresh throughout its shorter playtime, with additional modes giving length for those that want it.  Overall a great nostalgic trip to a bygone era, that patches out the pitfalls of the past with the refinement of the future.

 

The Good

+Nostalgic feel perfectly accomplished

+Music/presentation

+Interesting themes and bosses

+Solid gameplay and controls

The Bad

-Trial and error difficult may turn off those who did not experience the fun of “Nintendohard” titles of yesteryear

 

Total Score: 8.2/10

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13 thoughts on “Review: Shovel Knight

  1. Can I just say that the writing in your conclusion paragraph is on point? That was a rhetorical question, because I did say it. I’ll have to ask my husband if he’s played this yet, I’m not positive but there’s about a 98% chance this would be nostalgic for him as well.

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  2. Pingback: Monday Morning Procrastination Pack #7 – QTX

  3. I started playing video games around the tail end of the SNES era, so I missed out on the classic 8-bit platformers. This game sounds like a fun challenge. I do have a fancy Shovel Knight Amiibo, and I am definitely planning on picking up this game at some point.

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  4. I have not played this game. It does seem similar to other games from the time, hero entering different themed areas and defeating bosses to find the villain and retrieve their treasure or rescue the hostage. The use of upgrades and places to purchase more equipment does seem to develop the game further. It is strange how the simple music used in older games can seem to fit the themes of the levels, despite the music consisting of a few notes and sounds. It is interesting how the game gives the bosses more character, rather than just a special attack and becoming just a way for the player to create a strategy to counter the enemy’s attack. Interaction with the hero makes them seem to have more character. How did the levels function? Was there one part for each level? Or did each level have a few parts? How does the treasure function? After dying, is the amount deducted left in bags hanging where the player died? How does the amount of treasure possessed affect the amount of lives held by the player? Why does the game allow the player to play as Plague Knight, but not another character? Is the Plague Knight’s character more developed?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Each level tends to have similar platforming mechanics, but may also introduce something unique such as fans that blow air to navigate etc. The treasure portion is held in the bags that hover and you an fully recover it. Some gear lessens the loss, as possibly you might not be able to reach the lost treasure on the subsequent play through. Not sure why Plague Knight got the special treatment, but he’s certainly different than Shovel Knight!

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  5. Good review! I didn’t love Shovel Knight, but I enjoyed it a great deal and it deserves a lot of praise for faithfully recreating the 8-bit era without coming off as derivative or uninspired. Funnily enough, I was surprised at the game’s reputation for being difficult, as the early stages fell easily. It was only in the later levels when the game shows its claws that the reputation made sense! So many times I would stupidly try for those floating money sacks only to die and lose more and more money in the process…

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  6. Everyone I hear from all seem to really like Shovel Knight. I’ve always been a bit hesitant to get into it, though. It’s on my list, and I’m sure I’ll get it eventually, but I have this freak condition, where I somehow don’t like Mega Man all that much, and the game just visually feels so much like Mega Man that it’s been turning me off of it.

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    • I am not a Mega Man guy, but I got really into the game. Mega Man always had some tough areas, but like I mention Shovel Knight manages the frustration. It’s also not too long so it doesn’t take a big investment.

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