Shovel Knight: Actually as Good as People Say It Is
Shovel Knight gets it. It doesn’t follow the cargo cult routine of indie games who use sprite-based graphics instead of good game design; it groks its favorite NES games but also aims to improve on them instead of miring in dead memories.
You know how I’m always griping about phony indie games that pander to lazy nostalgia instead of living on their own merits? Unlike most indie game creators that claim their work is “8-bit” and “retro”, Shovel Knight’s team poured their souls into their game’s creation. It is clearly inspired by the later NES games, especially Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse and the second through sixth Mega Man entries. Instead of making the game look like a jittery Commodore 64 reject and calling it good, Yacht Club Games went out of their way to recreate the look of an NES game but also made it play much like one. This alone would make Shovel Knight noteworthy, but the game itself is also a blast from start to finish.
While traversing through the levels, you can attack enemies from the front or from above. Yacht Club Games obviously loved the Ducktales game for the NES, because you spend much of the game pogoing on foes’ heads. In many cases, it’s the ideal method of attack, though of course there are enemies with armored heads or aerial attacks that prevent this from being always the correct way to fight. Every enemy you come across has its own unique patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. The creators took great care to place them along your path so that they would be challenging obstacles but never irritating or unfair.
The levels themselves are excellent. Each is aesthetically pleasing, intuitive to explore, and designed to teach you the skills you’ll need on the later, harder levels. There is no filler in this game; its length is just about perfect. For all of my griping about nostalgia-lovers, this game still managed to make me feel like I was eight years old and playing the best titles the NES had to offer. That’s a fine achievement.
There are several optional levels that require the use of specific items to pass, as is common with Metroidvanias (though this game isn’t one) and the Mega Man series. There are also a host of cheat codes you can use, but instead of a series of keyboard or controller presses they are combinations of letters reminiscent of the Game Genie. Yacht Club Games knows their audience, but this is not empty pandering. As I’ve stated repeatedly, this game holds up on its own good works without a doubt.
Some reviewers talk about Shovel Knight’s supposed brutal difficulty, but it’s just right for us turbonerds who are not merely blinded by nostalgia but still play 1980s games on a regular basis. If you’re playing this game because it’s cute and colorful like your favorite grindy no-skill Facebook games, then of course it will be impossible for you, but Shovel Knight is definitely easier than your childhood memories of NES games. You have infinite lives, the checkpoints are frequent, and the only penalty for death is having to go back a few screens and physically pick up a portion of your gold again lest it disappear, so there’s nothing stopping the player from repeating one section endlessly until they complete it. Like that famous indie platformer VVVVVV, the game is divided into small chunks that might appear hard at first but the short length makes them easily beatable.
Think Shovel Knight is too easy? Think the checkpoints are too frequent? Yacht Club Games prepared for that. You can smash the checkpoints for a little extra gold at the expense of throwing your progress further back if you die. And there’s a new game+ mode with fewer checkpoints and harder-hitting enemies, something I wish was in practically every game. True, there are still health items placed too frequently, but these too are reduced in the new game+.
I beat all of the bosses except one on the first or second try, and often while going in with half health. The final boss was the only place in the game where I truly felt challenged, but keep in mind that I’ve played thousands of video games and neglected more important life skills like interacting with other living things or basic body movements.
OK, enough about the difficulty level.
From all the talk of Shovel Knight resembling a Mega Man game, I was expecting to be able to gain a boss’ weapon after beating it. Instead you can purchase sword shovel upgrades as well acquire overpowered secondary items. The Phase Locket grants several seconds of invincibility after a one-second startup and the Chaos Sphere does gigantic damage from a distance, both at a low magic point cost. Even if you ignored the utility of all the other secondary items, these two alone would be enough to mangle most of the levels and bosses. It looks like I can’t stop talking about how easy I think this game is, but it bears repeating how many crutches the developers gave the players.
The fishing pole item is too slow compared to the rest of the gameplay. What it involves is clearing the screen of enemies, sitting in front of a specially marked pit for ~five seconds, and getting a fish that either grants you gold or a potion. But the fishing pole requires little effort; you hold a button and get something for free, which not only gives yet another way to make the game easier, but is pointlessly time-consuming.
Digging through piles of dirt for loot is necessary but takes too long and requires no skill. I didn’t like it when I had to shake chests open in Wario games, either. The dirt piles are similar to the aforementioned fishing pole in that they are just busywork, and should have been implemented in a less cumbersome manner. Like having the loot sit there in the first place to let the player pick it up. I realize that Yacht Club Games was trying to mix things up, but the proper way to do that is to add more levels, more enemies, and more items (which they did superbly for the most part), not to force a few seconds’ grind here and there. But thanks for not making me sit through endless unskippable logos whenever I start up the game.
Music and Conclusion
As mentioned previously, Shovel Knight looks great, but they didn’t skimp on the music, either. “One Fateful Knight” sounds similar to some of the songs from the NES version of Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Other tracks are clearly inspired by the Mega Man series with their pounding bass and catchy melodies. None of them are as masterful as, say, anything from Mega Man 2, but they fit in nicely with the actual-retro aesthetic.
My only problem with Shovel Knight is that most of it can be easily beaten through attrition. It gives you so many unnecessary boosts that it often undermines its own intentions. Nevertheless, it is an expertly crafted game, a labor of love that is both a tribute to the creators’ favorite games and a great work in its own right.