By: Justin Redmon
While it’s something a great many games aspire to be, nailing down what actually makes a game ”retro” is something few games actually obtain. It’s not as easy as making a platformer hard as nails or slapping an 8-bit coat of paint on your title. And if Shovel Knight is anything to go by, Yacht Club Games certainly understands the difference, creating a textbook example if ever there was one on what makes retro games so great, hitting every high that a game of that era would strive for while also avoiding many of the pitfalls of the time as well.
Like action adventure titles of the era it draws its inspirations from, Shovel Knight comes with tight controls that give you all you need to conquer its challenges. Those with any familiarity to the Mega Man titles will feel right at home with standard movement, which has just a bit of acceleration before reaching top speed, also allowing you to delicately inch on platforms when minute changes are needed.
Beyond standard jumping, the always amazing pogo-jump from DuckTales makes an appearance, bolstering your movement options as well as being probably the most useful attack in the game past the standard shovel swing, which lets you dig up treasures hidden in dirt, reflect projectiles and, of course, hurt enemies.
A wealth of sub items rounds out your repertoire, giving you everything from ranged attacks to movement items. Shovel Knight nails its controls down to the letter, so you’ll have nothing to complain about when the going gets tough in the later levels.
Shovel Knight‘s presentation is 8-bit bliss, being a delightfully colorful and detailed game at every turn. Stage backgrounds never fail to impress, with everything from sailing through the clouds on an airship to fighting ghosts in a haunted mansion earning a turn in the spotlight.
Animations are top notch throughout with great enemy design as well, while boss battles are treated as special moments that are a treat to see and fight against. Plus, even amidst all the excitement , quiet moments like Bar Lady’s dance and the Trouple King’s choreographed show are definite highlights among other standout moments.
The soundtrack goes hand in hand with Shovel Knight‘s fantasy atheistic, with awesome tracks that somehow manage to keep getting better throughout. Each level’s theme perfectly encapsulates the character of both their perspective boss, and the stage itself, like how Propeller Knight’s theme on the Airship stage brings to mind sailing through the clouds, but the boss battle music is a remix on the main theme that feels more akin to an aerial dogfight.
Once again though, my favorite tracks came in those quiet moments outside of battle, with “Watch Me Dance!” and “Campfire” both being smaller moments that became memorable due to the strength of Shovel Knight’s soundtrack.
Shovel Knight places you in the armored boots of the blue bomber’s distant ancestor, on a quest to save his dear beloved, Shield Knight, and defeat those who stand in his way, the Order of No Quarter and The Enchantress. As far as 8-bit games go, Shovel Knight does a great job at getting its story across, and it doesn’t drag things along when it knows people want to get back to gameplay.
Speaking of which, Shovel Knight plays extremely similar Megaman, albeit with a shovel instead. Its similarities to Megaman don’t end in just look and feel thankfully, as Shovel Knight’s level design is top caliber through and through. Most notably in its first level, where it teaches you all the mechanics you’ll need throughout the game organically through its level design, while its boss, Black Knight, serves as a final test for your entry to the main game. The best part is that this stage operates as a benchmark for the rest of the game, where you’ll always run into a new enemy type or stage hazard in an area where you have plenty of time to react to it, and the danger of dying is relatively low.
Exploring levels thoroughly by finding secret passages and searching divergent paths leads to hidden treasures to dig and extremely useful sub-items, like the mobile gear or phase locket, which can turn tricky enemies or platforming sections into cakewalks if used correctly. Others have their own separate challenge level based around testing your skills using them, rewarding you with plenty of gold for succeeding.
Venturing into town after completing a level will let you spend your hard-earned treasure on everything from health and magic upgrades to new armor and shovel abilities, like a charge strike or a ground spark that can be thrown at enemies when you’re at full health. Exploring towns themselves is a treat as well, with plenty of funny dialogue with villagers to be had and other secrets to be found for those who take the time.
The best parts of Shovel Knight, though, are definitely the Boss battles. Enemy knights match their level’s theme and use attacks that perform similarly to dangers you face in the level leading up to them, so you have some idea of what to expect. Still, they’ll throw in plenty of unique tricks of their own that turn each into a memorable battle, like Black Knight shooting a fireball projectile that can be reflected back and forth between the two of you until someone slips up.
Those dying repeatedly have plenty of checkpoints to fall back on as well, but that’s not to say the journey is easy. Shovel Knight is a difficult game for sure, but it’s only as hard as you make it for yourself, and though its mechanics like the pogo-jump and charge slash are simple, they’re incredibly satisfying to use because the game challenges you to use them smartly and rewards you for doing so.
Ultimately, Shovel Knight does everything it sets out to do right, creating a world that’s rewarding to explore along with memorable bosses and characters, but it’s not hard to see where it drew its inspirations regarding its design. There’s bits and pieces here of games here like Castlevania, Zelda and Megaman, but Shovel Knight isn’t a carbon copy by any means.
It excels at what it does not only because its emulation of classic titles is spot on, but by fully understanding what made those games great and then using their successes in conjunction with its own to create the perfect blend of old and new, familiar and unique.
Containing all the sensibilities of an old-school action game, with a markedly unique style all its own, Shovel Knight is a swan song of retro gaming bliss; you’d be hard pressed to find a better title, retro or otherwise, to spend your money on.