Shovel Knight is not a trailblazer. Shovel Knight isn’t going to be remembered for being the first of its kind in any detail whatsoever, but in 10 years, people will be playing Shovel Knight just because of how damned good it is.
The story is simple, but like most things in Shovel Knight, subtly and masterfully effective. It revolves around the titular hero and his quest to rescue his adventuring lady companion, Shield Knight, from the evil Enchantress. Naturally, standing in your way are nine bosses that make up the Enchantress’ “Order Of No Quarter”, and a plethora of mini-bosses. The game’s narrative power may seem small, but its resolution is shockingly heartwarming and stands out as one of the most satisfying endings of any game I’ve played. There’s an especially poignant side arc involving a repeated mini-boss’s struggle to stay free from any allegiance, including the Enchantress’s Order Of No Quarter, which served to be one of the central emotion-drawers in the narrative and struck me as a detail that wouldn’t have made it into a lesser game.
It plays essentially like a who’s-who of elements from classic NES games. You traverse the overworld map from Super Mario Bros. 3 and fight an assortment of Mega Man-style bosses, whose names all end in “Knight”, using the Duck Tales bounce-on-your-enemy’s-head combat. You can use magic items selected with The Legend of Zelda’s inventory system, and visit a Zelda II town in-between levels to resupply and upgrade. The thing about it, though, is it never feels like this. Though it is somewhat disappointing in a vacuum how few original ideas made it into the game, it never feels like a pile of tired mechanics. It feels like a freshly polished pair of mechanics-shoes for Shovel Knight to slip into.
There’s a real charm running through the game. Interaction with NPCs, boss dialogue, and enemy design is always coated in whimsy. Rats with blank stares hanging from propellers count as enemies, and there’s a pretty delightful dance starring an apple-whale pictured below. Important dialogue is emphasized with wobbly letters and every level opens with something like -FOR SHOVELRY- or -STEEL THY SHOVEL-. It takes the whole shovel thing seriously, but as a whole the game is not serious at all. It feels like everyone, even the bosses, are friends with each other and no, this does not harm it whatsoever.
A couple of hours into the game, when you’re proficient with its workings and what you can expect, you may begin to notice how good it all feels in your hands. This is something a game like this lives and dies on, and when things go haywire for a platformer, they go brutally so. Shovel Knight never goes haywire. Nothing about its controls feels slippery, broken or unresponsive. It seems to me that calling them controls in the first place is selling them short. It feels like an extension of your hand, not a game you’re controlling.
Shovel Knight may occasionally prove to be a formidable challenge, but it’s never as unforgiving as the games it draws from. It’s a pleasant, periodically-demanding 7 hours, but you have the ability to change that through a novel and distinctly modern checkpoint system. Checkpoints are fairly liberally scattered around the levels, and some can be broken for a load of extra money, but obviously once you’ve done that, you’re going to return to the last unbroken checkpoint from now on. Add to this the Dark Souls-like system of dropping a portion of your money when you die and having to retrieve it before you die again, and the weighty risk-reward becomes clear.
While most games trying to evoke the same memories as Shovel Knight tend to come across as a railgun giving you a blast from the past straight to the frontal lobe, Shovel Knight is a warm blanket slowly enveloping you and handing you a plate of tasty waffles for you to enjoy on the Wii U, 3DS and PC. It isn’t harkening back to pleasant memories for the sake of it, it’s uncovering them and molding them into a genuine style and tone. This article showcases better than I can the lengths the developers went to to ensure that their art was more than a hollow callback. Little things like limited color palettes and sprites overlapping the HUD all received the developer’s attention moreso than you would expect. The music in general is what one could call “music for a retro indie game”, but it does contain a handful of memorable tracks.
If you’ve made it this far into the review, you may be noticing that I’ve hardly said anything bad about Shovel Knight yet. That’s because there’s hardly anything bad about it. Where it doesn’t shine brightly, it’s merely harmless and while its ideas are almost wholly unoriginal, its execution is better than every other game in its genre. Shovel Knight is a very special game that I’m sure will be remembered as fondly as all the games it draws from, and for just as long.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.
Shovel Knight is available for purchase on the Wii U eShop, 3DS eShop, and Steam.