Shovel Knight is like one of the treasures the main character finds inside hidden chests: this is a polished, bright and valuable gem you shouldn’t miss.
Shovel Knight is a retro-style experience that sounds, looks and feels like a game from the NES era. This is a title that will remind you of simpler times: a time where challenge, simple mechanics, pixelated visuals and a soundtrack made of chiptunes were the only necessary components to create a gripping and memorable experience. Shovel Knight owes a lot of its DNA to NES games, such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3 and even DuckTales and the game will make a lot of sense if you’re old enough. If you never owned an NES, you’ll still be able to appreciate this game, but it will have a stronger impact on the people who spent their childhoods hunting ducks, rescuing princesses, riding exciting bikes, whipping vampires and so on.
In terms of structure, Shovel Knight seems remarkably similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, since there’s an overworld map where you can visit towns, participate in random events or visit regular levels. As you progress, you clear out parts of the map and have access to even more levels. Nevertheless, most of the game takes place in regular levels where you primarily move from left to right, collecting items, claiming hidden treasures and defeating multiple enemies. When you reach the final section of a level, a boss fight takes place and as in most classic platformers (such as Mega Man,) you need to figure out the effective ways to bring those creatures down, since they tend to follow a very specific attack pattern.
To aid you on your quest, you use your trusty shovel and several spells you unlock as you progress. You can swing your shovel as a sword, but you can also use it as a pogo stick or even as a traditional shovel to dig up hidden treasures. Although you can switch between spells at almost any point during the game, you can only equip one spell at a time and you have limited magic points which make certain enemy encounters more strategic and thrilling. Spells range from abilities that make you invincible for a limited amount of time, fireballs you can throw to damage enemies and ledges you can summon to reach places otherwise inaccessible. Furthermore, when you go to the different towns, there are buildings where you can upgrade your health, magic power, armor and more. To upgrade these statistics, you use the gold you’ve been accruing or specific items.
While the levels follow the same structure, a few differences make them unique. As in most classic platformers, there are underwater levels, lava levels, flying levels and ice levels and each of these levels has a boss that uses themed attacks. We’ve all played these levels dozens of times, so what makes Shovel Knight’s levels so special? Mainly, the fact that the game manages to replicate the spirit of the games it tries to emulate. All the aforementioned levels respond to specific physics and mechanics which constantly keeps you on your toes (ice platforms are slippery, moving in the water level has a “floaty” quality to it and so on.) Shovel Knight stays true to all the mechanics and concepts introduced by the platformers of yesteryear.
The painstaking attention to detail reflected in every aspect is also outstanding. The pixel-based graphics, for instance, feel undoubtedly old, yet fresh at the same time. The same goes for the character animations, the classic soundtrack, the game’s structure, level design and more. Shovel Knight gives the impression that it could have been made decades ago, but in reality, this is one of the freshest titles you can play, even if its audiovisual aspect suggests otherwise.
Most throwbacks to the 8-bit era try to replicate the high difficulty of classic platformers and that’s a risky endeavor. Although hardcore fans of the genre expect a challenge, making a game that’s just plain hard would definitely alienate some players. And while Shovel Knight is indeed challenging, you’ll never get the feeling that everything in the game’s trying to kill you. Memorizing the layout of the different levels, recognizing the movement pattern of enemies and paying attention to potential threats is something you’ll quickly learn to identify and while you’ll die over and over in certain levels, you’ll never feel frustrated or bored. Additionally, if you want a harder game, you can try to complete some of the feats (read: achievements) or destroy checkpoints for a higher reward, but of course, if you focus on the latter, you’ll be wasting the opportunity to start the game from that point in case you perish.
Shovel Knight should take you between 5 to 6 hours the first time you play it, but there are multiple reasons to continue playing. First, as soon as you finish your first playthrough, you can start a new game plus which is the same adventure with a higher difficulty, but luckily, all your equipment carries over. Second, you get another opportunity to discover secrets, items and equipment you might have missed the first time you played the game.
Shovel Knight isn’t a traditional throwback. The game doesn’t use pixelated graphics, a soundtrack with chiptunes and mechanics from the 8-bit era to impress the player or make you feel nostalgic. All those elements are part of this retro-style experience and without any of them, Shovel Knight would still be a terrific title, but something would be missing. In other words, Shovel Knight is like one of the treasures the main character finds inside hidden chest: this is a polished, bright and valuable gem you shouldn’t miss.