Originally a Kickstarter game, Shovel Knight is a love letter to the classic 8/16 bit platformers and Mega Man. The tight gameplay coupled with challenging levels and bosses has been a winning formula for many games in the days of old. However, we're in a different era of games, simply because a formula worked for so long, doesn't mean the game will be amazing. Is Shovel Knight more than just a nostalgic love letter? Does it actually have some interesting twists to make it survive in today's gaming market?

Being based on the games of old, the story is very light, but sufficient. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were amazing adventure buddies that conquered many feats until they stumble into the Tower of Fate. A magical cursed amulet creates dark magic, knocking Shovel Knight unconscious. When he awakes, Shield Knight is gone and vile magic sweeps across the land caused by The Enchantress and the Order of No Quarter. With this new task ahead of him, Shovel Knight goes on a perilous quest to stop the evil doers.

While the actual plot might not be filled with great story telling and a multitude of themes, but the story does serve the purpose of giving the player a reason to keep playing. The dialogue between Shovel Knight and the NPCs around the world is well done and there is a subtle plot twist and a great ending.

Shovel Knight's main focus is the gameplay and it does that to an amazing degree. The game doesn't contain a tutorial like modern day games, but instead the first level teaches virtually everything you need to learn. While there isn't the traditional "press 'a' to jump", Shovel Knight helps you teach yourself by giving subtle clues without actually telling you what to do. There's a ledge that you can't normally reach. Above the pit lies a bubble that can help you get higher. How do you get higher? The game hints at it earlier in the level. While in the air, you can press down on the control stick to bounce on enemies heads, objects, and more. Learning this on your own without the game constantly reminded you what to do gives you a great sense of achievement. The whole game goes on in this format, teaching its mechanics as you go on. It's incredibly refreshing to see a game go back to the old style of tutorials. Shovel Knight not only returns to this format, but perfects and simplifies it enough to where it's impossible to not learn.

The game plays like an old action 8/16 bit platformer. Your primary source of offense is attacking with your shovel which has two main attacks, the forward shovel attack and the down air attack. You quickly gain relics that act as magic in the game which typically is your projectiles/ range attacks. Your first item is the Flare Rod which allows you to throw fire balls at enemies. Relics use magic which can be replenished by picking up magic jars that can be found or dropped by enemies or by using Ichor (essentially refillable potions). There are many relics in the game each with their separate magic costs and uses. Each of the relics have their uses and never become useless, yet they aren't overpowered or required. You can go through most of the game without using magic, or you can rely on it to get through the game's tough challenges. The magic system is designed with a lot of freedom and it shows.  

The relics work more like upgrades than actual equipment, but you can improve the max health you have (which you most likely will need to), max magic and even get better armor with its own special powers. All the upgrades, including relics, are bought with gold. Gold is found everywhere to the point where it's irresistible to grab. Each level has hidden treasure chests and diamonds that adds to your counter. You'll need almost every little bit you can get. too The upgrades aren't cheap, and although you can go through the game without them, it'll make the game exceptionally difficult, which brings up the point of difficulty.

Like the old retro games, Shovel Knight isn't a cakewalk. The platforming in the early levels adjust you to the game's tight jumping mechanics, but the later levels require you to master them. Each of the levels has their own twist to them which makes each of them unique and a treat to go through. At first you'll be delighted to see the twist, but near the end game, the level design becomes devilishly hard. You'll need to learn the gimmick of the level quickly if you expect to survive.

 The difficulty forces you to learn from your mistakes, which is almost always player error. There was never a point where the game was completely unfair, although there is some sections in the game that has a massive difficult spike (mainly, Propeller Knight and the Tower of Fate (which I won't get into for the sake of spoilers, but does really test your skills and your patience)) Whenever you do die, you'll lose a portion of your coveted gold. Don't worry, you can always reclaim your lost gold (a la Dark Souls), however, if you die before you can get your gold back from your first death, that gold will be lost forever. If you aren't careful you can lose a good chunk of your gold in the level. The penalty for each death depends on the amount of gold you have, so it isn't all or nothing, leaving you some peace when you die.

And you will die, a lot. But you'll never feel the sharp taste of defeat. There are generously placed checkpoints, and health items along the way to prevent any true frustration. There is always a checkpoint before the boss fights, which saves you a lot of time if you happen to die, unlike other games in the genre or with similar design. Each boss fight is also a fun game to play. They all have their own unique attack patterns and weaknesses. Fighting the level's boss is always an excellent end to the level.

Shovel Knight's level and boss design truly does shine in every level. Completing the game is fun a romp, but isn't long by any means. There is a wealth of side of content and collectibles to find. Buying all the upgrades will require to be either a perfect player, or replay some of the levels (which you'll need to do anyways if you're looking for collectibles). There is also New Game Plus which allows you to keep all your equipment, but gets rid of all the healing items and checkpoints in the level, meaning if you die you have to start all over. It is a worthy challenge for those looking to squeeze everything out of the game.

In addition to the superb gameplay, you're treated to an amazing soundtrack (the first level's music is just fantastic) and beautiful sprite based graphics. It really does suit the style of the game and makes the whole game feel like you're playing on a retro system.

Conclusion: Shovel Knight does so many things right that it makes it hard to see the negative. The gameplay and controls are incredibly tight and the soundtrack and graphics are fantastic. The whole game is just a load of fun to play. The game is easily among the best indie games of the generation, and one that is sure to be remembered.

Pros & Cons List

Pros

  • +2 Amazing gameplay and controls
  • + 1.5 Great level design and brilliant boss battles
  • +1 Beautiful soundtrack
  • +0.5 Good amount of side content with more to be added

Cons

  • -0.25 Huge difficulty spikes near the end of the game