The downloadable market is flush with -pixelated throwbacks harkening back to the NES era. So many exist that developers can’t get by on 8-bit visuals and chiptunes alone; a game has to be polished and infuse something fresh and exciting into our rosy memories. Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight not only looks and feels like a lost gem from gaming’s past, it hybridizes classic gameplay mechanics from Capcom hits while injecting a modern risk/reward system. The polished core is topped off with a familiar yet authentic visual style that drives the whole experience home.
At a glance, Shovel Knight looks like someone swapped out Mega Man’s cartoonish futuristic look with medieval castles and armored warriors. This appraisal isn’t too far from the truth, but there’s more to it than that. Shovel Knight fuses together DuckTales’ pogo-jumping combat and Mega Man’s screen-scrolling level design. You can slash at enemies with a chargeable shovel, gleefully bounce on enemies’ heads with your weapon, and explore an overworld map reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3. Conquered levels can also be revisited to score extra cash, and optional side bosses prowl the map like Hammer Bros. Players have a surprising amount of fun things to do beyond beating the eight knight bosses and facing off against the evil Enchantress.
Fattening your wallet by returning to beaten levels and fighting optional bosses is important for upgrading your armored digger. Towns are filled with NPCs ready to upgrade your health, increase your magic (for using side-weapons like a fire wand and limited invulnerability), and shovel/armor enhancements that offer new abilities like digging up treasure piles faster. Shovel Knight eschews the traditional lives-based penalty system of the games it’s inspired by in favor of something more engaging. Players drop floating bags of cash with every death and have one chance to reclaim them after respawning at the generously placed checkpoints. Shovel Knight ups the ante by allowing players to sacrifice checkpoints for extra cash. It’s a unique and interesting way to soften the difficulty, though the risk/reward system loses impact near the endgame after you’ve purchased everything.
Scouring the kingdom for loot is just part of the appeal – the diverse environments and boss knights had me excited for each new level. Green goo drips from the ceiling of a treacherous fire world, turning hot lava into bouncy platforms. Piles of corpses in a graveyard sink if too many enemies cluster on them, forcing you to thin the crowd or die trying. The Tinker Knight battle begins with an imbalanced duel against the diminutive boss before the ground gives way and you face off against his huge jousting-tank contraption. Shovel Knight is a bright, cheery grab bag of good times.
It looks like a simple, straightforward trip down memory lane, but I was surprised by the subtle, emotional story Yacht Club Games delivered. After some boss fights, Shovel Knight rests and dreams of his lost partner, Shield Knight. In his dreams she falls from the sky as he fights waves of enemies in an attempt to catch her. These recurring segments are capped off with a satisfying and memorable payoff that raises the experience to a new level.
Indie throwbacks to video games of the early ‘80s are a dime a dozen, but Yacht Club Games successfully rises to the top. The tried-and-true game design principles and elegant checkpoint system make Shovel Knight worth a try no matter which era of gaming you prefer.
Check out Shovel Knight in action along with more discussion about the game in this episode of Test Chamber.
A polished homage to classic NES games with its own authentic style and inventive checkpoint system.