“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
―Miguel de Cervantes,
“What if development for the NES never stopped? How would an 8-bit game feel and play if developed today? We imagined the gameplay would benefit from modern design lessons, and the tech would receive subtle but substantial upgrades… Being aware of the rules in this case led to the game feeling clear and simple; one of the hallmarks of a great NES game.”
These questions, posed by the developers at Yacht Club Games, show they understood what made the games of the NES so good. For this reason, among others, Shovel Knight is a seminal retro-styled 2D indie platformer. Successfully and more than adequately funded through its Kickstarter campaign, this action side-scroller isn’t one to be missed. It isn’t just another pandering lookalike manipulating our nostalgia for the 8-bit era to make a few bucks. It’s not like other games which vividly capture that aesthetic yet turn out to be hollow on the inside. Shovel Knight is much more than that.
A lot of games in this vein seem to just adopt the aesthetic while forgetting the mechanics. The 8-bit look was a necessary symptom of hardware capabilities and limitations at the time. It’s been over-glamorized since but the mechanics of those 8-bit games were examples of early developers pushing through limitations to create engaging game experiences. In other words, the best and most significant thing was gameplay in the games that filled the library of the NES, titles which Shovel Knight sought to imitate, not the 8-bit graphics.
Perhaps Shovel Knight is also a success because of its specific influences. It doesn’t grab at the 8-bit era with sweeping generalities. It aims at pointed icons of the past. To my mind, this game is DuckTales meets Mega Man II and Super Mario Bros. 3, or as I like to call it: “melee Mega Man”. Other noted influences include Zelda II and the NES Castlevanias. Shovel Knight takes the attacking mechanism from DuckTales and Zelda II, the world map modes from SMB3, and the tight platforming and arsenal systems from the Mega Man and Castlevania games. Shovel Knight handles like a classic Capcom side-scroller.
Those among our readers who are familiar with the aforementioned classics can exude a hearty noise of satisfaction, for Shovel Knight represents the best of their platforming, responsiveness, tightness, skill, difficulty, level-design, personality, and craftsmanship. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you really just need to get down from the stupefying height of your high horse and play Shovel Knight for yourself.
Originally available for PC and Nintendo’s 3DS and Wii U, the game later expanded via ports to the PS3, PS4, Vita, and Xbox One. So yeah, I would consider it to be more a 3rd-party Nintendo game in its influence and original release than anything else. The various versions included different exclusives such as character Kratos from God of War on the PlayStation and the Battletoads on the Xbox, amiibo support with Nintendo. Shovel Knight’s most recent port was to the Nintendo Switch, a place where it sits very comfortably. This is the platform where I first encountered ye Olde Knight of the Shovel and the hybridized console/handheld system is perfect for it. I actually beat it at the hospital after my second son was born. Lots of downtime during my wife’s recovery. There’s your TMI for the day.
The updated edition of the game, known as Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, was released on March 3rd 2017, coinciding with the release of the switch. Treasure Trove includes the original game, retconned with a new title as Shovel of Hope. It also features two additional campaigns: Plague of Shadows in which players fill the shoes of one of Shovel Knight’s antagonists, Plague Knight, and also Specter of Torment, which turns the gameplay on its head and speeds it up with Specter Knight, another villain from the original game. There is a third update featuring another boss character, King Knight, which is due to be released late 2017.
This review before you, dear reader, is primarily concerned with Treasure Trove’s Shovel of Hope. I shall leave the tricky Plague of Shadows and the hack n’ slashy Specter of Torment campaigns for future reviews.
Additionally, Shovel Knight has the attractiveness of novelty. How many medieval, high fantasy games have seen in our lifetimes? A billion, trillion, ludicrizillion? Well this title stands out because its titular character wields not a sword but a digging utensil and nobody ever seems to seriously question his choice of weapon. This single alteration to the all-too-familiar knight character informs not only the playfulness and personality of this game, but also its gameplay (previously mentioned as one of its most important features). The Shoveling Knight can not only use his shovel to attack with broad swings and downward thrusts, but he can also dig up treasures and break apart blocks of dirt.
Commenting in an interview on this unique armament, artist Nick Wozniak said: “The inception of the idea last January happened sort of as a joke conversation over lunch that kind of got too serious. It’s a serious conversation in terms that we were putting actual thought forth, but it wasn’t like “Let’s spend the next year and a half of our lives making a shovel game.””
This kind of casual creativity is no strange thing to the entertainment world. In 1994, the artists behind Toy Story brainstormed up the characters for A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL-E over lunch, doodling on napkins. Heck, several friends and I had a casual joke that could turn into a best game ever idea: a multiplayer fighting game with the accessibility of Super Smash Bros. starring big-head mode American politicians. The more you think about it, the better it sounds. Think about it: Robot Clinton vs Robot Rubio, Bernie Sanders redistributes player’s health evenly for his special, Ted Cruz’s reveals he’s the Zodiac Killer, Ben Carson mews and it puts everyone to sleep like Jigglypuff, the entire Bush clan is interchangeable like Pokémon Trainer, Obama uses drone strikes and ships your health off to your enemies, Al Gore sets the planet on fire, and the final boss is a tiny-handed Trump in the vein of Master Hand. It could finally give us a chance to step back and laugh at all of politics, and escape the ugly partisanship that’s become so infectious.
Anyway. Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were lovers of the golden age of adventure. Together, they felled many a foe and sought many treasures across the world, Shovel Knight with his code of shovelry and Shield Knight with her daring and protective personality. They were the greatest of heroes but fate awaited them at the appropriately named Tower of Fate where disaster struck. They uncovered a cursed amulet which drove the two apart.
When Shovel Knight awoke, the tower was sealed and Shield Knight was gone. Broken, Shovel Knight laid aside his adventures and went into exile, turning his shovel blade from a hero’s weapon into a simple farmer’s spade. He kept no companions and his heart felt love no more, only grief.
“I will follow you to the end of the world.”
In the absence of true champions to stand for truth, justice and the Shovelry way, the land was soon overcome by evil. A powerful Enchantress rose from the deepening shadows, commanding the Order of No Quarter, a colorful and villainous group of rogue knights. Fate calls to Shovel Knight through his despair. The land needs a hero once again.
As Shovel Knight heads back to the forbidden tower to confront his destiny at the place where his life once ended, he’ll have to face the knights of the Order of No Quarter who guard the road along the way. There are nine of the scoundrels: the opulent King Knight, the cadaverous Specter Knight, the poised Propeller Knight, the gruff Polar Knight, the cackling Plague Knight, the guttering Mole Knight, the avaricious Treasure Knight, and the ingenious Tinker Knight. Further, Shovel Knight’s fame has spread far and wide. Many other adventurers and miscreants seek the glory of defeating him. An old nemesis, the Black Knight, also dogs his heels throughout his journey.
The knights of the Order of No Quarter must be fought in their own lairs, on their own turf. They’re an imposing bunch but Shovel Knight must defeat them before he can reach the Enchantress, the heart of evil.
You might be surprised by the sadness and heart in Shovel Knight. I was. On its face, it’s the cartoonish adventure of a lone knight marching his way through indomitable foes hilariously armed with only his shovel. The characters are only masking a deeper melancholy which suffuses Shovel Knight’s quest. When I discovered that emotionality was a conscious effort during development, it was a discovery which certainly made sense. The recurring dream sequences are surprisingly moving.
We have this stark imagery of Shield Knight falling from the sky, and Shovel Knight running to catch her while fighting off enemies as the music whispers. We get to visualize his thoughts. He must save her. He could not save her. When he awakes to the silence of the woodland morning, there is no lover by his side.
We wonder with him if she is even still alive. And suddenly all at once this blue, caricatured knight becomes a full-fledged character with hopes and desires. We understand that he’s a tortured individual, crushed with grief and regret, tormented every night by his dreams. That’s the power of the silent protagonist. There’s poignant emotion faintly touched upon in what would otherwise be a title easily dismissed for its silliness.
This is “just a platformer” but its titular character becomes a wistful soul.
In an age of voice acting, facial animations, elaborate cutscenes, narration and expansion packs in place as storytelling norms, Shovel Knight stands defiant, one foot in the past. Emotion through interactive gameplay, not through passive exposition, is a precious thing of bygone history and to see it again here in a game like this is at once disarming and fresh as the dawn. How often have you sat through a cutscene and thought, “This is really rather long”? How often has a game reinforced its narrative with the storytelling equivalent of a sledgehammer repeatedly striking a nail?
Shovel Knight’s portrait of emotion through interaction and silence is the kind of thing we typically see in muted indie games but even in those it comes often with their stylish modernity and art-house principles (see Bound and Hyper Light Drifter). The point isn’t that either of these three styles of telling an emotional story is necessarily better than the others. It’s just that Shovel Knight surprisingly takes the road less travelled. It is too dedicated to its influences, too confident in its vision of a knight with a mere shovel.
Director Sean Velasco summed this up quite nicely when he said, “[In] NES games in general, you have to be able to say something without saying anything.”
The 8-bit Review
Shovel Knight’s visuals are interesting among the pantheon of retro-styled games available today. On the one hand, it greatly resembles a NES game. Obviously, that was the developers’ intention. Sean Velasco said: “If something didn’t look like NES, we asked ourselves how we could make it look more like the NES.” The game has the same crisp pixelated visuals as those old NES classics and it even adopts many of the NES’s hardware limitations. Shovel Knight keeps the sprite count low and only uses a few colors more (four) than the NES’s fifty-four color palette. Sprites themselves were also stripped down and restricted to a mere handful of colors each. That’s dedication!
On the other hand, it’s obvious that Shovel Knight could never play on an original NES. It’s too big, too animated. It obviously drops the notorious but nostalgic sprite flicker and slow-down of the NES. It plays on a widescreen. It’s “a rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game”, in the words of one of its programmers. But there’s a fine line to be revealed here. Shovel Knight isn’t merely an homage, a tribute to pixelated years gone by. It has a life of its own and its imitations are far more than simply superficial.
Even with so many chiptune soundtracks out there attempting to capture that old, tinny, robotic sound of the NES in its prime, this particular soundtrack stands out. It sounds incredibly authentic. That gravelly bass, that high-pitched wailing, that racing drum rhythm evocative of 80’s rock, it’s all here as you remembered it though you may have never listened to this soundtrack before. Jake Kaufman evidently took great pains to preserve the accuracy of his 8-bit music as composer. But could we really have suspected that anyone at Yacht Club Games would shirk on their responsibility to make this game as true to the NES as they could?
One such example of restraining the music like they restricted the visuals to the limitations of the NES was by using the limited audio channels that the system was capable of. Now, it is true that the soundtrack to Shovel Knight sounds much fuller than perhaps any NES game’s OST that you played and heard. You’ll recall that NES sound effects infamously replaced sections of music, since the console only had limited audio output. However, Yacht Club Games programmer David D’Angelo noted that the music in Shovel Knight uses the VRC6 sound chip found in late games produced for the Famicom. The chip did not appear in the Western NES so its functionality may sound foreign to many of our ears but the chip basically allowed the use of three more audio channels, making the music and effects much more robust. This is precisely the same expanded limitation which Shovel Knight adopts as its own.
Another amazing aspect of the soundtrack is that it includes two tracks composed by Manami Matsumae, the composer for the original Mega Man, as well as Magic Sword, Mighty No. 9, and Final Fight. Here, she composed two tracks: “A Thousand Leagues Below” and “Flowers of Antimony”, which play during the Iron Whale and the Explodatorium stages respectively.
It’s quite the feat that a small team of indie developers could have a vision that could attract an industry professional like Matsumae. Her contributions, however small, helped shape a soundtrack that undeniably sounds like it stands courageously in the lineage of the best of the Blue Bomber. I’ve no doubt you’ll hear Mega Man in Shovel Knight’s tunes. It’s not enough just to imitate the retro classics. The authenticity here is mind-boggling.
The music in the game can also be collected by finding hidden music sheets and turning them in to a village bard, who will play them for you at your request. How he produces some of these sounds from a wooden lute, I’ll never know. Maybe he’s got a VRC6 chip installed in that thing.
“What if development for the NES never stopped?” The valiant answer to that question is a thousand times Shovel Knight. Guessing at advances in NES hardware, restricting itself where ever possible while at the same time refining what the NES was capable of, this game handles exactly like the best of yore. And that’s why you need a good d-pad for it. As I mentioned, I played Shovel Knight on Nintendo Switch. I did so with Joy-Cons sorely lacking a proper d-pad. Now that I have the NES30 by 8bitdo, I fully expect to re-enjoy all of Shovel Knight with a d-pad that won’t mess up my jumps in mid-air. That was really my only grief with Shovel Knight and it was entirely not the game’s fault. I know now that it plays like a dream.
Since the game is presented in widescreen, there’s suddenly more room on each screen as you progress through the levels. Rather than the solid square screen of old school platformers, the widescreen presentation allows for even better level design with multiple tiers of platforming and lots of hidden areas, nooks, crannies, and treasures. The stages are all very interesting and traps and unique enemies are brandished slowly to the player to encourage familiarity before the game throws everything together for a set of jumps over spikes or pits with flying baddies that will seem utterly impossible. The challenge is in the brutal level design.
Crushing foes isn’t Shovel Knight’s only aim in this game. He’s also a veteran treasure hunter. The odd treasure chest is just one of the many sources of gold and jewels in this game. Treasure can also be obtained by digging up mounds of earth. It can even be gathered from checkpoints in stages, though you’ll have to destroy the checkpoint in order to obtain the loot, rendering the mini-save spot unusable. This is an interesting trade off and it’ll play with your confidence and greed, your sense of worry about whether you’ll die again and your sense of not having enough moolah to purchase that next new upgrade.
Because of course that’s what you do with your treasure. In the villages, Shovel Knight can turn in his gold and precious stones to gain more health points or more magic points. Yes, there’s magic. MP isn’t very useful right away but as you gather more equipment and magical relics, you’ll need MP to activate them and use their special abilities. Some areas aren’t even accessible without a significant amount of MP later on so it’s definitely something to invest in.
Relics are items found hidden in stages. There is one per stage and it’s not obtainable from the boss like in Mega Man. Instead, you’ll have to find the secret area and traverse some traps to access the relic. Once gathered, though, you get to hang onto it forever and the relics can do any number of things such as turning Shovel Knight invincible for a short duration or allowing him to throw fireballs.
Besides for purchasing upgrades to health, magic, and armor, treasure is also indirectly valuable because it’s what you lose when you die. There are essentially infinite lives in this game. When you die, Shovel Knight will go back to the closest intact checkpoint or the start of the stage if a checkpoint is inactive. Satchels of floating cash, a portion of your lost money, hovers over the place where our hero fell so you can recover your losses. However, dying again will erase these floating satchels so particularly challenging stages can quickly drain your coffers! Money in this game will seem all the more subconsciously valuable simply because you lose it upon dying.
Other cool gameplay features in Shovel Knight include a two-player co-op mode (always bizarre in a platformer), an unusual mode that lets you swap all the characters’ genders, and a challenge mode for accessing special gauntlet stages.
The crown jewel of the NES era was simplicity. Games then weren’t crowded with nagging tutorials disguised as characters, invasive HUDs layering everything with numbers, repetitive trophies and achievements, or control schemes and mechanics that require days to pick up on. In the vintage vein, Shovel Knight utilizes only a couple of buttons. Shovel Knight’s attacks are easy to complete and intuitive, considering we all know what shovels do. Well yeah we never use them to bounce on enemies like pogo sticks, but once you see Shovel Knight point his spade downward in mid-air, you’ll know what needs to be done.
Even when he adds additional weapons and abilities to his arsenal, they’re not so overly specific in their use to be inefficient nor are their methodologies inexplicable. Using a new piece of gear once, you’ll know exactly what it does and how best to use it, from the lobbing arc weapon to the AOE weapon to the straight projectile weapon. Shovel Knight in this respect goes even further than its NES ancestors in that it removes a lot of the inaccessibility of heavily abbreviated items and character moves with unpredictable results.
So I remember thinking that this game might be too hard when I first accidentally changed directions in mid-jump thanks to the pseudo-d-pad on the Switch Joy-Cons. After learning to adjust my thumb-placement while playing, I could start to get into the demanding gameplay. Not a cool symptom for a controller to possess. The Switch really ought to come bundled with a Pro Controller as well as the Joy-Cons. Shovel Knight is definitely a game which doesn’t need to be made any harder. There are many stages which will push your skills and strategies to the limit.
New game plus, hidden rooms, secret modes and cheat codes are aplenty in this game. The main quest gets even harder after completing it for the first time. I’ve yet to beat it on a new game plus save file. Even if the gameplay itself doesn’t tempt you back to the spaded knight and his adventures, all of the various possible tweaks, co-op, challenges, and treasures may. On top of that, there are the two other campaigns currently included in the Treasure Trove edition, which I have barely even touched at this point. A third campaign starring King Knight, as well as a four-player melee mode, are due to arrive sometime in the future. This all means lots and lots of replay value.
Shovel Knight takes its cues from the right influences and it restrains itself to be one of the greatest retro-themed modern games that I’ve had the pleasure of playing. It’s not an easy balancing act to maintain between feeling new and fresh while at the same time mirroring aspects of games we saw thirty years ago. Shovel Knight pulls it off through no small amount of meticulous care from its developers.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I just want to scream to the universe: “I am sorry!” A friend apparently once told me about Shovel Knight long before it was on my radar and I was told I brushed off the suggestion with all of the vainglorious pomposity I could muster. To this day, I don’t remember the incident and if it really did happen, I’ve no idea why I did so. Shovel Knight is a treasure that I might’ve met earlier in life.
Shovel knight is more than mere mimicry. It’s true to the NES as much as any game that could never appear on that system could ever be. Do not underestimate this game. Do not wave it aside. I’ll be enjoying it again, I know. Now to unlock the secret butt mode!
SEE YOU SHOVEL COWBOY …
Aggregated Score: 9.6
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Categories: Game Review