Remember when you had to blow the dust out of your cartridges? That wonderful 8-bit music? Even if you were born after the NES-era, developers have been trying to emulate the charms and quality that the late 80’s/early 90’s brought us for years now. We have received retro platformers, RPGs, and so on, and while many are great, nearly every title aside from a very select few have been so absolutely full of nods and cheesy jokes that make you forget that you are actually trying to enjoy the game and relive it all, thrusting the player right back into today’s world and into what feels like a cheap Youtube video. Yacht Club Games are the new kid on the block (made from a team that was formally with WayForward), and are ready to change the way we think about the past by delivering a lovely little title by the name of Shovel Knight. Is Shovel Knight able to dig up something fresh with that older look attached, or is this another case of a ho-hum experience? Let’s find out.
The story in Shovel Knight, like most retro-inspired titles is rather minimal. You play as the brave Shovel Knight, who is out to save his dear lady Shield Knight. It isn’t exactly the romance of the ages, but it works in the same light of titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man, which both convey a minimal story that sticks with the player and delivers that urge to progress onward. While the story is small, the world within Shovel Knight is the truly special element that pulls the game together. During your journey, you can stop at villages and other locales to catch up on the gossip and other goings-on occurring through NPCs. While some of these chaps come off as rather basic, others spew dialogue that are sure to put a smile on your face, with sharp, witty writing that keeps you in this retro universe – without making you feel like you are playing a game. This makes the villages a pure delight to explore, and deepens an otherwise shallow narrative ten fold.
Think DuckTales. Think Super Mario Bros 3. Add in some Mega Man. Now top that off with a bit of Earthbound. Those are ingredients that are clearly in this recipe, and they come together to make a magnificent feast for the player. At its core, Shovel Knight is a platformer. The player must walk through the 2D levels, armed with a shovel and defeat enemies until they reach a boss. Beating a stage unlocks more of the world, so its almost like each stage is its own little compact locale, with each featuring their own theme and mechanics to keep the game fresh.
Shovel Knight controls wonderfully as well, and its obvious quickly that polish was a major factor when Yacht Club designed each pixel within the game. Shovel Knight has one strike attack with his shovel, and can also use the tool to dig up treasure. Much like DuckTales, the player can also hop on the weapon to smash enemies and obstacles from above with a pogo attack. As the player progresses, this tool can be upgraded by spending funds at shops, and the player can also take advantage of health consumables such as turkey (or is it chicken?) to get a nice boost of health. That’s really all there is to it, and the simplicity pays off when navigating the clever design of the game itself.
I mentioned that ever stage plays differently, and that is mainly due to the themes being turned up full blast in order to fully take advantage of the setting. Early on, the player will have to traverse a dark landscape that sometimes blacks out, making you wait for a flash of lightning before taking that next step safely. Others are a bit friendlier in terms of challenge, using elements like spaced out single platforms and spikes to serve as an obstacle, and the famous water stage that so many NES titles featured – where sensitive bubbles must be quickly hopped upon to cross over to safety. You will die, make no mistake about it, but the difficulty here comes with a swerve. Multiple checkpoints can be found in each stage and light up as passed. If the player thinks this makes the game too easy, then they can smash the checkpoint and take an offering of loot that will benefit them later. Its a nice balance of choice for those that want bone-crunching hard difficult or would prefer to just enjoy the rich gameplay.
The bosses are really the stars of the game, and every Knight encountered usually comes with a decent challenge attached and a lengthy health bar. Unlike Mega Man, these bosses never feel impossible, but instead act like a delicious exclamation point to an already fulfilling stage. Sure, the mid-bosses and enemies are fine even if palette swaps are utilized a bit too often, but its these moments that capture the essence of all of the great ideas brought forward by a stage, and put them all together for a fitting finale. Will you love every stage? Well, I kind of doubt that, but you will remember them – and considering how easy it is to forget today’s retro retreats, that is definitely a good thing.
Visuals and Audio
Even though Shovel Knight kind of markets itself as a long forgotten NES classic, the visuals are just a bit better. Shading and color modernize this title, making it look crisp and fluid, with animations and lovely artwork dancing before the player’s eyes. The characters look great and this is one title you can tell a lot of love, time, and devotion was applied to by the art style alone. The menus do resemble a very basic NES platformer from the past, but this is just a minor gripe and doesn’t harm the game at all. I understand that we are experiencing a classic atmosphere, but if the bottom screen were displaying a bit more flavor, Shovel Knight would have definitely managed to let even more of its boasting personality shine through.
There really isn’t any voice acting present within Shovel Knight (to be expected), and the dialogue sequences and quirky sound effects do a great job of making up for that. Its the music however that captures what Yacht Club were truly after. All of the 16-bit era tunage blasts through the speakers and can only be described as one utterly awesome soundtrack. I don’t know if this is music I would listen to away from the game, but it is easy on the ears and is just as playful (and serious) as the main protagonist.
Shovel Knight is a fantastic gem that needs to be played by all. With its retro stylings, we could have seen a lot of different products turn out here, but what we get is an experience that feels pure and untouched by the act of parody. This is the kind of originality that we have been missing this generation, and after completing that final moment in the game – its hard not to do it all over again due to the polish and layers of quality that make our Knight’s armor shine like gold. Yacht Club Games may be a newer developer, but with Shovel Knight leading the way – its hard not to be excited about what the future holds.
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