Shovel Knight is the gaming equivalent of a cosplayer’s fantasy come to life. When Shovel Knight donned the costume of an 8-bit NES masterpiece, it truly became one. Shovel Knight takes parts of your favorite 8-bit era games but manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
IT HAS A LOT OF THE SAME THINGS YOU’VE SEEN BEFORE, EXCEPT BETTER.
The first thing you’ll feel is that the running and jumping feels like Megaman, except better. Shovel Knight’s jumping is noticeably higher than the Blue Bomber’s, which is very satisfying, but doesn’t detract from the jumping accuracy needed to advance. The bosses are essentially the robot masters right down to a similar naming theme and a version of Wily’s Castle. They’re just challenging enough to push you without being cheap.
Several aspects were also taken from the NES Zelda games. You find new relics within each villain’s domain which are your sub-weapons, which are powered by magic points that you can replenish with jars dropped from enemies and objects. The two towns are reminiscent of Zelda II, and Dark Knight battles could be seen as an homage to the Shadow Link battle.
The world map is inspired by Super Mario Bros 3, to the point that it has wandering battles and bonus panels. Castlevania “Wall Chicken” restores you health, some enemies sport Medusa movement patterns, and Spectre Knight draws from Death. Pogoing on enemies with the shovel is taken straight from Duck Tales. I’m sure there are more references in the game that I’ve missed, but lets move on.
IT’S NOT ALL BORROWED.
The world of Shovel Knight is filled with unique and quirky characters. The regular townspeople are delightfully useless, many there just to poke fun at old RPG NPCs. My favorite is a little boy running around the first town saying that he is the fastest and no one can outrun him, as every NPC walking by moves faster than him. The dialogue is genuinely funny. It’s not going to have you rolling on the floor or anything, but anyone who enjoyed this type of game growing up will get their chuckles in.
It’s no secret that I dislike when platformers that try to push a large story. Fortunately, the story itself is simple and doesn’t force its way into the game play like you see with Sonic Adventure 2’s Tails or Knuckles missions. It’s a succinct, original story with a unique storytelling mechanic that makes you feel Shovel Knight’s desperation. Also, if you’re the emotional type I recommend you get ready for rapid fire shots to the feels with the story’s climaxes.
Game play wise, the shovel is an odd but excellent choice for a weapon. Nothing is as satisfying as scooping and juggling objects, projectiles, and small enemies. That is to say nothing except for digging treasure. There’s something about the dig piles that compels you to dig all the jewels and gold. Your shovel is also your go to problem solver. I guess it’s the shovel equivalent of “when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” However the relics can be nice too, providing several different attack patterns, and a nice fallback for beginners who are having trouble with bosses (the phase locket).
One of my personal favorite things about Shovel Knight is that you can adjust your difficulty by how you play. Destroying checkpoints gives you treasure in exchange for it no longer working. There are also multiple paths and secret rooms through stages, with the more arduous paths laden with more treasure, treasure being used to continue after deaths, purchase relics, or upgrade armor/shovel.
ART, MUSIC, CONTROL, AND THE LITTLE THINGS
The art is probably the prettiest you will ever see 8 bit graphics get. The highlights for me were the first encounter with the Troupple King, which I may have laughed way too hard at, and the battle with Spectre Knight. The Troupple King is just silly, and his “thing” goes on for long enough to be funny, but not long enough to be annoying. The Spectre Knight’s battle is the crowning jewel of the game. The smooth animations and the stage lighting changes make this fight a real spectacle.
The music by Jake Kaufman (Duck Tales Remastered and Double Dragon Neon) and Manami Matsumae (Megaman 1 and 10) is very fitting. If you enjoy 8 bit music you’ll love it, if you don’t, then why are you playing Shovel Knight? Don’t you have some kittens to drown on your way to burning down that orphanage, Satan? Okay I kid, 8-bit isn’t for everyone, but the soundtrack will be considered among the classics of the genre, some day.
The controls are extremely tight and intuitive. The jumping is spot on, again it’s Megaman with more height, plus you have free directional control while in the air. Once you bounce on an enemy once you can release the down button and remain in pogo mode, but it can be canceled at any time to swing right or left as needed mid flight. Being able to switch in and out of pogo mode in midair is key to some incredible platforming. You can also customize your buttons. I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to top these controls for this type of game.
Here’s a few of the little touches I liked: After every boss battle Shovel Knight goes to bed after a hard day’s work. Sometimes this is an opportunity to see inside Shovel Knight’s troubled dreams, but every morning you must wake him yourself. All of the bosses have unique personalities that really set them apart from the robot masters they were undoubtedly inspired by. Finally, when you fish by the Troupple King…
LISTING THE FLAWS
Shovel Knight may be the best 8-bit action platformer to date, but it does have its flaws. It may be too easy for the more advanced players that are up to date with their Megaman skills. I myself had let my platforming abilities slip and I had to readjust from Rayman Legends. I finished up with all upgrades and my first play through completion in 9 hours, while taking my sweet time. Subsequent play throughs on New Game+ have increased difficulty, but not everyone likes replaying just for added difficulty. Part of what makes it so potentially easy is also what makes if less frustrating for newer gamers: The Phase Locket is broken. If you have magic to spare you can simply spam the Phase Locket to remain close to enemies and strike with utter impunity. There is also a seemingly rare bug where Mole Knight will freeze when trying to dig, allowing you to just wail on him for a cheap win, but that’s something that doesn’t happen often and can be patched.
-Gorgeous 8-bit graphics and sound
-Amazingly tight controls
-Great level design
-Phasing is overpowered
Shovel Knight is a better Megaman game than Megaman. If you like action platforming, less like Mario and more like Megaman or Castlevania, then this game is a must have. If you’re curious about trying an 8-bit action platformer, Shovel Knight is a great starting point. If you don’t like 8-bit style or platformers, then the game likely won’t appeal to you.