That is what you will experience, upon playing Shovel Knight. The camera will zoom into your eye, and you will hear birds singing. It feels like coming home.
One of the more successful Kickstarter stories, Shovel Knight is yet another retro-inspired title that wants to capitalize on our nostalgia for the days when we had endless free time, and liberally invested it in the most insanely challenging games to rear their adorable eight-bit heads. This one, specifically, harkens back to the hardcore, instant spike deaths and bottomless pits of Mega Manand its kin. Shovel Knight strictly confines itself to the pixel density, audio capabilities and limited controls of its inspiration, wearing its heart proudly on its sleeve, and makes very few concessions to modern gaming sensibilities – but enough of them to ensure it remains palatable.
It’s sweetly challenging, and not nearly as frustrating as the games it models itself after. While on the short side for any modern game – around six hours, accounting for repeated trips down bottomless pits – and not entirely cohesive or consistent in tone, it’s constantly entertaining. It may not qualify as essential reading – it’s not quite a modern classic - but Shovel Knight is nonetheless
Freedom can often create paralysis, and confinement often proves the mother of invention. The opportunity to do anything, anything at all, includes the most obvious option – to be lazy. We naturally flow down the path of least resistance – but by fencing itself in and limiting its options to a jump, a Duck Tales-inspired weapon bounce and a single swing of a shovel, Yacht Club Games couldn’t permit themselves to be lazy. If they wanted Shovel Knight’s eight nicely large levels to prove entertaining, from beginning to end, they had to get very creative with what could be asked of someone with only a jump, a bounce and a shovel swing at their disposal. And they did.
What they’ve pulled off here, with such a restricted mechanical palette, is remarkable. Like silhouette art, eking beauty out of its limitations creates striking results.
|The minibosses are fun. The bosses are wonderful.|
Early levels are smooth, breezy retro platforming goodness as you hop between gaps, get the hang of bouncing off enemies, meet the game’s first charming mini-bosses and happily collect the sparkly gems that erupt from dirt piles and villains as you tear into them with your shovel. It doesn’t takeShovel Knight long to begin poking at the player, pushing them out of their comfort zone and asking just a smidge more.
“Okay, you can hop between platforms with enemies on them, and survive it,” Shovel Knight says. “Can you do it... in total darkness with lights that irregularly flick on for a half-second?!”
Well, I can try... whoops.
I can try... damnit.
I can... Ha! Yes. I can do that.
“Good! Now try... this!” the game proclaims, throwing back the curtain on something that, at first, seems just a bit insane.
Later levels are white-knuckle, hardcore retro platforming goodness where any missed jump, mistaken timing or misjudged enemy throws you into one-hit-kill spikes or bottomless pits. It would be frustrating it if weren’t so constantly creative and engaging – refusing to let the player grow bored or complacent. Each themed environment introduces enemies which demand strange new strategies, each new world toys with your jump physics or messes with the air, or the nature of theground - it plays around with everything it possibly can, and its levels would put the most challenging sequences of Mega Man to shame, if it weren’t for its checkpoints.
Bless Shovel Knight’s checkpoints. They let the game, and gamer, breathe.
In a Dark Souls-y bent, a percentage of your accumulated cash is dropped at the site of your death, and remains floating in winged money bags. In this way, the gamer who always learns from their last mistake is never really punished for it – but it can create scenarios where your precious loot is suspended just above a bottomless pit, and not worth the risk.
Still, this isn’t a game that wants you to fail. All previously-explored levels can be replayed for additional treasure, so you’re never in danger of dying yourself into a corner, unable to purchase that next sweet combat tool.
The items in Shovel Knight are (almost) all handy – a wand that shoots fireballs, granting a much-needed ranged option, a dagger that permits a flying dash strike, massively increasing your mobility – and each can turn a dire situation into a dominating victory... if you decide to use them. Walking across spikes while phase shifted is an easy solution to a lot of problems, but every problem can alsobe solved with nothing more than your jump, your pogo-bounce and a swing of your shovel – if you have the grit for it.
Really, the whole game is lovely. Its universe never feels particularly coherent, but that’s because Yacht Club took the shotgun approach to it – it let loose with every strange NPC design (my favorite is the Deer Lady) and endearing line of dialogue it could come up with, in the name of being irreverent and entertaining – and it is irreverent and entertaining. Flinging yourself between its two villages via catapult is foolish but fun, for fun’s sake, without being pandering or cynical, and what it leaves you with is a sense of... childishness.
That’s not a bad thing. Childlike delight is often sorely missing in modern games, particularly without subjecting the player to sugar overload, but Shovel Knight is just silly enough to keep you smiling – and its sweetness balances the sad story of the titular knight and his lost partner, Shield Knight. His lonely vigils by the camp fire, dreaming of her, and their enduring partnership offers a pleasantly modern riff on the classic motivations of eight-bit heroes.
That’s the magic of Shovel Knight. It may not be a modern classic, but it’s modern and classic. Its concessions to new-age gamer expectations – its checkpoints, its From Software-inspired loot system, its beautiful skill gradient which sweeps from breezy to challenging to how-am-I-going-to-do-this... they ensure you can whack the game with a mighty stamp that reads “Good Design.”
All the rest? The pixel art, the (fantastic) chiptune soundtrack, the charming animations, the simultaneous depth and simplicity of its gameplay – everything else is for the kid in you who sat cross-legged in front of an old tube TV, a sharp-edged NES controller in hand, until their legs fell asleep beneath them and they couldn’t run for dinner.
If you retain a sliver of that inner child, they’ve been waiting twenty-five years for Shovel Knight. It’s not required reading, but it’s an absolute pleasure. It feels like coming home.