Shovel Knight Review – For Shovelry

Game design from the NES era is a lost art. Mega ManCastlevaniaDucktalesZelda II, games such as these are considered masterpieces due to their clever approach at level design, controls, tutorials, music, and more. Nearly all of these innovations came from technical limitations, making reproduction today scarce. Many games have adopted the retro look, such as Gunpoint or FTL: Faster Than Light, but little else. Shovel Knight is a true gem, taking all the elements that made these early Nintendo games incredible while standing on its own as something completely unique.

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If you’ve spent a bit of time playing the classic franchises mentioned, you’ll be at home the instantly. “Get Digging” flashes on the screen in typical Mega Man fashion before the first level starts. Nary a prompt is presented to indicat the controls. The game plays like Capcom’s greatest hits without ever outright stealing from them. Many of the stages are reminiscent of Castlevania, with hidden sections while outside stages pays homage to Zelda II.

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One thing those games had in common was an inherit difficulty, something Shovel Knight thankful doesn’t ape. Checkpoints are plentiful and smartly placed throughout. The the placement was predictable, usually appearing after a difficult section, letting me breath a sigh of relief when I finally reached them. For those who think the checkpoints make the game too easy, the option to destroy them, netting you extra money, is always available. This adds an interesting dynamic, pushing forward without a net.

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Though much of the design was inspired by games from 30 years past, this could not have existed then. The graphics employ a rich color palette, utilizing parallax scrolling to wonderful effect. While some modern remakes add in slow down and screen tearing, à la Mega Man 9, nary a hitch is be seen here. Not even the slightest bit of slowdown can be spotted. The score is delightfully chiptune based, having some of the best bleeps and bloops this side of Super Mario. Difficulty was balanced perfectly, thanks again to the checkpoint system. Though I died frequently, not one was a cheap death, each stemming from short coming of my own.

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For years developers have been chasing golden era game design, using a handful of retro elements in hopes to achieve this. Shovel Knight not only reaches that goal, where others have failed, but stands on its own rather than being derivative. As someone who laments the loss of creative game design from that time, this is a welcome return. Gamers old and new can find something to enjoy. This is a must play, regardless of age or skill.

Editors note: I Kickstarted this game, contributing to the $15 (free copy) tier. I had no involvement with any stage of development beyond funding. 

What was your favorite stage (mine’s Clockwork Tower)? How many times did you die (a lot)? Comment below!

Tony writes for his own site, thecredhulk.com, about comics, video games, movies, TV and more, six days a week. You can follow his updates on Facebook or Twitter. Drop by and tell’em hi.

Easily in the top 5 for the year. 

4 Comments

    1. Developer Yacht Club has stated the game will make its way to other consoles. Not sure if that means current and last gen, or current. Likely both. When it does, jump on it.

  1. “Game design from the NES era is a lost art.”
    Hardly.
    It’s not a lost art, it was an over saturated art at the time because of the limited hardware, and to this day continues now to thrive thanks to indie developers.

    It was never lost, it just wasn’t used for a period because of the advancements of technology and 3 dimensional game design becoming the new lead thanks to new hardware.

    You know how many indie developers before this have released “NES” styled and themed games and used game design from it?

    -Mega Man
    We’ve had literally dozens of these games, including Mighty No. 9 on the way. Mega Man was so over saturated and milked by Capcom the franchise literally murdered itself.

    Not to mention all the people who’ve made fan made games and spin offs and indie titles.

    -Castlevania
    Are you SERIOUS? LOST ART? CASTLEVANIA?
    ARE. YOU. SERIOUS?
    You know how many indie games out there and other games in general blatantly use game design elements from Castlevania, IT’S PRATICALLY BECOME IT’S OWN GENRE OF PLATFORMERS (Metroidvania games).

    Not to mention 3D games that utilize it’s game design and discovery of areas and items?

    -Ducktales
    Really? DUCKTALES? They’ve bloody remade it, not to mention the game did nothing unique but was just a damn good licensed game and a good platformer.

    -Zelda 2
    “Masterpiece” is really pushing it, that game has a massive split in audiences of people who hate it and people who love it, and good reasons for both sides. But I’m not even gonna begin to open that can of worms.

    I’ve beaten Shovel Knight, and to say it’s “unique” in some way is a joke. Are people so blinded by nostalgia and old game design that they think this is somehow innovative?

    The game heavily borrows elements from Dark Souls and old classic NES platformer designs, and games such as Dig Dug, but it’s hardly unique.

    The game is a bloody tribute and homage to these genres, and uses different elements from them and does it VERY WELL, sure.

    But trying to say it’s unique and it’s “own thing” just simply isn’t true.

    It’d be like me making a western movie but replacing the revolvers with laser guns and saying LOOK, IT’S UNIQUE! STOP CALLING IT A WESTERN.

    But hey don’t get me wrong, easily one of the best games out this year.

    But people branding it unique are too young to know better.

    1. First, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write such a long response. I want to start with your last comment first, as it will illuminate my perspective better. I started playing games with the NES, in 1986. While I’m not sure if that doesn’t make me too young to know better, I like to think it does.

      All of the games I compared Shovel Knight to in my review are ones I played ad nauseam; Zelda: II, Ducktales, Castlevania (specifically I, II, III, and IV), and Mega Man (specifically 2, 3, 4, and 5). These are games that made me fall in love with the hobby, and ones I remember well.

      As for my opening sentence, it’s one I stand by. I think it is a bit of a lost art. I play many indie games, and I see more on Steam, and other services. Countless games ape the style of NES games, but I haven’t played or heard of one that catches the essence or feel of one. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there, but to me, most seem like they have a nostalgic coat of paint. That doesn’t make them better or worse, just not quite capturing the je ne sais quoi I’m speaking of.

      Yes, many of these design choices came about for technical limitations. The point I was trying to make is that sometimes, when creators are forced to work in a box, they can often invent wonderful products. And you nailed it, the reason it was left behind was because of evolving technology. It’s difficult, in my opinion, for people to put themselves back in a box once it’s been left behind. That’s what makes games like the Halo remake for the Atari 2600 so fun, Will Nicholes forced himself back in the box.

      Mega Man has had so many sequels, spin-offs, and more that the franchise did kill itself. Probably part of the reason we don’t get those games anymore. I think each entry had diminishing returns. There was something about Mega Man 2 or 3 that was never quite duplicated. I haven’t played every Mega Man game, so I can’t speak definitively on this, but there hasn’t been many games that recaptured the essence. The series peak with 2 and 3. Developer Yacht Club agreed, taking cues in the level designs from these games.

      Yes, Castlevania too. There’s three different types of Castlevania games, the side scrolling linear progressing kind (a la I, III, or IV), the Metroidvania, and the 3D ones. I was referring to the original type of Castlevania, I, III, and IV. The level progression and boss battles are reminiscent of these games.

      At one point, I could beat the original Ducktales in 20 minutes. My friend timed me. I love that game. I played the remake, quite a bit actually. I, like many (from what I’ve read), thought there was something missing in the translation. The new bells and whistles were nice, but it didn’t feel the same. Playing the original now, there’s definitely something different, though I can’t put my finger on it. Since I’m not alone in that thought, I think looking back at the original is a valid comparison for Shovel Knight.

      I think Zelda II is a phenomenal game. I stand by my masterpiece statement, as I qualified it by saying what earns it that status. I didn’t flat out say it was all around, I said it was because of elements x, y, and z. In this case, the level design and music. Overall, no, the game fails on a few fronts. But in some areas, where it dared to be different, I think it succeeded wonderfully. Shovel Knight takes the town design from this, and little else.

      I don’t see how this takes from Dig Dug or Dark Souls. But if that’s your opinion, I won’t disagree.

      There are too many games out there for one person to play. I try to keep my ear to the ground, waiting for something revolutionary or different to pop up. I haven’t heard of any game that captures the feel of an NES game beyond the look. Shovel Knight did, for me at least. Compared to other games released in the last few years, I’d say it definitely makes it unique. Yacht club has succeeded where others have fallen short.

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