Shovel Knight is the first game from developer Yacht Club Games and is the result of a very successful kickstarter campaign. In fact their kickstarter, which describes the game as “A groundbreaking love letter to 8 bits,” received over $300,000 of their initial goal of $75,000. It's easy to tell that right from the start this was a game that a lot of people believed in, myself included. Yacht Club Games worked hard to not only create the game they wanted to make, but to help make sure people knew about it. Now that it's out we can finally experience this love letter to 8 bit games that actually manages to become what it emulates.
Shovel Knight seeks to pay homage to classic games of many of our youths, featuring Megaman style bosses, a Super Mario Bros. 3 overworld, Zelda II style town exploration, Duck Tales style platforming and treasure hunting, even delicious Castlevania wall-chicken! With all of these throwbacks, fantastic as they are, it would be easy to assume that the game may just be a patchwork of other games with little to call its own. After finally getting to sit down and really dig deep into Shovel Knight I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is a game that stands on its own two armored feet. It may have many inspirations, but this game was born for greatness of its own.
Gameplay is designed exquisitely in a simple yet deep way with a control scheme that could easily be played on an NES controller if you could hook one up to your computer. You've got movement, start and select buttons, and then one button for jump and another for attack, that's it. You'll dig through enemies and jump around plenty but it's deeper than just that. Your attack is capable of deflecting projectiles sent your way, essentially giving you a way to throw attacks back at their source. Also, while jumping you can hold down on your d-pad / joystick to hold your shovel beneath you in a Scrooge McDuck fashion to bounce over enemies and obstacles alike, save for the occasional spike pit. It doesn't simply emulate the pogo stick style however, it makes it its own by changing it in such a way that rather than simply being able to bounce on everything (ground included) you can only use the “shovel drop” to bounce off of enemies, large dirt blocks, and certain pieces of the environment. This gives you the awesome bouncing combat, without having it take over the game.
Your abilities don't end there however, thanks to the inclusion of items known as relics that can be found throughout the world and used by holding up and pressing attack. These work as sort of a combination of the items from Zelda and the secondary weapons of Castlevania. You'll get anchors that can be thrown in an arc, little green orbs that will bounce around dealing damage, and a rod that shoots fire balls, but they can be accessed on the fly through a menu screen and are restricted by what are essentially mana points that are shared by all items.
These relics are never free however. Relics are bought with the gold you acquire through dungeon crawling. A few of these relics can be bought from the village, but for the most part you'll find the the relic dealer hiding away in the hidden sections of levels. You can also use gold to purchase upgrades for your shovel and armor; everything from a charge attack to armor that makes you drop less gold on death to (my personal favorite) a gold set of armor that makes you sparkly and acrobatic while providing no actual benefit whatsoever. You can also spend your money acquiring health and mana upgrades.
You won't always be gaining gold though, you'll occasionally lose it through a mechanic reminiscent of the Souls series that causes you to drop a fourth of your gold when you die. If you can make it back to where you died you can retrieve this gold, but dying on your way there will cause the original gold you were trying to re-obtain to disappear. This actually presents one of the very few issues I had, not with the mechanic itself (which I really like) but the fact that occasionally the gold you drop will be left in a spot where you can't physically reach it without dying.
Levels are presented as you'd expect, in a 2D side-scrolling fashion with screen by screen exploration and plenty of hidden paths and destructible walls hiding gems and food. These levels are actually quite lengthy which was a very nice surprise. To help you out through these long and sometimes treacherous levels are checkpoints standing at set intervals. Walking by one activates it, giving you a safe place to spawn at as many times as it takes upon death. There are a decent number of these which should help those who didn't grow up on old school games. If you seek an extra bit of difficulty, and an extra bit of reward, you can actually destroy these checkpoints to get additional gems. Dying after destroying a checkpoint will simply take you back to the most recent checkpoint that you left intact, or the beginning of the level if you didn't leave any.
Speaking of challenge, I actually found the game to not be as difficult as I anticipated considering its inspirations. I don't mean to say that it is an easy game, in fact I've heard that quite a few have been having some trouble with it, but there is a way to give it that truly old school feel. Upon beating Shovel Knight you can reload your completed save to begin New Game +. However, unlike many NG+ adventures, this game decides to give you a run for your money your second time through. You'll keep your upgrades and items but enemies and traps will hit harder, many checkpoints will no longer exist, and all wall-chicken that would be found throughout a level is replaced with a less enticing surprise. This means that, aside from the rare bit of carrot or apple that you may found hidden in a dig pile in a level, you'll only regain health through death or by using the equivalent of a Zelda style health potion(in a fittingly Zelda “empty bottle” style chalice). It's an absolute blast both times, especially considering that after playing through once and learning the ropes, you'll likely want a challenge fitting of someone with your experience. New Game + offers just that.
Visually, as someone who grew up on the NES and SNES, I found the game to be beautiful in its 8-bit glory. It does its best to work within the restraints of the NES color palette while also adding a few modern touches to make it truly the highpoint of retro style visuals. Everything from the HUD to the settings to the characters are highly reminiscent of the old days. And the music? Oh man, the music is so good. It is so easy to sit and play this game and completely forget you're playing something that has just released and not something that came out in 1990 and that is a glorious feeling.
With a fantastic core game, an excellently crafted NG+, an in game “feat” system to give you goals to aim for, and plenty more content currently being developed thanks to the stretch goals reached through Kickstarter, this game is hands down a must own. Forget the AAA titles, forget the steam sale, go and pay Yacht Club Games your respect with a $15 purchase and experience this fantastic throwback title. Shovel Knight wants to show its love for the classics of days gone by, but I sincerely believe that this game will end up joining them as classic of its own.