[Disclosure: I backed the Shovel Knight Kickstarter. A review copy was used for this verdict.]
Good things come to those who wait. And boy, have we been waiting for Shovel Knight.
Even though they only just completed their Kickstarter last April, it feels like we've been twiddling our thumbs for eons for Yacht Club Games' debut release. With delay after delay prohibiting us from getting our hands on this love-letter to retro platformers, at one point it felt like it was never going to see the light of day.
Well, it's here now -- and it's everything we hoped it would be.
Shovel Knight (3DS, PC, Wii U [reviewed])
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Release Date: June 27, 2014
Yacht Club Games has not only crafted a very sound action platformer, but a world worth exploring. The tale begins with Shovel Knight and Shield Knight -- the best of friends, traveling together and defeating evil. Until one day, the latter goes missing, and Shovel decides to become a recluse, living a life of solitude until the realm is completely seized by evil. Shovel Knight springs back into action, with a straightforward, yet interesting narrative that provides a good backdrop to the retro goodness.
Shovel Knight is a simple game to pick up and play, most notably due to its two-button design and masterful tutorial stage. Instead of presenting an in-your-face intro zone that stops the action every five seconds to teach you something new, Yacht Club Games follows the Mega Man X philosophy of just letting you learn everything yourself, with gentle inferred cues to help you figure out a new concept. In order to traverse certain areas or dig through obstacles, you'll have to eventually learn the hero's ins and outs, as well as the power to utilize a downward slash (which is more like Zelda II than DuckTales' continuous pogo).
You'll also come across items throughout your travels, which range from abilities that ape Castlevania's throwing axes, to fireballs, to completely unique powers like a coin flip that can earn you more cash. Everything is very fluid and fine tuned, and all of the items in the game are viable in some way -- not just for situational purposes. There are no "weaknesses" to speak of in Shovel Knight, so you basically play the way you want to play the entire game.
The crux of this open-ended gameplay philosophy is possible due to the currency system, which grants you cash for doing basically everything -- exploring off the beaten path, killing enemies, and even breaking checkpoint signs will earn you more money to use on your travels. It's a clever way to inspire people to not only search every nook and cranny, but defeat every enemy possible. The amount of goods you can buy with coins is astounding, including new abilities (such as a charged swipe), new armor (with new abilities in tow), more maximum health and mana, and more.
Exploration takes place just like Mario 3, in a semi-open "track"-based world map. As you clear off the main castles of each boss (all with their own theme such as death or snow), the fog will clear and more tracks will open up. It's a good compromise between a full open world like Zelda II and straight menu-based levels like Mega Man, since there's some choice as to where you go. There's even roaming monsters at points on the map, which "shuffle" around whenever an area is cleared.
Point blank, Shovel Knight really blew me away with how much there was to do. There are achievements to hunt for in specific zones, secret areas, boss fights in villages, minibosses on the world map, and lots of optional areas that let you hone your skills for a certain item or just earn tons of bonus cash. There isn't so much to do that it's a stressful affair to figure out where to go next, but you almost always have at least two, if not three or four paths to follow to a new area.
The amount of checkpoints in each level feels perfect, as they aren't so forgiving that you can just brute force your way through every stage, but forgiving enough where most players will eventually be able to make their way through. The death system is similarly lenient -- you have unlimited lives, but a portion of your gold is strewn about your death location to recover on your next run. If you fail to make it to said point or can't reach the gold, you're out of luck. Even if you don't recover your loot a few times it's not devastating, but it's an interesting enough system to encourage you to avoid death at all costs.
Ok, so all of this sounds good, but Shovel Knight's true strength is in its brilliant level design. Yacht Club Games has been taking notes throughout the history of retro platformers, and have compiled some of the greatest moments in the genre's history, all while adding some interesting concepts on its own. Every single level is different in its own way, ensuring that things won't get stale after you slowly down each boss and enter a completely new theme. I've seen some tricky jump puzzles, platforming sections reminiscent of Air Man's stage in Mega Man 2, hidden sections that remind me of the DuckTales NES games, and a whole lot more.
There's a constant sense of risk and reward with the game's hidden walls and extra areas, as an untimely death may result in a momentary loss of cash, but I was always inspired to move forward and see what's next. The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since every tune perfectly complements the stage, and gets you properly amped up to shovel the night away. There are very few soundtracks that I feel compelled to go out and buy, but this is one of them.
It's the little things that make Shovel Knight shine from a design perspective. All of the tiny bits of dirt hidden on walls waiting to be scooped up, Shovel Knight's adorable animation when he digs through treasure chests, and even the 16-bit laugh from your arch nemesis Black Knight in the intro level is a delight. Even the UI is delightfully old-school, with nine save files showing your complete progress and upgrades obtained. As a general rule all of the main character and boss models are some of the best I've seen in the genre, but some of the lesser enemies aren't nearly as memorable as say, a Metool, and a few are reskinned as "fire" or "ice" variants.
Shovel Knight is rather lengthy for a platformer, and when all was said and done and every location on the map was explored, I clocked in roughly 10 hours of playtime. I still haven't found all of the hidden bard song collectibles, and I immediately embarked upon a second playthrough in the form of a New Game+ mode. After completing the game you'll have the chance to do it again (and keep all your items and upgrades), but this time there are only two checkpoints per level, and enemies do roughly double the damage. Currently I'm also working on ways to speedrun the game -- so it's worth playing again and again.
In the current build of the game (reviewed here), the only Kickstarter stretch goals that were included are the music player (in the form of a Bard NPC), achievements (of which there are 45) and a New Game+ mode. Everything else, including the gender swap story, extra characters, challenge mode, and battle mode are coming later in the form of free updates. You can read more about the status of that content here.
Shovel Knight is one of the best platformers I've ever played, period. As I sit here with the theme song stuck in my head, I'm realizing that Yacht Club Games has created something truly special, and it was absolutely worth the risk to start their own studio. In addition to a potential Shovel Knight 2, I can't wait to see what they have in store for us down the road.