Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platform(s): Wii U, 3DS, PC (Steam)
Release Date: June 26, 2014
ESRB: E for Everyone
This review is based on the Wii U version of the game
Playing Shovel Knight has been like a trip through memory lane. Imagine experiencing the best parts of some of the most classic NES platformer and action adventure games but combining them all into one game. That's essentially what newcomer Yacht Club Games accomplished here, and it's pretty incredible that they did it all so seamlessly in their very first game. Shovel Knight has all the makings of an authentic 8-bit experience, from the visuals to the mechanics and right down to its chiptune music, but don't be fooled; this might just be the best new property of 2014 thus far.
Shovel Knight begins with the tale of the titular character and regales how he accomplished many great feats with his partner and love interest, the female Shield Knight, until one day, the two fell to the dark power of a cursed amulet in the Tower of Fate. Upon reawakening, Shovel Knight finds the tower sealed and Shield Knight missing. Falling into despair, our hero retires and secludes himself from the world, only for an enemy known as The Enchantress to rise in his absence, unseal the Tower of Fate, and conquer the land with her 8 knights of The Order of No Quarter. Upon hearing this, Shovel Knight takes it upon himself to journey to the tower and stop The Enchantress as well as hopefully rescue Shield Knight.
As mentioned at the outset, the game takes heavy inspiration from several classic NES games, and it definitely shows right off the bat. Each main level plays out similarly to the 2D side-scrolling levels from Mega Man games, sometimes with a miniboss in the middle and ending with a main boss, which is one of the eight knights of The Order of No Quarter. A bit of DuckTales is thrown into the mix with Shovel Knight's ability to pogo bounce off of most enemies he comes across with his shovel (though you won't be able to pogo jump on the ground itself). Also, Castlevania influence is shown through the use of different items, and inspiration from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link comes into play in the form of the game's combat (attacking with the shovel, especially with the downward thrust) as well as a couple of towns where you can explore and talk to people. These also serve as hubs where you can buy additional health, magic, shovel, and armor upgrades. Finally, the world map is very akin to the one in Super Mario Bros. 3, in which you traverse a set of different locations interlinked by lines.
The levels tend to steer more towards traditional platforming (along with a bit of puzzle platforming) with a lesser emphasis on enemies, though you'll still come across plenty throughout (and again, the occasional miniboss). Furthermore, each level does a great job of bringing new, unique game mechanics and playing to their theme well. For example, you'll have to touch snow in the air for it to get it to drop and cover spike-filled areas in Polar Knight's level, ride on torpedoes in Treasure Knight's submarine-based level, or ride and manipulate the wind created from propeller in Propeller Man's stage. There are also a number of additional areas to explore on the world map where you can gather treasure, but you'll usually need a special item to proceed.
What makes the game especially interesting are other small but memorable aspects and quirks that set it apart from other titles. Being a "Shovel" Knight, naturally you can use it to break apart blocks or even dig certain piles on the ground which will reveal treasure. Instead of losing lives, you lose a percentage of your gold, but you're given a chance to retrieve it at the exact area you lost it. Villagers all seem like they have something legitimately interesting or funny to say. There are even random, roving enemies you'll encounter on the map, some of which have their own stories that will play out in the form of a boss fight.
Where Shovel Knight really shines, though, is in its boss fights (and optional ones as well). Each is similar to a Mega Man boss fight, but taken to the extreme. Most are fast-paced, over-the-top, flashy, and extremely imaginative; a few standouts include Mole Knight, Propellor Knight, Treasure Knight, and Tinker Knight (whose I won't spoil); all of which are pretty creative and have an amazing visual flair. It might seem like simply trying to hit them would make it boring, but the number of different attacks and complex patterns each has is pretty astounding and makes these fights moderately challenging. And at the end of one, Shovel Knight delivers the final blow in slow motion, adding a dramatic flair that makes you feel like a real hero.
Aside from its charming 8-bit presentation, the game has a great sense of visual style. Just about all of the character design is extremely likeable, starting with Shovel Knight himself, who has a great look. All of the Order of No Quarter have quirky yet different and memorable designs themselves, recalling some of Mega Man's bosses of old and how many of them ended up really growing on the players. Even the background imagery and scenery is fantastic, with multiple layers being used and highly detailed, and dramatic effects that include areas that are partially black (to simulate darkness) that light up when lightning strikes. While not adhering strictly to the NES's technical limits, Yacht Club Games did a brilliant job of breaking the boundary when they needed to in order to really make the game sing while staying true to the vision of a new retro-style game.
Adding further to the retro aesthetic is a brilliant soundtrack, and arguably one of the strongest of the year so far. Jake Kaufman lends his musical talents here as well as Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, who contributes two of her own tracks. And much like his work on DuckTales Remastered and the Mighty Switch Force games, Kaufman manages to pull off an extremely catchy soundtrack reminiscent of the old Mega Man games along with a dash of inspiration from Castlevania. He made mention that the OST can even be played on an actual NES, giving further legitimacy to what Yacht Club Games was attempting to achieve.
In the end, Shovel Knight is not a game that is necessarily innovative or industry-changing; everything that it does already exists to some degree in other games during the NES era. However, what makes it truly amazing is the fact that it combines the best aspects of those games and creates something truly special and thoroughly entertaining because of it. From its quirky character design to its Mega Man/DuckTales/Castlevania-inspired gameplay to its outstanding music, Shovel Knight hits nothing but high notes all the way to its conclusion.
+ Great, charming plot
+ Good amount of content to play through
+ Incredible boss fights
+ Soundtrack is very catchy; easily one of the best of the year
+ 8-bit visuals and effects are a joy to behold
- Some levels feel a bit longer than they should be.
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
Shovel Knight is a great new property by Yacht Club Games that plays like a retro game yet feels modern and fresh at the same time, and is easily one of the best games of 2014 so far.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.