They say that you can tell everything you need to know about a warrior by looking at the weapon he wields. The man with a thin rapier will be nimble and swift. The maul will usually find itself attached to a brute of a man who occasionally wrestles bears on mountaintops for sport. I have no such need for primitive armaments such as those. Some may scoff at my choice, even go as far as to mock me in hushed tones, but they all know the truth. This is my shovel. There are many like it, but this one is mine. I, like so many other warriors, am known by the weapon I keep. I am Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight is one of those rare games that can be based in pure nostalgia without forgetting what made its kin so good to begin with. Normally I would hold off on talking about the aesthetics and general “feel” of a game until the end, but it’s simply impossible to ignore in this situation. Every single thing about Shovel Knight is rooted back in the golden age of gaming. The 8-bit graphics paired with the fantastic chiptune soundtrack create an overall aesthetic that would have been a perfect fit for 1989.
It’s hard to really break down what exactly Shovel Knight reminds me of, simply because it touches on so many of my favorite titles from yesteryear. However, if I was forced to name what I thought was the primary influence, it would have to be Zelda II. The towns bustling with NPCs milling about their day-to-day lives, and the downward shovel attack brought back a flood of memories from exploring that world for the first time. Going further, the item switching feels somewhere in between Zelda II and the Mega Man franchise, while the precise platforming harkens back to DuckTales. Simply put, it plays as a combination of some of the best games from the NES era.
The game plays as a somewhat standard 2D side-scrolling action-platformer. Your main weapon is, of course, your shovel, and it ends up being a very serviceable tool on the battlefield. Swiping at enemies with your spade is your main source of damage, but it offers a more utilitarian function as well. Hidden walls can be broken down to reveal coveted items, and piles of dirt can be dug up to unearth precious gems. The most important tool, though, is your downward strike, which allows you to bounce off enemies while simultaneously doing damage. This technique feels more like Link’s downward slash from Zelda II than the pogo from DuckTales, but it’s easy to draw comparisons to either one.
In true action-platformer fashion, a collection of gadgets and upgrades can be discovered along the way. While these usually aren’t needed to complete the main levels, they’re absolutely integral to the game’s bonus stages and make some of the more difficult areas much more manageable. These gadgets run the gamut from a coin that drags across the ground, causing enemies to drop more gems, to the more traditional fireball and Castlevania-esque axe throws. Everything feels balanced, and without any of the items being “necessary” to complete areas per say, you’re free to play the game your own way.
The eight knights from the Order of No Quarter — whom you need to defeat — are spread across an overworld map that feels eerily reminiscent of Super Mario Bros 3. Defeating them unlocks a new path, and once that area’s group has been taken out, you can move on to the next one.
While the overworld is somewhat dull, the actual stages are downright inspired. This is where the Mega Man influences become really apparent, as each stage would have fit almost perfectly within that franchise. Every level is uniquely tailored to its boss knight, and they’re all incredibly varied. While the traditional underwater and ice stages are represented, it’s the minor details in them that really set this game apart. Be it bouncing on the back of a giant stag beetle or hitting a floating Norse statue so it leaves behind a temporary rainbow bridge to get across a gap, there’s something new waiting for you in every stage.
More impressive is that each level is well paced and balanced. The game is definitely challenging, but usually just enough to keep you coming back for one more go. I can honestly only recall two areas that I found myself calling cheap throughout my playthrough, and one of them was placed within the very last stage. There’s something to be said for that. Most of the more challenging areas are tucked away in Shovel Knight’s hidden areas, and while seeking them out is most definitely part of the experience, there’s nothing forcing you to find them.
To help ease the challenging difficulty, each stage usually has a solid amount of checkpoints that are well placed throughout the level. Dying in Shovel Knight will undoubtedly happen until you really learn the game, but the penalty is remarkably cheap. You’ll simply go back to the last checkpoint minus a percentage of your gold. Get back to where you perished, collect dropped bags, and you’ll be out only a few gold pieces. It definitely reminds me of something from Dark Souls.
Shovel Knight isn’t the longest game on the market, but as far as action-platformers go, I’d say it does pretty well. It took me just under 6 hours to beat the game with an 86% completion ratio. On the same note, this game is screaming for people to master it for speed runs. There’s just something here that feels so perfectly retro that I can’t help but imagine people trying to buzz through the game in 20 minutes for a charity run by this time next year.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the story, and the reason is that it’s a bit on the thin side. I don’t fault Shovel Knight for this since its genre isn’t known for weaving intricate webs of literary intrigue; however, it does do a great job of trying to make things move around. You obviously play as the titular Shovel Knight, who is on a quest to find his battle companion, Shield Knight, after dark magic has sealed her in a tower. However, that’s about it, quite honestly. There are hints of mini stories from townsfolk complaining about the knights from the Order of No Quarter making life generally miserable, but it’s all par for the course.
What does stand out story-wise is how self-aware this game can be. Shovel Knight knows it’s a video game, and refuses to take itself too seriously. There are some seriously groan-inducing shovel puns to be found, a cast of eccentric characters, and an honest to god cheat code that replaces some common words such as “shovel” and “knight” with “butt.” Sure, it’s silly, but damn if it’s not fun.
In this review, I’ve compared Shovel Knight to some of my all-time favorite games, and that’s not by accident. It truly represents everything that was great about my childhood gaming experiences, and manages to actually improve upon them in some ways. I’ll definitely admit to having rose-tinted glasses when it comes to these games, but it’s easy to see why this particular one stands on its own.
I’ll put this as simply as I can: If you have any interest in old-school action-platformers, but decide to skip playing Shovel Knight, then you’ll be doing yourself a great disservice. This is a title that is not to be missed.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
Shovel Knight combines everything that was great about some of the best games from the NES era, and turns those beloved mechanics into something fresh. It’s a brilliant 2D action-platformer, which simply demands your attention.