Its difficult to envision a world of gaming without the things that have come before; titles that have inevitably paved the way for the gaming environment we know today. Would we have platformers as we know them were it not for the Super Mario Bros and a certain spiky blue hedgehog? Would we have games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield if it were not for titles such as DOOM being the trend-setters for a generation of game developers? Indeed, its hard to imagine a world where games with pixel-y graphics and 8bit tunes didn’t start a tour de force which revolutionised the gaming world as we know it.
Its also difficult not to miss the simplistic charm that many of these games leaked from every pore; say what you like about your Grand Theft Autos and your Dark Souls, but they’ll never match the charisma or soul that many of the classics did in their hayday. Even now, its hard not to feel inspired when you hear the upbeat tunes of that classic Mario theme song, or the sounds of Sonic collecting a bundle of rings. That retro feel should be something everyone experiences at least once in their life – the feeling that you’re not just playing a video game of old, but a part of history, of something much bigger.
I’d experienced that feeling a few times in my life, but when I picked up my controller and stepped into the shoes of Shovel Knight a few weeks ago, I was there all over again – and it was like I’d never even left.
Developed by Yacht Club Games, a team comprising of former WayForward employees and featuring the talents of people that have worked on the likes of Contra 4, A Boy and His Blob and Double Dragon Neon, Shovel Knight is the story of one hero and his female companion, from whom he is seperated when an evil Enchantress reclaims her power and thrusts a darkness over the land. Standing between Shovel Knight and his love are, alongside a menagerie of creatures big and small, several warriors known as “The Order of No Quarter”. These knights – some witty, some evil, and some downright ridiculous – are tasked with the job of stopping Shovel Knight from reaching the Enchantress and reuniting himself with his beloved.
The game itself is a mix between action and adventure – when you’re not smacking enemies around the head with your trusty Shovel Blade, you’re pogo-ing across ravines and making perilous jumps over chasms to reach rare and powerful treasures, and I must say it is absolutely teeming with challenges and secrets waiting to be uncovered by only the bravest of players. The game strikes an amazing balance between platforming segments and combat; during the game’s beginning stages, areas are split up between large arenas to do battle with foes, and smaller platforming challenges so the player can become accustomed to both, but its not long before you’re forced to fight powerful opponents while also trying to avoid going splat in one of the game’s many bottomless pits – its a fantastic challenge that teaches the player to think on their feet and act accordingly. You will die a lot, but it never feels like a chore, and each death is a learning experience that will contribute to you becoming a better player as the game moves forward.
Speaking of death, the game’s method of punishing you is by dropping a set amount of the money you’ve collected thus far throughout the stage each time you die. You obtain the game’s currency – which comes in the form of various sized gems and coins – by killing enemies, breaking open secret areas, and just generally destroying things, and this currency is your only way of effectively upgrading your Shovel Knight to become stronger and more powerful. This creates an interesting situation where death is never as extreme as other recent games such as, say, Risk of Rain or Ascendant, but dying means you weaken yourself further by losing more and more money, and so this limits the amount of times you may be willing to freely throw around our little blue knight’s life. A redeeming factor, however, is that the percentage of money you lose appears in the world as bags of floating money at the location which you died à la Dark Souls style, giving you the opportunity to recollect it and make your death a little less painful. Should you happen to die before you reach the location you died last time however, your money will disappear and you will be forced to part ways permanently with your coin.
Oh, and protip: if you die by falling into a chasm, don’t try to redeem the money that is floating over said chasm. You will die X amount more times and leave the level poor. Trust me. I know.
As fantastic as the gameplay in Shovel Knight is however (and it is bloody fantastic), I simply could not write a review without mentioning the retro design and style. I mean look at that colour palette;
Everything about Shovel Knight’s design makes me want to jump for joy; in a world where graphics are deemed to be 90% of the selling point, Shovel Knight absolutely does more with so much less. It might not be next-gen graphics, but it doesn’t need to be. I have played some of the most beautiful games ever to exist, but Shovel Knight is right up there with them and it makes a mockery of games that spend most of their time trying to flaunt their new engines and style. If nothing else, Shovel Knight reminded me exactly why I love retro titles – because they are absolutely stunning in every single way.
With the way I’ve spoken about the graphics then, you may be led to believe it was my favourite part about Shovel Knight – and it was, for about 15 seconds. Then I hit start, and the musical styling of Jake Kaufman’s soundtrack kicked in, and I fell in love. If you haven’t heard any of Kaufman’s stuff, he was also the musical genius behind DuckTales Remastered and the amazing Mighty Switch Force, and the things he does with music send shivers up my spine.
I mean, check this out;
In Shovel Knight, the graphics and the music come together and create one of the most engrossing experiences I’ve had in a very long time; Shovel Knight doesn’t feel like a game that was created to be like SNES games – it feels like it was there all along, a part of the aforementioned great history that went on to inspire many more titles that would have come after it. Shovel Knight feels like a game you would’ve played on the SNES, a title that would have done its peers proud. It is inspiring, enchanting, and every bit worth your attention.
Shovel Knight is the retro experience of this century, and you’d be positively crazy to miss it.