Review: Shovel Knight (Nintendo Wii U)

shovel-knight1 There have been plenty of video games that have released over the course of the past few years that have taken advantage of the retro boom. Even the original heroes have returned for brief moments of glory, with games like Capcom’s Mega Man 9 reminding us why it’s so good to relive those glory days. But with every indie developer throwing ideas to the dart board to see which would stick, a team of ex-Wayforward Technologies employees founded Yacht Club Games. If their studio’s name is any kind of indication, they wanted to craft a high quality experience that would take you on a voyage of not only reliving childhood memories, but creating new ones as well. Hence, Shovel Knight was born on Steam, and more importantly the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS systems.

The mix is simple: Add one part Castlevania, three parts Mega Man and two-fifths of Duck Tales, mix together, bake for seventy minutes, wait, were we talking about cake or video games? I got distracted. Nevertheless, this delicious blend is host to some unique ideas that take parts of your favorite games, merging them into a franchise worth developing.

The Story

Story is light in all the right ways in Shovel Knight, with a tale that’s as heartwarming as it is carefree. Shovel Knight and his beloved Shield Knight, were partners in love and quests, hunting for gold and adventuring together. But one day they’d venture into danger too deep and the next thing Shovel Knight knew, he had awoken without his lady by his side. The place they were exploring, the Tower of Fate, was sealed off, and Shovel Knight gave up searching for treasure, adventure and most of all, his love. That is until the Tower of Fate was reopened by a mysterious woman known as The Enchantress. Throw in a anti-hero named The Black Knight and a bizarre love triangle and let's call it a story! It’s surprisingly deep yet excitingly fresh, making for a story that doesn’t get in the way of it’s gameplay.

Shovel Knight has to face off against The Order of No Quarter, a group of knights who are spread throughout a Super Mario Bros. 3 style map. Each level plays like Mega Man in the sense that there’s a level with a boss at the end that matches the level’s theme. Thankfully, the ideas for main baddies are all unique and there’s no real weapon you can collect from each level to give you a winning edge. It’s more about learning patterns and using your subweapons (this is where the Castlevania elements come in.) You’ll go through the game collecting new weapons and trinkets that can help advance your path and while many of the weapons seem to all mimick each other (i.e. too many projectile attacks) the ones that help you advance through levels (like the sand gauntlets) were enjoyable and I wanted to see more of this throughout the game.

shovel knight bosses 610

It's Shovel Time!

The platforming in this game is brutal and you will die many times trying to advance. Even for an advanced Mega Man player such as myself, the game was extremely difficult in a way that made me want to keep playing and keep getting better at the game. Though your range as Shovel Knight is limited, sub-weapons help but most of the time, you’ll rely on your shovel, using it as a main weapon and pogo stick to attack enemies and bounce off level set pieces and bad guys to reach new secrets. Even after I beat it, I immediately started New Game + Mode, which amps up the damage dealt, lowers the amount of checkpoints one can reach, and replaces most health items with bombs that attack Shovel Knight. It’s cleverly crafted and it’s very easy to see the labor of love that went into this was more about the game than the fund-hype surrounding this and many other “Kickstarter Darlings.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Checkpoints? In a retro-themed game?! I suppose the word you British folk would say is “bullocks?” Sorry, you’re probably gauging your eyes out over reading that, mumbling something about “silly American,” but fear not my merry band of Euro-gamers! The checkpoint system is a major hook of the game that Shovel Knight features in a unique and challenging way. Gamers for years will be saying, “It’s like one part Shovel Knight…” trust me. The way it works is like this: When you reach a checkpoint, it will glow with an image of a gem. Throughout the game you collect gems and jewels to be able to buy new armor, magic and other powerups. You can destroy these checkpoints and collect the gems stored within them. Sometimes it’s a huge reward, other times, not so much. However, if you die, you have to go back to the previous checkpoint before the one you broke. Ouch. The game uses this gambling system to increase the player’s careful attitude during gameplay, provoking them with out of reach treasures that often result in death. It’s this hook that rewards for skill and punishes for greed and failure. It’s completely fair and balanced and is one of the best parts of this game.

Eye Candy/Bleeps and Bloops

The graphics in Shovel Knight are fantastic. Clearly, this could not be duplicated on a Nintendo Entertainment System, but the style is there. There’s just such a huge level of detail: well animated mini-bosses that take up half the screen, colors remain beautiful with vibrant fragrances of fluffy sky blues and acidic greens that ooze as much as they desire oogling. Every color of the rainbow is represented beautifully here and though modern day naysayers may scoff at its 8-bit nostalgia trip, this game will still visually take your breath away.

I have a strange relationship with Jake Kaufman’s soundtrack for Shovel Knight. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy it immensely, but the period pieces I feel take away from the rest of it. Do they fit? Yes, absolutely. After all, the game’s setting is ye olden times; But let me explain. Most tracks were written by American video game music composer Jake Kaufman, who is known for his work with Wayforward Technologies or more specifically, the Shantae series. He’s done a slew of other great soundtracks, more recently the Mighty Switch Force series and Double Dragon Neon are standouts, but this soundtrack has a strange mix of styles. Though the game’s soundtrack takes most of its inspiration from Capcom-NES era Mega Man games, the filler tracks when going through the village or the in-between locations have a heavy influence from medieval times. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all amazing work, but I guess I just have more nostalgic fun rocking out to tracks like “High Above The Land(The Flying Machine)” with its swirling, soaring drums and uplifting harmonies than period pieces like “No Weapons Here (Village).” Everything sounds like it should, and we even get two tracks from Mega Man composer legend herself, Manami Matsumae! With tracks like “Flowers of Antimony (The Explodatorium)” and “A Thousand Leagues Below (Iron Whale),” there’s no denying this soundtrack will be playing in your car, portable listening devices and head for months to come.

Shovel Knight Trailer

Shovel Knight Gameplay

The Verdict

Shovel Knight is a franchise all on its own. It borrows elements from the heavy hitters, but thanks to intelligent level design, a checkpoint system hook that works incredibly well and a fleshed out world for Mr. Knight to play in that looks and sounds fantastic, there’s little negative to say about Shovel Knight. With free downloadable content and updates arriving in the next several months, along with a stellar New Game + Mode, Shovel Knight burrowed its massive hooks into this gamer and isn’t letting go anytime soon. I’ll be praying this gets a worldwide release soon, as Americans don’t deserve exclusive rights on this one. The world will know of Shovel Knight and his shovelly goodness. Dig it?

*The game was purchased during the Kickstarter funding campaign by the writer and was not supplied by Yacht Club Games, Nintendo or any other subsidiary.

Last Updated ( 13 September 2014 )  

Michael "Miketendo" Levy

Raised on an NES, Saturday AM cartoons and sugary cereal, Michael Levy was your average 80's kid growing up. Despite having odd obsessions with bears, peanut butter, zombies and Tifa Lockhart, 'Miketendo' is also the creator of the YouTube review series: D.Y.H.P.T.G?! (Dude, You Haven't Played This Game?!)

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(Link to this comment) suzzopher 2014-09-13 11:35
Great stuff! Cannot wait for the 3DS version to launch over here!
(Link to this comment) DemonicNinja 2014-09-14 09:59
Really looking forward tontjis :D

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