2D platformers are a genre of gaming many love and continue to enjoy. They blend a number of mechanics into creating unique and fun experiences, originating from established core foundations. Jumping and shooting with Mega Man, bouncing around on a cane in Ducktales and jumping around with Super Mario; these three games are classics many love today. But what happens when you combined them together?
Say hello to Shovel Knight, the successful Kickstater project from Yacht Club Games that continues to get supported with new content. But the base game released in 2014 to great success. Does this platforming adventure offer a digging good time?
Shovel Knight is a brave hero who goes on adventures with his close partner Shield Knight. They are a team and enter together into a dark castle but after great challenge, Shield Knight falls in battle. Shovel Knight moves on from this but always holds her dear to his heart. Once he hears about a new villain taking over that castle called ‘The Enchantress’, he takes his shovel and ventures off on another adventure.
While you would think a 2D action platformer would have little story, you would be wrong. The cast is filled with character and many of the story elements are told through gameplay. After defeating every main boss, you sleep by a camp fire and dream of Shield Knight falling from the sky. You run after her and as you catch her, morning comes and you wake up. It shows you through gameplay that our hero deeply misses her, without one ounce of dialog.
Interactions with the other knights are charming and they also have a lot of heart & personality. So much so you have unique campaigns for specific ones out now (Plague Knight) and in the future (King Knight, Specter Knight). The overall story closes out wonderfully and every plot point feels earned. Well told story for a game that really didn’t even need a plot to push you forward.
Core game structure is mostly based on Mario 3, where you have a map with icons indicating if you can enter towns or levels. Towns are lively locations where you can talk with various NPC’s to get some insight of the game world and shop keepers to get upgrades. Even special relics, items you can discover in the main stages, can be purchased through a shop in the town. But it’s quite lively through specific NPC’s with many jokes on offer, a mini game to earn more gold and even a fast travel option that opens up later in the game that flings you to the games second town.
It’s a system that works really well and while you can upgrade yourself with new items and buffs (higher health & magic meter), you can also play through the game with your base set-up. This ensures you can dictate if you want a tough challenge or not (though difficulty modes offer even more options for this). Elements from the best 2D platformers appear in clever ways that make things more streamlined.
In Mega Man X, you have Sub Tanks that can refill your entire health meter but you can only fill them up through getting health pellets when having max health. In Shovel Knight, you visit a Apple Fish and ask which chalice you want filled up (can have three filled up at a time). Say you pick the red potion for your chalice. The fish does a charming little dance and leaves.
You don’t need to grind for more health to take on that difficult boss fight; only go up to a dancing fish and ask for a refill that costs no money. This is just one of the many things Shovel Knight does to streamline things for the new gamers to keep up the pace. Another interesting design choice is how you have different kinds of levels. While you have the main ones with the Knights of Grand Order, you also have mini-levels where you can net extra gold if you have the right relic or battle levels where you take on a mini-boss. These spice things up and feel like a more in-depth version of the random enemy encounters in Mario 3. The overall design for Shovel Knight is very strong and inviting to gamers new & old.
Shovel Knight’s core gameplay is that of the iconic 2D platformer. You run left and right with the D-Pad, having tight control over Shovel Knight’s movements. Jumping feels great, with little hops and longer jumps feeling responsive. But the main element to the gameplay, is the shovel. Not unlike the NES game Ducktales, you can bounce of enemies and objects. By pulling this move off by simply pressing down on the D-Pad, it feels like a natural action and results in level design built around the mechanic. Using the shovel to dig through objects and break weak walls also fleshes out level design, rewarding you with gold if you set out to look for it.
Gold is the games answer to a life system. You have no life system and instead have check points that you can smash. That’s right, you can break the things marking your progress. Why would you do this? To get more gold that’s what! Gold can be used to upgrade Shovel Knight with more health, better armor with special buffs (charged attack, swing when bouncing on two objects, etc) and more. When you fall into a pit or lose all your health though, gold is taken away in a flying little bag.
If you want it back, you have to earn it through collecting the floating bag once you are back to where you died before. This is a great system, rewarding players if they feel like being risky but also helping players through offering plenty of check points and not being overtly frustrating. Other noteworthy parts of the gameplay include the relics, level design and boss fights.
Relics are similar to the different weapons Mega Man gets when he beats a boss, as they offer special powers that help you not only take out bosses but help with exploration. I loved using these tools like the Propeller Sword to get across gaps or using the Magic Rod to shoot fire balls. Some aren’t balanced well, like the Vanishing Ring (which can make things really easy if you abuse it) but they work well. You can find these in levels through exploring OR buy them with your gold after clearing a level.
Level design supports the relics and uses them in creative ways but it’s largely built upon the core gameplay with the Shovel. They are all enjoyable with the only one annoying me being Frost Knight’s level; you have to hit a special object to make rainbow paths but sometimes the trails vanish to quickly. The best part of the levels is that they teach you through level design, never shoving menus and help guides in your face. The opening stage ‘The Great Plains’ is a perfect example of this, as it naturally shows you through smart level design how the gameplay works.
Boss fights are the final pillar of Shovel Knight and they feel so great to tackle. Each Knight has a personality and fighting style unique to them. It makes each battle feel like you are fighting a playable character rather then a basic boss encounter (which is the case for three of the knights through expansions). This results in boss fights feeling intense, fair and enjoyable through complex enemy design.
Shovel Knight is an all around tight and polished game that nails everything with it’s core gameplay. Nothing feels ‘off’ and it feels the classic platformers it was inspired by. While not perfect, much of the gameplay is strong enough to match the greatest Mega Man or Mario games.
Shovel Knight is a game that is oozing with classic charm that echo’s throughout the entire presentation. Every pixel is animated with great detail, the animations look great and every level feels ripped out of a NES game. Love how this game looks and it honors the style of game it represents perfectly. Modern touches help make it look great though, such as high resolutions on consoles like PS Vita and PS4 making the game pop off the screen for example.
Music is amazing stuff, thanks to composer Jake of WayForwards Shantae series making this soundtrack. It has a lot of catchy beats but very emotional tracks as well. The track ‘The Starlight Wilds’ is beautiful, as it honors Shield Knight, Shovel Knight’s trusted partner. You hear this track every time you clear a level and it motivates you to keep on adventuring.
Opening track ‘Strike the Earth!’ is classic intro stage music; catchy, up beat and stands next to the MMX Highway theme and Sonic’s Green Hill as iconic gaming tracks. The soundtrack and sound design overall honors the era of games it’s trying to honor but does so in such a way, it feels fresh as well.
Version Differences & Lasting Appeal
Shovel Knight has a lot of differences depending on the version you play. With the PlayStation versions, you have access to a special boss fight with Kratos and through beating him, you unlock a special armor that is very useful. You have the Shovel of Sparta and it is quite effective in combat. The boss fight with Kratos is well designed with great set-pieces and good platforming bits.
The Xbox One version hands down has the best extra content, as Rare’s Battletoads pop up to help Shovel Knight out by giving him some training. This three phase boss fight feels ripped out of a Battletoads and the Turbo Tunnel is wonderful (and annoying) to see once more. The fight with the three toads is good enough and the character interactions between them and the Shovel Knight cast is quite charming. This feels the most in-depth version exclusive content compared to the Kratos fight.
The Wii U and 3DS version support Miiverse and have unique Amiibo content through a co-op mode. In addition, Shovel Knight himself got an amiibo and you can use it across a number of games to unlock content and more. Lastly, the PC version has no exclusive content.
Each version has access to the special expansions that are more or less full-games where you play as the other Knights. As of this writing, the only released one is ‘Plague of Darkness’ and we will review that at another time. Two more are on the way and Yacht Club Games describes them as full-new games within the Shovel Knight engine.
Regarding lasting appeal, once you beat the game you unlock New Game Plus mode and the base game will take a good 6-8 hours to fully complete. So between the basic length, new game plus mode (which lets you use all relics you have when you beat the game), the extra campaigns and console-exclusive content…..Shovel Knight has a lot to offer.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
Shovel Knight is a game that many look back fondly as one of the better games from 2014 and 2015. I see this game as a title showing the world you can be ‘retro’ and ‘classic’ but still take in modern elements while retaining your retro identity. This allows Shovel Knight to not only appeal to old school gamers but newer gamers as well.
Shovel Knight is just an all around fantastic platformer that has great production values, inventive level design, and strong core gameplay holding the entire package together. This is a game that knows what it wants to be and walks away accomplishing every goal it tunnels it’s way through. Highly recommend this game to any fan of 2D platformers.