While generally game reviews are reserved for the soon-to-be or recently released, there is always room for exceptions. Due to an impending amiibo release, we felt it necessary to look back at a game that has carved its way into the hearts of many people since its release in 2014. Taking up my 3DS once again I was ready to revisit the game that taught me the meaning of shovel justice. For those who’ve played before (and again and again), join me in recognizing why the Blue Burrower has become one of my favorite heroes of recent memory. For any who haven’t, let me tell you of shovelry and dirt-caked gallantry the likes of which you’ve never seen. This is the tale of the Shovel Knight!
Classic stylings: Digging through the layers
From humble Kickstarter beginnings to its release in June of 2014, Shovel Knight had me captivated. A game taking elements of classic Mega Man, Castlevania and Zelda titles, as well as select elements from the likes of Ducktales and Dark Souls; built from the ground up by people who revered these titles and wanted to share their timelessness with the world again. As an 8-bit styled platformer, Shovel Knight tasks you as the titular character to face a series of stages and the eight members of the Order of No Quarter, an eclectic group of themed knights that would make Dr. Wiley proud (if they were mechanical, that is). All of this is at the hands of the mysterious Enchantress, the leader of the Order and sorceress supreme. Armed initially with a shovel you’re able to slash through enemies and dig through dirt, a mechanic that reveals treasures and paths while also giving unique movement options. Most notably, Shovel Knight is able to jump and down thrust, making Scrooge McDuck proud while bouncing off enemies and dirt-blocks alike, gaining extra height for the effort of your Shovel Drop.
The classic feel isn’t limited to move selections, progression or graphical stylings though. Shovel Knight feels like a true NES classic: every jump has a level of pixelated precision to it that allows for tighter control and planned landings. Attacks are well animated and clear, with hit sparks and sounds that are satisfying time after time. When mistakes are made it’s a matter of what the player could have done better, with the level design being a real highlight of the entire package. Sequences bring to mind the kind of unique challenges you’d expect in Mega Man stages, first demonstrated in a safe, contained environment before demanding you master the craft or see your end, such as bouncing across a series of enemies before having to do the same over a bottomless pit. The art direction is also stellar, and really pops on the 3DS. The use of color harkens to the limited palette options on the NES– but in a deliberate way, never sacrificing visual acuity and appeal for its sentimental leanings.
Modern flourishes in design & gameplay: Going underground
The game’s writing is fantastic, full of grandiose back-and-forths between the azure adventurer and The Order. Be it King Knight’s pompous declarations of superiority or Mole Knight’s insistence of being the better burrower the pre-boss encounters are only beat by the battles themselves. Every duel feels unique and befitting of the foe, including roaming bonus encounters straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3 and an archrival known only as Black Knight. Throughout the quest you’ll meet various NPCs who share the same quality in their interactions. From a frog that sprouts awful(ly amazing) puns, a merchant that appears out of treasure chests, and his majesty the Troupple King, the world of Shovel Knight is filled with memorable characters that never overbear on the gameplay itself.
As much as Shovel Knight looks fondly back at the gaming days of olde, there are many modern ideas and conveniences at play under its hood (helm?). The level of customization is fantastic, with special relics allowing the game to be played in multiple ways. While they function most like Castlevania’s subweapons the ability to equip them, different armors, unique shovel skills, and ichors that provide unique effects all atop one another is decidedly fresh. The game also features a robust achievement system in the form of feats, covering simple progression based goals to devilishly difficult speedruns and everything in between. Likewise the way a portion of your hard-earned currency is taken when you die is straight from the Souls series of games. What loot is lost remains in the spot you perished, waiting to be reclaimed if you can return without dying. This mixed with the ability to destroy checkpoints for extra treasure can create custom, sometimes highly challenging, situations.
Nintendo exclusives: Buried treasures
Shovel Knight is available on multiple gaming platforms, though there are unique features on Nintendo systems that deserve mention. Having played the game on more than one system, I can say there are no glaring differences to the core experience, with what you choose being a personal matter. I went with the 3DS as my first copy and it’s still my system of choice due to portability. That said, thanks to the gamepad there exists a great, Wii U exclusive element. If hints are needed players can use the unique Digger’s Diary feature, also inspired by the Souls games and their messages system. Any time you are in a room you may write a note to serve as a hint, warning, or just fun comments and drawings. These are shared with other players via Miiverse. The 3DS version is not to be left out when it comes to unique features, though. The fantastic 3D effects aside, the StreetPass Arena allows you to record a series of movements and actions to be shared with others you pass with. You may then face these ghost-like foes while they encounter your own.
The game is still being actively worked on by developer Yacht Club Games as well. Thanks to the success of the Kickstarter campaign the company is adding features big and small, including eventual multiplayer modes for the Wii U version, as well as campaigns starring members of the Order. The first of these, Plague of Shadows, is already available and allows the game to be played through with Plague Knight and his unique blend of bomb jumping aerial mobility and alchemical crafting for unique, weaponized mixtures. The best part is that all of these features are free of charge! The Shovel Knight amiibo will also have unique, exclusive to Nintendo systems additions. Expect coverage of these after the figure’s release.
Closing thoughts: Back to the surface
While I could go on and on about the game’s mechanics and charms, the highest praise I can give must go to the soundtrack. I had the privilege of briefly speaking to composer Jake Kaufman during the game’s development and the excitement he showed matches the exemplary quality of the music. Songs like what plays in Propeller Knight and Tinker Knight‘s stages are personal favorites of mine, and were listened to extensively during the writing of this review. Special mention must also go to guest composer Manami Matsumae, the mind behind the original Mega Man’s music.