This post was authored by Stan Guderski. You can contact him at [email protected]
Shovel Knight wears its love for the era of the original Nintendo Entertainment System on its sleeve. The world map conjures memories of Super Mario Bros. 3 where enemy encounters and special events can take place just about anywhere. The boss knights of the Order of No Quarter inspires thoughts of Mega Man and its eight robot masters and their various themed stages. Even town exploration harkens back to Legend of Zelda II, while Shovel Knight’s varied selection of subweapons feel very Castlevania.
However, despite all this Shovel Knight never feels derivative nor does it ever seem disingenuous. This game doesn’t attempt to cash in on your nostalgia. It exists to celebrate gaming’s past while taking advantage of the capabilities and sensibilities of the present. Shovel Knight unearths the side scrolling action platformer and updates it for a modern audience without losing any of the challenge or charm one comes to expect in this kind of game. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Shovel Knight’s controls are simple like anything else from the NES era, you move, you jump, you beat things to death with your shovel. It’s this simplicity that allows for an ease of use that makes navigating the stages in Shovel Knight feel natural. The game never holds your hand or buries you in endless tutorials. You start the game and you just get it immediately.
Good thing then, because as soon as you think you’ve become comfortable controlling your little azure avatar Shovel Knight throws you a curveball and shows you something new. First you’re digging for treasure, then you’re attacking an enemy, next you’re using the shovel like a pogo-stick to traverse bottomless pits, and before you know it you’re juggling yourself through the air via tricky split-second bounces off of the heads of enemies. Shovel Knight introduces new play mechanics organically in a way that makes sense, allowing you to play around a bit before upping the challenge exponentially. In this way Shovel Knight cultivates a sense of accomplishment as you genuinely feel yourself growing more skillful as the game progresses, effortlessly executing tasks that you would have thought impossible just moments before.
Don’t expect your quest to be without hardship though, as Shovel Knight is by no means an easy game. While playing I did encounter my share of “come on!” moments, but generally the challenge in Shovel Knight is fair, as a vast majority of the deaths I experienced were my own fault. Overall Shovel Knight digs into the sweet spot between difficult and do-able and isn’t designed to break you.
Luckily Shovel Knight is generous with its placement of checkpoints, allowing a measure of modernity where it could have easily opted for the old school Nintendo-hard approach. Likewise, the only real consequence to dying is the loss of some of your treasure which, taking a page from the Souls games, can be recovered upon returning to the spot you died at previously, provided you don’t die again that is. In fact this idea of recovering your own gold can potentially add more to the game, as it encourages revisiting the often precarious situation that killed you in the first place for the opportunity to gain back your hard earned treasure. Unfortunately, there were occasions where the treasure I dropped ended up in a place that made it impossible to recover (such as the point-of-no-return in a bottomless pit) which detracts from an otherwise smart take on dying in a platformer that doesn’t rely on lives and 1-Ups.