- Street Date:
- June 26th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- July 17th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Wii U
- Yacht Club Games
- Yacht Club Games
Wii U version reviewed.
Not long ago, several developers at Wayforward Technologies left and formed Yacht Club Games. Their first project, 'Shovel Knight' burned up Kickstarter, and fans having been waiting for the release on the Wii U and PC, ever since. 'Shovel Knight' isn't so much 8-bit-inspired as it is 8-bit envious. Either way, it's never too late for pixel art, chiptunes and an altruistic hero with a shovel as his sword. As he bounces his way across traditional 2D platforming challenges and towards the inevitable boss, the game strives for a place among both the old and the new. The indie game sphere is becoming crowded. Is there room left for loving impersonation?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
When we try to recreate the past, the same fundamental flaw always seems to crop up. The details are out of place or completely missing. The people are older, the locations a little bit rustier, the feeling in that previous moment only an echo in today's replication. It's tough to go back to a feeling by going back to a place, but not impossible. 'Shovel Knight' and developer Yacht Club Games came headfirst into this problem in their attempt to recreate the 8-bit era in today's gaming world. A lot of games do, especially in this period when nostalgia for the NES and its games has hit a high note. But most of those games don't make the full effort, don't fill in the details, and as a result might look or sound the part, but never feel the part.
Yacht Club Games, instead of tepidly fingering around in the 8-bit era for cute ideas and one-note twists on the modern day, completely and utterly submerges itself into the era with 'Shovel Knight.' It is, excepting its release platforms, a NES game, and a very, very good one at that. Where the majority of other games fail, 'Shovel Knight' succeeds completely at bringing you back, not by shouting out to Mario or Mega Man, but by directly competing with the greats of that day.
Okay, maybe that's a little unfair to Mario and Mega Man. 'Shovel Knight' couldn't have existed without them, much like the rest of the gaming world. It's essentially a time paradox to compare in a vacuum one game influenced by another. Still, 'Shovel Knight' takes those influences and manages to become its own beast, not just a clean amalgamation of better games.
So you're a little dude with a shovel and some fancy blue armor. Naturally there's a quest. Even though the levels are strewn about on a Mario-like overworld map, the game is structurally more similar to 'Mega Man.' Each level is a lengthy, challenging quest in itself, cut up by platforming sections, checkpoints and always ended with a boss. Shovel Knight is, of course, equipped with his offensive, short-ranged shovel, which he very often and most importantly uses to bounce off the top of foes' head's like a certain wealthy duck. He also digs up the occasional pile of gems for use at the store.
Were the level design not continuously inspired and well-executed, the game might've fallen into some pretty drab repetition. It never does. Utilizing Shovel Knight's bouncing ability, a constant motivation to open up secrets, no doubt with gems, music sheets or even a new magic ability, and a healthy dose of trust in the player to persevere, every single level is engaging. There's always a new challenge in the next room.
That said, a couple of quirks are thrown in, seemingly for the explicit purpose of grounding 'Shovel Knight' as a NES game. Levels are broken up into scrollable frames, but once you move an enemy's original spawn-point off-screen, that enemy will respawn upon return. That's 'Mega Man.' Additionally, Shovel Knight's movement speed feels initially very slow, but it's just something you need to adjust for, almost as if Yacht Club Games wanted players to notice their character is his own man, though I'm sure it was a calculated decision reflective of the platforming challenges.
Furthermore, though enemies often stand in your way, it's the one-hit deaths from spikes and pitfalls that truly shake your metal boots. The checkpoints are only midly forgiving, so gamers used to popping right back up in front of your area of death might be frustrated. I'm of the camp that small oddities like these are those details we talked about, the ones that so often go uncared for in a recreation of the past. I liked them, but I played a lot of NES.
Yet, that all exists before the boss fights, the absolute highlight of the game. They're tricky, diverse and demanding, exactly as they should be. With both magical abilities and your shovel at hand, uncovering and executing the tricks to every boss feels great. There are even wandering heroes strewn about the map the game encourages you to battle. I found myself in a beeline straight for them in eager anticipation.
Beyond the level design, though, beyond the well-constructed mechanics, is this little medieval world in a bubble. Locations beyond just levels, like a town with shops to upgrade your magic and healthy, or a flying ship with helmets and armor, enable this excellent feeling of place that so few games, even Mario or Mega Man, ever did. There's a pond in its own spot on the map at the beginning of the game. You have no idea why it's there. You know there's a reason. You're compelled to find out, and suddenly you're more connected to the characters and places in 'Shovel Knight' than even the most modern attempts at place-setting in games. It helps that the payoff of uncovering this mystery is absurd and hilarious.
Even more, the lore and the mythology around these places might be basic, but the personalities within them, from the eager Troupple King to the wonderfully chatty bosses and hat connoisseurs, fill out more than just the edges of 'Shovel Knight.' They are created not in spite of the 8-bit era, but with a strong desire to fit right in with the best of them, apart only in the sense that 'Shovel Knight' is very much its own game, capable of representing a golden age without overtly saying so, and therefore far more successful at recreating the feeling of putting the NES controller in your hand for the first time.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Until release, 'Shovel Knight' existed in the public eye as an 8-bit knockoff title with some intriguing charm. It's not a knockoff, though, it's a wonderfully realized pixel art game, that nuanced medium efficiently and valiantly exposed for its untapped potential. Any level that initially seems archetypical eventually opens up into its own. A sorcerer's Exploratorium is a volatile laboratory. The Stranded Ship, which houses one of Shovel Knight's past allies-turned boss fight, represents the ice-level. Pridemoor Keep is the classic castle with a greedy twist, perfect for a gem-shoveling knight.
Despite the charm, though, and desire the break away from expectation, there is an inescapable sense of borrowed craft here, which plays for and against 'Shovel Knight.' Still maintaining its driving goal, to emulate the NES, there's got to be more than knights and sorcerers adventuring out there. I'd say that limitation might be one of those endearing qualities of video games' past, but a plumber has been traversing the goomba-filled Mushroom Kingdom for quite some time.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Speaking of untapped potential, the chiptunes of 'Shovel Knight' are, simply put, the best I've ever heard. They're deep, reaching this baseline level of listening enjoyment that so few chiptunes can break into. They're songs I actually want to listen to outside of the game, which is a rare category for even non-chiptune scores. Were 'Shovel Knight' actually released in the NES era, we'd be recalling it for its music above anything else, which is saying a lot, considering how well the gameplay turned out. It's tough to describe just how simultaneously epic and thematically identifiable every single song turns out to be. There, that's about the best I can do. Sometimes I keep this section short because there's not much too say. This is the opposite of that. There's too much to hear.
Coming in at about six to seven hours on initial playthrough, 'Shovel Knight' packs more than its share of post-game incentives for its $15 asking price. Feats (read: achievements), a New Game Plus and, as I mentioned before, a tiny medieval world really begging to be explored, all encourage players to keep their noses dug in. That said, once you've unlocked all your upgrades and tinkered with the magic spells, there aren't many different ways to tackle the levels and bosses. In that sense, it's limited in the way NES games were.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The single-player campaign is the entire game, though a multiplayer mode is planned as a post-launch update sometime down the line. For now, this is a fairly straightforward title. There's only so much you can fit on a NES cartridge, right?
There's something to be said for NES games as this opening salvo of video game greatness. It hasn't been said yet, we've sort of been trucking along at lighting-fast pace ever since. 'Shovel Knight' doesn't say it, not out loud, but its extreme faithfulness to those original qualities and quirks, all just a perimeter to a wonderfully epic little game, somehow emulate the feeling of greatness, the feeling of pureness, the feeling of newness and, for a sucker like me, the feeling of joy in just two buttons and a hero at your fingertips.
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