Shovel Knight owes a great deal to the early Mega Man games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, yet it’s ironic that while my experiences to date with those Mega Man games were about as much fun as undergoing dental surgery performed by Pennywise the clown, Shovel Knight is a game I adore. Why is this? Well, seeing as you asked, I’ll tell you.
The debut title – thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign – from developer and publisher Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight is a 2D side-scrolling platform game available for PC, 3DS and Wii U, and it’s the Wii U version I’ll be discussing in this feature.
The player takes on the role of the titular Shovel Knight, aptly named given that he is, y’know… a knight. With a shovel. Shovel Knight once sought adventure and treasure alongside his beloved Shield Knight but is now alone and mourning the loss of his companion, who vanished during their most recent quest. When the wicked Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter – a group of eight powerful knights – begin spreading their evil across the land, however, Shovel Knight must cast off his misery and take up his shovel once more.
As Shovel Knight, you’re tasked with taking on the knights of the Order of No Quarter and finally the Enchantress herself, your quest consisting of navigating a number of platforming levels, battling numerous enemies and bosses, and collecting treasure to purchase various upgrades and items.
Shovel Knight utilises a pixel art style made to resemble that of 8-bit consoles, specifically the NES, but without any of the accompanying sprite-flicker or slowdown that cropped up in a number of NES games due to the technical limitations of the time. Some people complain about the use of pixel art in so many of today’s indie games but for me personally, a good-looking game is a good-looking game, whatever the art style, and Shovel Knight looks great. Although Yacht Club Games may have set limits for themselves from a technical standpoint, they obviously didn’t limit their imaginations, as the game-world and its inhabitants are brilliantly brought to life in terms of their visuals.
The game’s chiptune soundtrack – which contains two tracks by Manami Matsumae, composer of the original Mega Man – is also wonderful, from the rousing and triumphant main theme to more subtle tracks, all of which enhance the evocative atmosphere. A nice feature is the ability to listen to these pieces of music whenever you choose as long as you find the accompanying music sheets scattered around the game’s various areas. The fact that this bonus is integrated into the game-world in the form of an in-game bard who plays the tracks for you makes it even cooler. Although he takes requests, he doesn’t seem to know Free Bird, however.
Shovel Knight wears its NES influences on its chest and not just in terms of graphics and music but also gameplay, as seen in details such as the protagonist’s ability to use his shovel as a makeshift pogo-stick to bounce off enemies, Duck Tales-style, and more prominently in the game’s structure, as seen by its similarities to early Mega Man games. For example, the Order of No Quarter (King Knight, Mole Knight, Plague Knight, etc.) replace the Robot Masters (Ice Man, Wood Man, Snake Man, etc.) of those Mega Man games, boss fights take place in a single room at the end of a level, the player is granted a degree of freedom in terms of what order they tackle the levels, and the final areas are only accessible once all of the boss knights have been defeated.
Thankfully, one thing that Shovel Knight doesn’t have in common with the early Mega Man games is its difficulty level, as Shovel Knight is a much fairer and less frustrating experience. Although to be honest, apart from a couple of difficulty spikes, I actually found it to be a little too easy at times, thanks in large part to the ability to carry multiple copies of a particular item that refills your health and magic meters and which you can restock at no charge between levels.
You can’t always rely on this item, however, as the levels still contain plenty of lethal, one-hit-kill falling opportunities. Since the platforming is the backbone of the game, the controls need to be reliable and fluid for the player while the level design needs to be enjoyable and interesting, so it’s a good thing that Shovel Knight impresses in both of these areas which are so integral to a high-quality platformer. Levels regularly throw up new and imaginative hazards, keeping things varied between areas, but at the same time the controls are tight enough that your skill should always be able to see you through.
Shovel Knight’s selection of sub-weapons – known in-game as “relics” – is gradually unlocked as you progress through the game and consists of the Flare Wand, which offers a ranged fireball attack; the Phase Locket, which grants you temporary invincibility; the Fishing Rod, which allows you to retrieve hidden treasures; and more. These relics consume some of your limited supply of magic points when used, although both your magic meter and health meter can be increased by purchasing the respective upgrades.
Many of the relics help to add variety to the basic combat, which consists of Shovel Knight whacking enemies with his shovel, naturally, although even at its most basic the combat is as tight and enjoyable as the platforming, and the same shovel is also used for other purposes such as destroying barriers and digging up treasure. And of course, having a shovel as a weapon allows you to come up with your own 80s-action-hero-style puns as you play (ideally accompanied by a bad impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger): “I guess push came to shovel!” “Here’s something you’re not going to dig!” And so on. The possibilities are endless.
As well as purchasing relics and character upgrades, treasure is also used to purchase shovel upgrades and new suits of armour (all of which possess their own special attribute), while there are also characters dotted around the game-world who might ask for some of your treasure for one reason or another. Although you might be reluctant to hand it over, this actually leads to some interesting events, and in my own playthrough I ran out of things to buy with my treasure several levels before the end of the game anyway.
Still, you shouldn’t take your hard-earned treasure for granted too much as the game features a system whereby if you die in a level, a portion of your treasure falls on that spot. If you want it back, you’ll have to reach that spot again and retrieve it.
Also, each level contains several checkpoints, although in a brilliant and imaginative touch, you can choose to destroy these checkpoints for extra treasure, creating an interesting risk / reward scenario. Destroying checkpoints is also ideal for those players looking to increase the difficulty and challenge themselves.
As well as such an optional challenge-run, Shovel Knight offers replay value in other ways such as the hidden music sheets, which I’ve already mentioned; numerous secret treasure stashes scattered around the levels; a vial-smashing mini-game in which you’re scored based on your performance; several gameplay-affecting cheats; an array of achievements, some of which are very tough; and a New Game Plus mode offering increased difficulty.
One of the many ways in which Shovel Knight excels at bringing together the old and the new in terms of game design is in its story and cast of characters, which aren’t simply bare-bones and functional as in many older videogames, but at the same time the narrative never outstays its welcome or gets in the way of the gameplay, Yacht Club Games having done a brilliant job of balancing the two.
Although the plot is certainly straightforward – “heroic knight takes on evil sorceress and her minions” – there are a number of things that lift the story and characters beyond the basic premise, such as the brief but emotionally engaging dream sequences involving Shovel Knight’s lost love, Shield Knight; a series of confrontations between Shovel Knight and Black Knight, the two knights sharing a past together; the amusingly bizarre Troupple King and his glorious dance; the optional level that also acts as a tribute to the game’s Kickstarter backers; the straightforward but likeable personality of Shovel Knight; and generally excellent dialogue across the board.
The dialogue and the colourful cast of characters spouting it, from Shovel Knight to the bosses to the numerous villagers and other NPCs, are constantly entertaining examples of the charm and humour that Shovel Knight possesses in spades. (Pun totally intended). The game never takes itself too seriously even though the developers clearly took their work seriously in terms of pouring as much care and attention as they could into its creation. For example, given the impressively large amount of puns that feature in the game, I can only assume that “Pun Writer” was a full-time position for at least one member of the development team.
It’s always good to see a developer making the effort to utilise the capabilities of the Wii U’s GamePad controller, and Yacht Club Games have done this with the Wii U version of Shovel Knight, allowing the touchscreen controller to be used not just for inventory management but also the Wii U-exclusive feature named the Digger’s Diary.
The Digger’s Diary is a form of Miiverse integration that allows you to create messages and drawings tied to your current in-game location, which other players will then see in the same location in their own game. It’s reminiscent of the messaging system in From Software’s Souls games, which is no bad thing. For example, you might discover a hidden treasure and you’re feeling helpful so you post a message detailing the location of this treasure for other players. Players can also choose from a wide selection of Shovel Knight characters to use as their Digger’s Diary avatar, and in yet another nice touch in a game packed with them, the usual “Yeah!” Miiverse button – used for approving a post you like – has been replaced with “Verily!”
Side note: On their website, Yacht Club Games have an article detailing the development process of the Digger’s Diary. It’s a really interesting read, I recommend it.
On the whole, videogames are longer nowadays than they ever have been, offering more hours of content for your money. (The actual quality of that content is a different matter, of course). This can obviously be a great thing, giving the player more value for money and more time to spend with a game they’re enjoying. Personally, apart from a few exceptions, I find that when I complete a game nowadays, I’m usually happy enough for it to end by that point so I can move on to a different title.
In the case of Shovel Knight, however, I was left wanting more upon finishing it. If I wasn’t trying to take control of my seemingly ever-increasing game backlog then I would have been more than happy to immediately begin playing through Shovel Knight a second time, which as I’ve said, is very rare for me. But that’s not to say I feel like I didn’t get my money’s worth, because I really did. Shovel Knight may not be a lengthy game compared to some but it’s certainly a case of quality over quantity, and I’d always choose a fantastic 8-hour experience over a mediocre 20-hour one.
So needless to say, when I recently learned that the game will be receiving new content in the future, I couldn’t help but do a little happy-dance. Unfortunately my enthusiasm got the better of me and the police got involved because of the whole “public nudity” thing but I’m not going to go into that.
Shovel Knight has received a great deal of critical praise and frankly it deserves all of it and more. It’s a brilliant game that seamlessly blends classic and modern design elements while offering a memorable cast of characters and excellent writing, finely-tuned platforming gameplay and level design, replayability and optional challenges, genuine humour and warmth, great graphics and an outstanding soundtrack, and numerous nice touches that enhance the overall experience. If this sounds of interest to you then it’s time to take up your shovel and begin your quest.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work covers videogames, comic books and prose. His upcoming comic book work includes two graphic novels from Markosia Enterprises in 2015. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include interactive novel Eternal Forest and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To witness more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy