[Insert mandatory Shovel-pun here]

Shovel Knight

Tea: Easter Bunny Fruit Tea (It was a present, don’t judge me)

Retro-styled games are on the rise and find their way into a lot of different genres these days. It’s nice remembering the past, but can Shovel Knight hold up in this day and age of cutting edge graphics with his pixel-art style and game mechanics from a different era? The people certainly had trust in the project, seeing as this was one of the first successful Kickstarter campaigns. Let’s… ugh… dig in. (Shovel puns are somewhat inevitable)

The first and up to this point only game by Yacht Club Games (with their smug logo) is a retro platformer drawing a lot of inspiration from different classic NES titles, like Castlevania III, Super Mario Bros. 3, but most prominently Mega Man. The story revolves around the titular Shovel Knight and his quest to find his partner Shield Knight. The two of them were the best and brightest adventurers of all, but at the tower of fate Shield Knight fell to the curse of a vicious amulet. Only her helmet remained. After that Shovel Knight settles down struck by grief and loss, only to be called back into action as the land is haunted by the evil Enchantress and her group of knights, the Order of No Quarter. As you should be able to see from this, Shovel Knight does not take itself too serious, but has a somewhat intriguing story none the less. It may seem a bit generic at first, but really picks up as you progress and throws a nice twist near the end into your face.


The story is actually fairly limited and only comes into play when you meet one of the knights in a boss fight. But most of them are quite well-written and add to the overarching plot, with Polar Knight leaving some open questions as to his relationship with Shield Knight, seeing that they both use a Shovel as a weapon. Master and student maybe? The game shows real strength in regard to the relationship between Shovel Knight and Shield Knight with a rather impressive boss fight they have to overcome. It shows how much they depend on one another and are lost without their partner. Doing all of this with no dialogue and just through gameplay is rather impressive. I also liked that Shield Knight wasn’t your damsel in distress, but an equal partner. Seeing a female character in a game that is not an escort quest or simply your final prize to rip from the hands of the villain is sadly not the norm these days.


However, the story can be as good as it wants to be, most people have come for the gameplay to relive their childhood memories of playing an NES. Well, I never have played an NES or SNES for that matter, so I can’t say anything about the nostalgia factor skyrocketing as soon as I started playing. What I will say though is that the gameplay is quite addictive. Its minimalistic approach, with just two buttons, is a neat little distraction from the overload of button combos some games require you to memorize. And people wonder why I don’t like fighting games… Thankfully a thing they did not incorporate from the old classics is a life system. If you die you simply lose a percentage of your gold and have to retrieve it Dark Souls-style the next time you come across it. Neat idea, but more than once my gold was inaccessible to me and could only be retrieved with another death.

Aside from a variety of shovel based attacks you also gain some relics that allow you to do mana-based attacks. Although I don’t know why using golden fists uses up mana, but video games, I suppose. Magic is heavily overpowered and can clear out an entire room and remove most of the challenge, as it sometimes would ask you to time your jumps with attacks of enemies, if they were still there that is. Then again magic can make the platforming sections a bit easier. Especially that air-rapier-things that lunges you forward. Actually the platforming is the hardest part of the game and sometimes not for the right reason. Controls on the 3DS with the analogue stick are not as tight as I want them to be and the difference between forward and downward shovel thrust sometimes blur a bit together. Other than that the platforming provides a decent challenge.


The boss fights are obviously the star of the show, even though the environment design outshines it in my opinion, but never mind. Each of the themed bosses is different and challenging enough. They make use of their gimmick and fit within their overall level. The ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that incorporated level mechanics into the boss fight, bringing the boss fight back to its original purpose: to test whether you have learned what is necessary to proceed. If I had to pick a favourite it would probably wind up being Plague Knight or Specter Knight. (The wonderful animation on the scythe throw gives me shivers) The implemented and formerly introduced mechanics allow to the game to reintroduce them later. Then the player instantly remembers them and can solve the platforming challenge instantly. Good game-design if you ask me.


Shovel Knight is fun and challenging at the same time. It scratches an itch that only Castlevania usually manages to scratch. The environments are pretty, even in their NES graphic form and the soundtrack is really catchy and well implemented. The best example being a very iconic track used near the end of the game to remind you off the beginning of your journey, while at the same time being different enough to justify its use again.

Looking over what I have written so far I realize that I haven’t criticized a lot. This is somewhat bad, like a baker running out of flour. But honestly I can’t for the life of me think of things to criticize. People have said that the game is a bit low-effort with its graphics and overall design, but it takes a lot of hard work to look like old NES games. Colour palettes, sound-design, and a specific font are all things that must be considered. I can’t even blame my love for the game on nostalgia seeing as I have none for this era of games. It just goes to show that good game design doesn’t need nostalgia to please you.

If you thought this was all you got from Shovel Knight then let me first ask you why you are such a greedy bastard and can’t be satisfied with a great game even if it is a bit short and then tell you about the free DLC that will come out in the future. Three new playable character from the Order will make their way into the players’ hands. I am looking forward as to how they mix up the gameplay with new innovative ideas. Shovel Knight and its seemingly endless supply of shovel-puns won me over. Seeing as it is almost on anything with a screen you should have no problems playing it on the system of your choice, unless that system is a Vita of course. It’s tightly focused and well-designed. Shovel Knight makes the most out of its concept and should be played even by people without NES nostalgia. Good game-design and fun don’t need nostalgia to fuel your enjoyment.

Image sources in order of appearance:


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