A testament to the relevancy old-school games can still have today, and proof it is possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the past while carving its own identity
In a time when numerous indie developers have, on the heels of Mega Man 9, decided to choose an 8-bit art style and purely old-school gameplay as means to craft engaging and low-cost games, it is hard to stand out. Not only has that fad lost a huge part of its novelty value, but also – given how many 8-bit classics the gaming industry has already manufactured – producing something remarkable and new by following that pattern becomes an awfully tough task to pull off.
Yacht Games' Shovel Knight is yet another one of those titles, but instead of lazily relying on nostalgia alone, it feeds off of it in order to put together an unforgettable adventure. It does not hide its influences; it wears them plainly on its sleeve and uses that assortment of inspirations to create a solid structure upon which its designers cooked up some downright fun sidescrolling gems. It is a recipe that works to astounding levels.
Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were tight partners that traveled through the land gathering treasure until they fell victims to a cursed amulet inside the Tower of Fate. Shield Knight mysteriously vanishes, and Shovel Knight – depressed – becomes a recluse. Sometime later, when a dark Enchantress rises to power and unlocks the once sealed tower, Shovel Knight decides to journey back to the place where disaster had struck him.
The journey there, however, is not an easy one. Aiming to stop the hero's advances, the villain unleashes the Order of No Quarter, a mighty group of knights that seek to destroy the blue warrior. The fact that the devilish team is composed of eight foes whose names all end with the distinctive title of “Knight” makes it blatant that the game is built around the bones of a Mega Man adventure: creative bosses lying in wait at the end of each the game's stages, which – in turn – are thematically designed to go along with the boss' element.
King Knight sits on a throne at the end of a castle level; Specter Knight's home is a dark graveyard; Polar Knight awaits on a stranded ship in the middle of a frozen lake; and the others follow suit with that rule. One of the game's finest qualities is that, frequently, the association between the nature of the boss and the stage where he is found is not necessarily obvious, but the folks at Yacht Games have done a great job in forming those links and making some really creative relationships between the knights and their respective headquarters.
Mole Knight, Treasure Knight, Tinker Knight, and Plague Knight – for example – do not produce any direct connection to a specific theme, but the game nails it on the head with a lot of ingeniousness. The ultimate consequence is that some levels are able to visually tell an interesting story related to the background of these characters.
The stages are both challenging and long, and in the vein of the finest sidescrollers they throw numerous challenges at the player, focusing on one specific trap and making it progressively tougher until it is time to move on to the next gauntlet. They are also packed with secret rooms absolutely loaded with treasures and even new equipment that causes Shovel Knight to gain some clever optional abilities.
Instead of embracing the Mega Man philosophy of sending players right back to the beginning of the stage whenever they lose all of their continues, Shovel Knight – in a twist of modernity – does away with lives altogether and places a great number of checkpoints in each stage, which is a thankful sight considering how long some of them can be.
Even though players do not lose continues when they fail, the game still finds a way to punish them severely. Shovel Knight has a heavy focus on treasure-gathering, which is ridiculously useful in order to purchase all of the game's items and upgrades. Therefore, when the warrior dies, a portion of his gems is lost. They can be recovered if players are able to reach the location of their previous death, though, but they are lost for good if the knight dies on the attempt to reach them.
Removing does not make the game any easier, for challenge is derivative of the level design itself and not of the number of times one must replay the level from the start, clearing away the frustration of having to go through everything all over again. Still, in a smart attempt to please all gamers, those who want to rid themselves of the checkpoints can do so by simply smashing them to pieces.
In place of following in Mega Man's footsteps by neatly displaying all of the knights on an easy-to-navigate menu, Shovel Knight – showcasing its prowess to draw the best from each of its 8-bit peers – implements a nice overworld that harkens back to Super Mario Bros 3. It is split into three different regions, which are unlocked as knights are defeated, hence allowing players to choose – to some degree – how they advance.
In addition, the map will also display a few pleasant bonus stages that gravitate around the use of optional equipment and treasure-harvesting, a handful of wandering knights that are thirsty for battle, and even a couple of towns that add a spice of RPG elements into the recipe.
The free-roaming sidescrolling style of the villages is a direct nod towards The Adventure of Link, and they feature interesting inhabitants, some secrets, and – most importantly – various shopping opportunities.
For a simple platformer, Shovel Knight offers an amazing wealth of options to upgrade the character's powers, such as health and magic upgrades, relics that grant him abilities that go beyond his shovel-based moves (such as temporary invincibility, projectiles, and even a fishing rod), chalices to carry potions around, and different armors with distinct quirks. The game, consequently, puts all the shiny stones that are found on the stages to great use.
Aside from its many greatly-designed stages, challenging boss battles against foes with great movesets, and stellar use of worthy influences, Shovel Knight has a nice level of extra content. At least a couple of music sheets are hidden in each of the game's levels, making up a lengthy and alluring collection for completists, and a list of nearly fifty achievements is available for anyone that is willing to tackle the ordeal.
The tasks range between relatively mundane, such as finishing the game or buying everything; to random, like using all of the game's potion or performing a circus act with a hula hoop; and brutal, for instance, beating stages without being damaged or clearing the game without the use of checkpoints. In other words, there are achievements for all gamers regardless of age and skill level.
To top it all off, and put the last touches on a must-buy package, Shovel Knight is also pretty respectable on the technical front. The game is powered by incredibly catchy chiptunes that are up-to-par with what the Mega Man series offers in that area – which is usually the gold standard to which all songs of the sort must be compared, and its visuals make great use of the 3-D effects of the Nintendo 3DS, which highlight the layers of the scenario and the effects flashing across them.
In the end, Shovel Knight is not a game that shies away from the stellar 8-bit competition it faces. Even when compared to the classics, it stands up remarkably well, and it finds a way to mix its inspirations to shape an adventure with a personality of its own and that joins the best of what was brought by the 8-bit era with dashes of modern gaming. More than a testament to the fact that old-school games can still be relevant today, it is proof that it is still possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the massive masterpieces of the past while carving its own brilliant identity.