I know I know. I should’ve played and reviewed Shovel Knight many years ago. But in my defence, I always have a massive backlog of games to get through, and purchasing one that’s full price (most of the time) doesn’t warrant high on my list of things to do.
So when Yacht Club Games announced that they would be breaking the original Shovel Knight up and instead putting all of it’s freely available DLC into separate versions, I decided to jump on it asap to make sure I got the best deal possible £6.89 (with my 10% humble store discount) was definitely more like what i was willing to spend, especially when I wasn’t sure if the game would live up to the lofty expectations the internet’s put upon it.
Having completed the game, I can now, with confidence, say that Shovel Knight is by-far one of the best 2D retro games of recent memory, maybe even since the start of the indie revolution.
So what makes it so good?
You may find what i’m about to say hyperbolic, but it’s genuine.
Everything about Shovel Knight is fantastic, and harkens back to a by-gone era that we all used to love. Now this isn’t to say that Shovel Knight has no flaw, far from it, but I’ll get the good stuff out of the way first and then say my little niggles later.
Just like games of yester-year, Shovel Knight starts out with a lovely intro made up of scrolling images. Shovel Knight used to be a great adventurer with his best friend/lover Shield Knight, until one day the latter was killed by a terrible curse in a faraway castle. Having lost his other half, Shovel Knight spent many years just attending to the land with his shovel, all whilst the world around him befell to darkness thanks to a dark enchantress. This short but sweet introduction set up the game perfectly, and had me set and ready to go on an epic adventure.
The first level, much like the rest of the game, helps you acclimatise to the controls Shovel Knight will have you employ. They’re relatively simply: A to jump, X to swing your Shovel, and a pressing down whilst jumping to perform a stabbing motion downwards. Each level will introduce new variants of the traditional platforming formula, but you’ll be rest assured that the developers will make sure you know how to approach each challenge without dying.
For example, the first time you ever come across a new enemy type, it’ll always be in a big, open environment for you to get used to how the enemy moves. This is then made more difficult by where the enemies are placed within each level, pushing you to evolve as a player in order to overcome the new challenges.
This constant barrage of learn and evolve is the core of Shovel Knight, and never gets old even when you’re venturing into the final moments of the game. You’re constantly tested on your ability of mastering these short simple techniques, ensuring when you do overcome a hard area you’re ecstatic at the feeling of triumph.
You travel from level to level using a top-down map, not too dissimilar to Super Mario Worlds level selection screen all those years ago. Whilst it’s just as lovely to look at as the rest of the game, the overworld is great for going back to previously visited locations with brand new items, or even going back to town’s where you can proceed to purchase power-ups and upgrades.
And speaking of those power-ups and upgrades, Shovel Knight has plenty! Throughout each level you’re constantly gathering loot from chests and enemies, which can then be used to purchase bits and bobs in towns; these range from Health Upgrades, to magic upgrades, to even brand new abilities for your shovel or even new armour. These upgrades will incentivise you to be more careful in each level, as dying makes you lose some gold with the chance of getting it back (should you make it back to the same location once more).
Then there’s the new weapons, which allow Shovel Knight to traverse the world in new and exciting ways. One weapon, for example, are some gloves, which use mana, but can easily be used by holding up whilst also passing X. The gloves are awesome for destroying blocks of stone, and, as long as the level allows it, bypassing a lot of enemies below as you destroy blocks across the top of the stage.
Another exciting weapons which helped me out tremendously was the Propeller Dagger, a weapon that, as it’s title suggests, allows Shovel Knight to propel in any direction you like, effectively making him fly if you wish. It’s uses may seem limited at first, but as the game progresses and you come across harder platforms that have little wiggle room, it’ll definitely help you out.
The overworld has one other distinct advantage that harkens back to a by-gone error: random encounters combined with random locations. As you navigate Shovel Knight all over the place, you’ll notice new characters pop up, moving across the map as you do. Should you bump into one of them, you’ll be taken into a fight with them, pushing your skills to new levels. These jolly bits of combat aren’t necessary (you can ignore the characters walking around the screen if you wish) but they help to flesh out the world and add some excitement to navigating the map.
I don’t wish to be over-the-top here, buttttt the music played throughout is absolutely phenomenal! I couldn’t help but get hooked on each soundtrack I encountered, humming each tune well after the fact I had stopped playing for a while. I can see why there’s such a craze about Shovel Knights music across the net: it’s just genuinely that good. Listen to a sample of it below and seriously, tell me with a straight face it’s not good. You won’t be able to:
So now we come onto my only grievance with the game (if you could call it that): the story. Whilst I loved the characters I met throughout, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lot more to each of them, so much so that the story doesn’t do a good enough job of fleshing them out. Maybe that’s actually a testament to how great the character design is throughout, but I just couldn’t help but feel that I wanted more.
So, almost 3 years after it’s initial release, I’ve finally played Shovel Knight. Has it aged well? Most definitely. Next to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild it’s by far one of my favourite games I’ve played this year, and I look forward to digging into the DLC available. Shovel Knight is special: it takes what we loved most about games from yesteryear and distills it in such a way that the result still feels original. If you were to go back to the 90’s, and show kids Shovel Knight, they’d be just as impressed back then as we are today, a testament to how bloody good the game is. Yacht Club Games should be proud; they’ve made an absolutely stunning game.