Happy, uh, late holidays!
Media is so often defined by what brought the artists to the artform in the first place. Games are no different: in our case, classic gaming experiences, delivered through a shiny new CRT, brought tons of 80s kids to a burgeoning industry. Much like how the AAA game space has recently been dominated by new fathers, creating experiences centered around child protection, the indie space has its own cabal of SNES-chasers.
Or so the gaming public would have you believe.
We are currently laboring under the misconception that gaming’s independent circuit is dominated by retro platformers. Quick, right now, without cheating, list a couple for me. The first game that comes to mind is likely Fez, which is more like a delightful pre-baked conspiracy theory that you paid $10 to experience. Besides that, what else is there? Super Meat Boy was four years ago, remember?
I open with this because there may be some of you who are looking at Shovel Knight with the kind of disdain that is borne from exhaustion. This is patently unfair. Shovel Knight may not be all things to all people — the game is a deliberate throwback to a very specific era — but it’s a lovingly crafted experience nonetheless.
There is a story to be found in Shovel Knight, it’s just that you probably won’t remember very much of it once the credits have rolled. The plot does have its moments, but they only work in the moment; a second pass & a shrewd knowledge of foreshadowing can easily diffuse some of the game’s more emotional moments. Shovel Knight’s best writing can be found in the incidental dialogue. As a “lover” of puns, I feel like “don’t throw in the trowel” should be recognized. Did that goof make you simultaneously grin and roll your eyes? Great! You’ll do just fine.
When it comes time to grab your D-pad of choice & get playing, Shovel Knight truly shines. The act of controlling the titular burrower is responsive and tight, which becomes utterly crucial towards the end of the game. Shovel Knight is a light handshake that only gets firmer as time goes on. Before long, your handshake buddy is powderizing your bones. This is not an inherently bad thing, especially since players are given the tools to succeed, provided they are patient enough. Whoever designed the levels has a keen eye for a well-placed hazards, for the most part. More than once, an enemy knocked me back a frame, only to fall off a ledge or hit a foe on the previous frame. But if your reflexes are quick enough, you should be able to survive the game’s more challenging areas.
You’ll likely rely on Shovel Knight’s magic abilities more than once. Hoard enough gold and save the right merchants, and you’ll have a paranormal trove of tools in no time. I spent a lot of time with the fire wand — it gave me some much-necessary reach in sticky combat situations — but you may take to a spawnable, moving platform that can transport you across spiked areas or a pair of glove that can punch through dirt. There’s a welcome level of versatility on offer.
I’m so happy that (despite its best efforts) Shovel Knight is not actually a SNES title, because then I couldn’t get it to look as nice as it does. The game looks delightfully crisp, even if the overall art style isn’t particularly distinct. Shovel Knight himself and some of the bosses are truly memorable, but you’ve seen The Fire Level and The Ice Level in other games. They’re no different here. Extremely well-represented, mind you, but just a bit too similar to what has come before.
The game has an overworld, and there’s a surprising amount of things to do. The gold you collect in levels can be spent upgrading your health, magic, armor, or shovel at two small villages, filled with the kind of cheerfully goofy dad jokes you will come to expect from Shovel Knight. There are small combat encounters, optional bosses, and treasure-filled areas centered around a particular magical item. I managed to clear most of the bonus content in about two hours, bringing my total playtime up to 10 hours. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely needs to squeeze every dollar from your purchases, Shovel Knight also comes with a New Game Plus mode. But you’ll most likely get what you need from your first playthrough; for me, the bonus mode was more of a reminder that I could return to Shovel Knight one day.
Without question, the best part of Shovel Knight is the killer soundtrack. The melodies are easily identifiable without being intrusive. It’s the kind of scoring technique you’d expect from a musical veteran. I often found some of the game’s more frustrating deaths were mitigated by the chance to hear a particularly memorable song once more.
Shovel Knight feels like it was crafted in some Germanic toy shop by an old man with spectacles. You’d walk in, and Pinocchio would be sitting on a shelf next to a Shovel Knight level. Yeah, sometimes the man slips up, but it’s obvious a lot of genuine adoration went into the production of this work. Shovel Knight is a solid, well-crafted love letter to a very specific kind of game. It’s also worth a look even if you have no inherent affection for the genre it homages.
(It’s worth noting that during my time with the game, it did not launch properly in fullscreen. Yacht Club Games is working on a fix, but the game is also quite playable in windowed mode and you can still access the proper settings no problem)