It was love at first scoop.
Aside from the game’s numerous delays, I didn’t know thing one about Yacht Club Games’ Kickstarted Shovel Knight before I got a review copy last week. I didn’t even really know what the game was apart from character art I’d seen suggesting a blue knight who carried not a sword, but a spade. As it turns out, going in blind may be the best possible way to play Shovel Knight. With absolutely no expectations, I was blown out of the water by this old-school action platformer. Shovel Knight is a love letter written to gamers like me who grew up on 8-bit games but appreciate all the improvements our hobby has made in the past three decades.
Shovel Knight carries a lot of other games in its DNA. You may recognize elements of Mega Man, Zelda II, DuckTales, and more as you play the game. Jake Kaufman, of WayForward fame, has produced a meaty, lovingly-crafted score that feels exactly right for this kind of game. You might call it “heavy borrowing,” but I like to think that Yacht Club took the best aspects of these older games and mixed them together into something magical. Our spade-carrying hero traipses through eight main levels, each overseen by a different opponent, and several smaller sub-levels which test your abilities with a new item, a new enemy to battle, or lots of treasure to plunder.
Between spading enemies, bouncing on blocks, and uncovering secret passages, Shovel Knight collects lots of treasure. Every time he perishes—be it to an enemy’s blade or by falling in a bottomless pit—he loses some treasure, but it can be recovered during your next attempt. You’ll never see a Game Over screen; the worst that can happen is that you lose all your treasure, in which case you can just revisit any level and build it back up.
Treasure is used to buy things, either in the two Villages (various upgrades) or by freeing a Genie in each main level of the game. He’ll charge you a pittance for a new Relic, which is basically a new attack. These have various effects, like shooting a fireball, throwing an axe, or blowing on a horn to damage enemies around you. There are more specialized items, like the Fishing Rod, which lets you dredge up golden fish, a gauntlet which punches through blocks, or a lance which lets you briefly fly in a straight line. All items use mana, which is easily refilled.
Each level is extremely well-crafted, with loads of secrets and interesting challenges. You’ll want to revisit each one to thoroughly clean it out. That said, my item completion rate was 87% during my first playthrough, and I suspect I was only missing a few Music Pages (Shovel Knight’s sole collectable). There are a variety of Feats (Achievements) to complete, and New Game Plus that increases challenge considerably by doubling the damage Shovel Knight takes, cutting down on the number of checkpoints in each level, and removing all health-restoring pickups. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Yacht Club will be rolling out additional modes—free of charge—as they come online, including gender swapped characters and a challenge mode where you can actually play as a few of the bosses.
I don’t have any substantial complaints. I do wish that, once you buy multiple pieces of armor (each has a different effect on Shovel Knight), you could freely switch between them on the map screen, but unfortunately, you have to travel back to the armory to swap them out, which seems unnecessary. Some might complain of the game’s relatively short length (about 7 hours), but that’s my sweet spot time for a game like this—it means I can go back and replay it without much hassle, trying to nab all the Feats.
But more than anything else, Shovel Knight oozes personality and charm more than any game I’ve played in recent memory. The bosses pack more character development into a few lines of dialogue and carefully-animated motions than most video game characters do during an entire game. In particular, Shovel Knight’s story arc is beautiful, surprising and touching (stay after the credits). I was floored throughout the game—I agreed with just about every design decision Yacht Club made.
Are there advantages to playing Shovel Knight on the Wii U? Well, the game looks great on a TV, and the subscreen is relegated to the GamePad, where you can equip Relics on the fly. There’s also, of course, Off-Screen Play (which is a big deal for me). But honestly, I will probably double-dip for the 3DS version because I will get just as much, if not more, playtime out of it on a handheld. But whatever version you have access to, I can’t recommend Shovel Knight any higher.