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Every year, a handful of smaller titles take the video game industry by surprise. Developed by a smaller crew with a much smaller budget, these indie games make us rethink what is necessary to craft a great experience, providing as many thrills and chills as their AAA counterparts, and often 10 times as much heart. This year, Shovel Knight leads the charge for the “little guys,” and it's doing it in a big way.
As the titular Shovel Knight, your job is to travel across the lands, defeat monsters aplenty, topple bosses and, eventually, make it to the top of the Tower of Fate to save your longtime comrade, Shield Knight. That story is wrapped in a retro-themed game world that, though inspired by countless classics from yesteryear, easily becomes more than the sum of its parts and should easily earn its own special spot in the hearts and minds of those who play it.
One of those Kickstarter successes we're hearing so much about these days, Yacht Club Game's Shovel Knight hit its funding goal about a year ago and finally made its way to the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS in late June, as well as PC, Mac and Linux. You never know what you're going to get when you dip into a crowdfunding venture, but the team at Yacht Club absolutely delivered on their promise to craft a “groundbreaking new game,” one that mixes a little old with a little new to offer up a genuinely wonderful experience.
So what sets Shovel Knight apart from all of those other retro-styled games that seem to be all of the rage these days? Put simply, the team at Yacht Club “gets it.” Rather than simply aping a bunch of fan favorites from the NES and SNES or cramming their game full of in jokes and references to that era, the developers instead built something wholly new; a game that harkens back to the golden age of side-scrolling adventure games without trying to shove that fact in your face every five minutes. While the game is certainly full of shovel-related puns, I can't think of a single line of dialogue or story beat that slyly winks at the player in reference to, say, Mega Man, Mario, the Belmont Clan or Mother Brain. It's clear that the developers love those types of games and wanted to make something of their own that could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with its influences.
That's high praise, sure, but it's also deserved. As stated above, Shovel Knight borrows from the best, but the way it blends those various elements together also helps set it apart from the pack. You'll constantly think things like, “Oh, the map reminds me of Mario Bros. 3,” or “The combat is kind of a mix of Castlevania and DuckTales,” but everything snaps together in a way that cleverly utilizes that vague bit of nostalgia, then catches you by surprise with its originality.
The map is similar to Mario Bros. 3, sure, but it encourages exploration those earlier NES games never dreamed of. Instead of constantly pushing the player forward, you have plenty of reason to backtrack in order to revisit older zones (perhaps with a new ability that will net you some new loot), visit towns to stock up on items and new gear, or perhaps have a word with the Troupple King in order to restock your various tonics.
If you're going to do retro in the modern age, though, you had better offer up some lovely visuals and a soundtrack you can tap your toe to. Thankfully, Shovel Knight covers both of these bases with ease. The levels are intricately detailed and built on multiple planes, offering the illusion of depth in a 2D game and actual depth with the 3D slider cranked up on Nintendo's portable console.
Each major zone you visit is distinct and themed well after its respective boss, creating a set of locales that are unique and memorable. Plague Knight's Explodatorium, for example--with all of those massive multicolored vials and a particularly tricky final battle--is likely to pop into my mind years from now whenever someone brings up Shovel Knight. That goes for the music, too, which is an unbelievable collection of chiptune greatness that gets stuck in your head and, going hand-in-hand with those carefully themed levels, helps keep each area of the game distinct.
None of this wonderful design would be worth a lick, though, if Shovel Knight didn't nail the mechanics. Your shovel can be used to attack enemies directly in front of you, or you can perform a downward attack by simply jumping into the air and pressing down to bounce off of the baddie. This maneuver can also be used to reach higher ground, which means you might want to pay attention to the screen's layout before you start whacking everyone with your spade of justice. Bouncing off of that green blob rather than confronting him head-on might just catapult you to a treasure-filled ledge that would not be accessible by your regular jump. Your combat abilities are further enhanced by Relics, which grant you various types of magical attacks to help kill enemies at range or at tricky angles. You'll also use your shovel to dig, appropriately enough, which is handy for discovering additional treasure, opening up hidden passages and making your way through some dirt-filled corridors.
And then there are all of those little touches that help make Shovel Knight such a gem. There's a simple upgrade system, for instance, letting the player up their health and mana stats at an ever-increasing cost. You can purchase new armor and gear, too, meaning that the loot you're constantly gathering actually has value. Death also offers up a clever bit of risk and reward, further augmented by a brilliant checkpoint system I expect to see borrowed by more games in the years to come.
When you die in Shovel Knight, a portion of your loot flies into the air and flutters there, waiting for your return. If you can make it back to where you last perished, a la Dark Souls, you can grab your dropped goodies and keep right on trucking. Die before reaching it, though, and it's gone for good. As for the checkpoints, these spaced out torches can actually be destroyed, the reward for which is even more loot in the areas that follow. That, of course, makes death even more dangerous, allowing the player to tack on a self-imposed challenge if they're looking to make some additional bank.
Shovel Knight is an undeniable success, the kind of game I expect to see pop up on my (and probably quite a few others') game of the year lists. It's not all sunshine and rainbows—there are a few frustrating difficulty spikes, your floating loot baggies sometimes hover in unreachable areas and some of the Relics' abilities are a bit too similar—but the positives easily overshadow those minor complaints. Shovel Knight reminds us why classic gaming is exactly that, classic, and gives us a shovelful of new reasons to fall in love with the genre all over again.
Platforms: Wii U, 3DS, PC, Mac, Linux
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games