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Published on June 26th, 2014 | by Keith Hanson


Shovel Knight: A Classic Born from Classics


Nostalgia is a powerful tool. It’s something we see a lot in video games these days. Developers often try to pull on the heartstrings of our youth with homages to the games we grew up with, or just straight up HD remakes of those games. But nostalgia is not a tool that is easy to use properly. Sometimes a fresh coat of HD paint on an old game isn’t enough. Or maybe the retro references are a bit heavy handed, or worse it’s just a copycat of that game you loved as a child. And then you end up playing those old games instead because nothing can top the originals. The 8-bit indie is becoming a tired concept. And then a game comes along that brings back memories of great games from the Nintendo Entertainment System library. It is a challenge worthy of your time and patience.  It is a game that both pays homage and builds upon the classic video games of yesteryear. That game is Shovel Knight.


Shovel Knight began with a very successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s the first game developed by Yacht Club Games under the direction of Sean Velasco. He had originally worked for WayForward Technologies. They are famous for developing great 2D platformers like the Shantae series, and remakes of classic NES games A Boy and His Blob and DuckTales: Remastered. The original funding goal for Shovel Knight was $75,000, but Yacht Club managed to raise $311,502. Sadly for me, I missed out on the Kickstarter. When I finally discovered it, they had blown the lid off their goal. All I had to do was wait patiently. Now the wait is finally over.

From the moment I started the game, I was a child again. (Then again, I’m still quite a child on the inside.) But it’s evident from the pixelated intro screen that this game is gunning to hit you right in the memory glands. The Yacht Club Games logo hits the screen, and a small jingle plays that instantly reminded me of Capcom.  And I must apologize in advance for mentioning Capcom and their games so much in this review. It’s very evident Sean Velasco and his team have a great reverence for them, and others like Konami and Nintendo in smaller parts. They are not copycatting games like DuckTales, Mega Man 2, or Super Mario Bros. 3. They’re building upon those blocks like so many others have done but with their own style and flare. They stick with a classic formula, add in some advanced touches, and mix in the memorable characters.


It begins with Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. The two were inseperable, and they were the best of adventurers and friends. They were more than friends, actually. The pair had many journeys together, but that all ended in the Tower of Fate. Inside the two found a cursed amulet that cast an “evil magic” on Shield Knight. Those are the games words, not mine. I assume this also knocked out Shovel Knight. When he awoke outside the tower, the Tower was sealed. And Shield Knight was gone. After years of grieving, and farming apparently, The evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter have siezed the lands in their grip. And now with the Tower of Fate unsealed, Shield Knight must return to save the people of this land, and hopefully his friend, too. I assume he also didn’t want those villainous knights to take away all his crops.


The first stage in Shovel Knight will teach you all you need to know about the controls. This lesson doesn’t have anything to do with any dialog boxes. If you’re familiar with the control style of games like DuckTales, Castlevania, and Mega Man, you won’t have a problem with quickly learning the controls. If you aren’t familiar with those titles, you’ll still have no problem learning how to traverse the environment and weild the Shovel Blade. And if you still have issue there is an online instructional manual included. I never had to look at it, but I would say I’m a seasoned veteran of this style of game. Just like the games it pulls so much influence from on the NES, there are only two buttons. But there are many actions you can perform with just those two and the directional pad. You can attack on the ground, in the air, and you can perform a downward strike to bounce on enemies just like Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales. Although Shovel Knight cannot bounce anywhere. He is limited to doing it on the heads of enemies and certain objects in the environment. Some enemies are smarter than others, so attacking from above isn’t always the best option. Beyond thwarting your enemies, the Shovel Blade can be used to dig up piles of treasure, clear your path of dirt, and to find secret areas containing chests and other goodies. You will encounter all these instances in this first level, and through that you will learn the drive of the gameplay without a tutorial. It’s wonderful to see level design put to such good use. But Yacht Club doesn’t show their whole hand in the beginning of the game. There are more weapons to acquire, and some aren’t just for attacking. And there are plenty more levels, and they all have their own obstacles and enemies to overcome.


After completing the first stage and defeating its boss, you’re immediately thrown onto the overworld map. Fans of Super Mario Bros. 3 will immediately recognize its similarities to the classic game’s format of level selection. But unlike SMB3, there is only one overworld in this game, and there are more than just levels to complete. There is a village where you can purchase upgrades, gain tips from the townsfolk, and even play a mini-game. But there is more to the map that must be revealed. You must complete levels before clearing more of it. Because of this, you also cannot immediately take on any of the Order of No Quarter. You’ll have the option between 1-3 of the bosses’ stages at a time, and you can play those in any order you wish. So while this game shares many things in common with Mega Man 2 like 8 bosses standing in your way, it approaches it in another way. And don’t worry about having the right relic/weapon to defeat a certain Knight like you would the robot masters. All of them can be defeated with just your Shovel Blade, if you have the skill to do it.


Speaking of the relics, they are the secondary weapons you obtain throughout the game. I had expected you would gain them via defeating each of the Knights. But instead you will have to find one in each of the Order of No Quarter stages, and two more in other areas. These work very similar to items in the Castlevania series. You’ll hold UP on the directional pad, and press attack to use them. Once you find a relic, it will always be accessible from the pause menu. So don’t worry about losing one when you pick up another. You can have one relic equipped at a time, and they all use the same magic meter. It’s kind of like Mega Man, but you can still perform a regular attack while having them equipped. Some of these relics will also help with traversal of the stages, like providing an air dash to get across larger gaps. This once again reminded me of a Capcom game: Mega Man X. But unlike Capcom games, you don’t have lives. But there is plenty of treasure.


Beyond food for health and potions to fill your magic meter strewn throughout the stages, there are jewels and bits of treasure everywhere in Shovel Knight. You’ll constantly dig open secret areas containing loads of shinies for collecting, as well as sheet music you can trade to the Bard in town for more money. The gold and gems can be used to buy new relics and upgrades for your shovel, armor, health, and magic. But every time you die in Shovel Knight, you will drop a percentage of your total money. You will then respawn at the start or the farthest checkpoint you passed in the level. You have a chance to reclaim your dropped treasure, as it gains wings and floats in bags around where you were defeated. Sometimes it will be totally inaccessible depending on how you died. But I wouldn’t worry too much about getting all of it back. There is so much treasure in the game that I never ran out of it from dying. And you actually can’t run out of it. Once you reach 3 gold in your stash, you will no longer drop any when you die. This is one of the few things I dislike about Shovel Knight. There is no game over. You can always get up and try again. But this doesn’t mean the stages aren’t challenging.

Each stage in Shovel Knight will present you with new obstacles and different ways to get past them using your abilities and relics . There is so much evidence of the influence Mega Man 2 had on the design of each of the Order of No Quarter’s areas and even the Tower of Fate. The underwater level of Treasure Knight is obviously influenced by Bubble Man’s level. And it’s hard not to be reminded of both Crash Man and Air Man’s stages when climbing ladders and pushing against gusts of wind in Propeller Knight’s Flying Machine. But each of the Knights is not just a copycat of those old Robot Masters. They are all well-defined, albeit flat characters. They’ll all talk a bit with Shovel Knight before starting the battle, and in this you’ll be able to find the motivation for each. Some of them seem to have mysterious pasts with a deep connection to Shovel Knight. But they don’t delve too much into them. And while they’re relatively simple characters, they are all very memorable. They aren’t very challenging though. Unlike Mega Man 2, I didn’t find any relics worked better on any of the Knights. Once you discover their patterns, you’ll easily defeat them. The platforming is certainly the real challenge in this game. But that doesn’t make any of the Order of No Quarter any less enjoyable to thwart.

Beyond the tight controls, wonderful level design, and memorable characters, the music in Shovel Knight is tops. Each level and area has it’s own distinct sound which sets their tone perfectly. I’m sure this is in no small part because of Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae, the latter having done the music for the original Mega Man. Once again, the influence of Capcom is not just felt, but it’s also heard in Shovel Knight. I will be humming the tunes in this game for weeks to come. And I hope bands out there take note and perform some covers of these fantastic songs.


Once you defeat all eight of the vile knights and climb the Tower of Fate to achieve your final victory, you’ll unlock New Game+. Sadly, I haven’t been able to spend too much time on it. It does up the difficulty of the game by having less checkpoints and adding more danger to the levels. I imagine the real challenge of Shovel Knight is in this mode. There are even more modes coming for the game in the future. Since the Kickstarter campaign was so successful, all DLC for Shovel Knight will be free. There will be a Battle Mode featuring the knights of the Order of No Quarter, which I’m guessing will be akin to a fighting game. There is going to be a Challenge Mode, and a Gender Swap Mode. Time will tell if this means just Shovel Knight will be female, or if the entire cast will have their gender flipped. And there will be Boss Campaigns featuring King Knight, Spectre Knight, and Plague Knight. As you can see, there is plenty more ahead in the future of Shovel Knight.

I could not have enjoyed this game more. As a lifelong fan of action-adventure platformers, this game has quickly jumped up to the top of my list for 2014. It’s a game I will go back to constantly, just like the classic games it built it’s legacy upon. It’s fun, challenging, humorous, and a total nostalgia trip. But unlike other games that depend solely upon you remembering the past, this one builds upon those memories. It takes what you love about Mega Man, DuckTales, and Castlevania, and creates something new with what those games started. It doesn’t just copy what came before, it builds another foundation with the classic formula. I imagine in the future we’ll look back upon Shovel Knight as a real classic.


Shovel Knight is available for Digital Download on Wii U/3Ds eShop, Humble Store, and Steam for $14.99.


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About the Author

is a podcaster currently residing in New Jersey. He can be found weekly on Sidecast where he rambles on about video games, wrestling, movies, Muppets, and other very important topics. If you want to find him right now, he's probably posting something to his Twitter.

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