Review: Shovel Knight

Retro concepts with modern sensibilities make for a brilliant game.

Every now and again we get another game that promises retro-platforming action. Spelunky, 1001 Spikes, Mega Man 9. Few actually manage to find what made retro games so great, and most of them forsake modern game designs to try and reach that “classic” feel. Shovel Knight manages to hit a sweet spot on both accounts, and the results are astounding.

Shovel Knight might sound ridiculous, but it is straight forward. You play as a knight who wields a shovel for purposes of combat and exploration. He also gets an array of sub-weapons to use, many of which that hearken back to games like Castlevania and Mega Man.

Using these weapons, you travel the world of Shovel Knight, defeating members of an insidious order as you fight to win back your beloved Shield Knight, a dear friend that was thought lost to The Tower of Enchantment. Traveling the world is a combination of Super Mario Bros. 3‘s overworld map and The Adventures of Link‘s villages. It gives a great sense of exploration to a game that otherwise features fairly straight-forward levels in the vein of Mega Man and Castlevania 3.

Gameplay within these levels feels very much like a more fluid Adventures of Link with swordplay replaced with shovelplay, which is now a word. You swipe can swing your shovel in arcs in front of you, or you can come down upon your enemies with a vertical shovel-drop. When combined with the aforementioned sub-weapons, you’ll find an incredibly gratifying gameplay system built into the game. The same method of combat is used to traverse platforming puzzles to find more and more treasure, a key component for buying new weapons and upgrades.

The level design is varied and compelling: from interesting puzzles using your shoveling skills to their utmost potential to perplexing paths that require sub-weapons and quick reflexes to navigate. Equally varied and challenging are the boss fights, each reminiscent of a variety of fights throughout video game history.

I can’t say enough about the music of the game. While it isn’t exactly true to the capabilities of the 8-bit era, it is evoking that same feeling of games like Mega Man and Castlevania. Jake Kaufman has put together an incredibly array of songs here that are well worth purchasing on their own from the game.

In the end, Shovel Knight is more than a game that just wants to invoke that “classic feeling” for a bullet-point. It’s a love letter to the great game design that brought all of us where we are now, and it shows.

Note: For what it’s worth, I played the game on the 3DS and that appears to be the place to play. The layered dimensions among the backgrounds of the game really make it pop, visually. The game in general really works well in a portable format, but it’s also available on Steam and Wii U, and I would easily recommend it there as well.