Yacht Club Game’s Shovel Knight is an absolute homage to that of the old school Nintendo era. (NES, SNES). It’s pretty in all of its 8-bit glory and it is absolutely satisfying. But does it hold up when competing against contemporary indie titles? In short, yes.
Shovel Knight is hard. It is a complete tribute to the NES days where every game seemed to be challenging. At its core Shovel Knight is an action platformer with some Metroidvania elements in terms of exploration. There are also light RPG elements in terms of upgrading your weapons, health, armor, and magic. You are tasked with hunting down the evil Enchantress by first defeating her Order of No Quarter with nothing but a…shovel. The premise is a bit comical, but it is meant to be, and you will probably get a chuckle at some of the modern day references scattered into the game.
As for the gameplay itself, it all feels very fluid in terms of movement, jumping, and attacking with your shovel. The gameplay mechanics are very simple, but executing them can be difficult. The controls on the PlayStation 4 are the biggest concern in my opinion. The square and circle buttons can be used to swing your shovel and dig up treasure, but both buttons do the same thing. The X button has the standard jump ability. The triangle button by itself does nothing. However, when you want to execute Shovel Knight’s most useful move – “jump off of an enemy and vault yourself high in the air using your shovel while doing damage to the enemy” – you have to either jump and hit down X or jump and hit down triangle. Similarly, to use magic in the game you must hit up on the d pad and the square button. I think Yacht Club could have easily designed the magic to the triangle and the vault attack to a double tapping of the X or triangle button.
Back to the core gameplay itself, there is a world map acting as your sense of where to go to complete main missions and such. You can choose to play side levels where you can platform to get treasures. These levels are usually unlocked after beating a level with a boss. Every main level of the game has four to six checkpoints in the level that end with a boss. There is typically a mini-boss scattered in the middle of the level in most cases. The checkpoint system works great. Basically you see a stick with a sphere and you know you have reached a checkpoint. If you die, you go back to that checkpoint. What is interesting about this is that if you break the sphere there is a treasure inside. However, if you choose this option, the checkpoint is no longer valid and if you die you will be sent to the previous checkpoint before the one you just broke. It is a very risk/reward system that can add some great player choice. Speaking of dying, if you die (which you will), you will lose a good chunk of your gold, and the only way to retrieve it is to make it alive to where you died previously. The checkpoints are spaced very fairly, not too long, not too short. However, you will definitely be glad to see the next checkpoint when you get there.
The level design is also very NES like and is executed well. The levels are brimming with color and variety. For instance, there is a level in some grassland plains, a fire level, an underwater level (though if you fall in the water in other levels you die?), etc… Each level feels unique and has its own unique challenges to conquer. I was never bored with a level, though some did feel more challenging and frustrating than others. One level in particular I just could not wait to get to the boss to get out of there.
The bosses themselves all present their own challenge. Most of the bosses are called ____ Knight, like an opposer to Shovel Knight himself. For example, there is King Knight, Specter Knight, Treasure Knight, etc… Each has their own strategy to defeat you with specific move sets. The goal is to figure those out, time your attacks just right, and hope for victory. These bosses are no joke, so don’t expect to just hack your way to victory.
I cannot tell you how many times I died in my 7 hour play through of Shovel Knight. The game makes you feel really good after reaching a checkpoint or beating a level/boss which is definitely rewarding. After dying in an area 20+times, I became a pro up until the point when I kept dying, and once I got past that, I thought to myself how easy that actually was. It has everything an NES game had in terms of challenge, but that is the beauty of it. The game has some of the best light elements in terms of exploration, RPG elements, and platforming. When I beat the game, I was left wanting more, and that’s not a bad thing.
I definitely loved my time with Shovel Knight. The light RPG elements, amazing boss fights, great level design, and a great risk/reward system make the game a wonderful challenge. Other than a few awkward controls, the port to PlayStation 4 is a great one. I definitely recommend you experience this throwback, especially if you love the style.