‘Shovel Knight’: Gaming history in a small package

Shovel Knight
Release date:
“Shovel Knight”
Yacht Club Games
Wii U, 3DS, PC
June 26, 2014

Side-scrolling platformers in a pixellated retro style have become something of a cliché in the indie-gaming scene. It began with “Cave Story” and soon seemingly exploded into a genre of its own with games like “Rogue Legacy” and “Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures.”

In this day and age, anyone can make a retro-styled platformer. But to do one that genuinely feels like a long-lost Nintendo Entertainment System classic? That’s a true rarity, and that’s where “Shovel Knight” comes in and delivers an experience worthy of its artistic direction.

Main character Shovel Knight and his companion Shield Knight started out as two adventurers seeking treasure. The two are separated, however, when they explore a tower and succumb to the tower’s dark magic. Shovel Knight gives up in grief and goes into hiding, but this allows an Enchantress and her minions to take over the land. Threatened by this new evil, Shovel Knight must take up his shovel and fight the evil of the Enchantress and her minions.

It’s a pretty barebones story, but the lack of pretentiousness and depth in a retro adventure such as this is a refreshing sight, and it fits the faux-NES style well. It’s one of the few titles in the retro-platformer genre to actually feel like it could have been on the NES, and even as a new release, it makes for a very nostalgic experience. The excellent soundtrack and cheesy advertising artwork certainly don’t hurt matters.

The gameplay is an amalgamation of several different old-school NES classics, from the level design of games like “Mega Man” to the pogo-jumping of “Ducktales.” It even has an overworld map reminiscent of “Super Mario Bros. 3” and villages that resemble those from “Zelda II.” It borrows a lot, but the end mixture is one that is both nostalgic and very enjoyable.

The mechanics take a while to get used to, but unlike many other retro-styled games today, it actually has a reasonable difficulty curve. Make no mistake; “Shovel Knight” is a difficult game, especially by the final few levels. But it’s difficult in a satisfying manner, and by forgoing the life system that many old games used, it allows for an experience that is hard as nails without feeling frustrating.

For a blast to the past, the best you can do is an actual game from an older console, but “Shovel Knight” is the next best you can do. It succeeds in being not only nostalgic, but also satisfying and fun in a way not many other games today can manage. It’s one for the history books.