The inspiration that lead Yacht Club Games to bring Shovel Knight into the world is quite obvious -- heck their huge neon signs you can't miss -- but this is no mere nostalgia trip. Once you get your hands on the game such true classics as Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest, Duck Tales and, of course, Mega Man spring to mind. The titular hero looks awful familiar doesn't he? The Blue Bomber is now the Blue Burrorwer (heh) and he's using a shovel instead of a Mega-Buster.
The punch to the face retro feel of it all is but a pleasant candyshell for what awaits inside. What we find is something that is altogether rewarding, compelling and one of the most competent and lovingly crafted platformers to come around in years. The slew of "8-bit" Metroidvania style retro titles that have come along in as many years would have you fooled into thinking Shovel Knight is yet another money-grab. Yacht Club Games, founded by former director at Way Forward Technologies, Sean Velasco, has done something I didn't know was possible: give the world an 8-bit adventure that not only delivers gameplay in spades but also with memorable characters, solid story and fantastic music.
This, most assuredly, wouldn't run on the consoles that inspired it (though the creators do claim adamantly that the music would play on a Super Famicom system) but it certainly feels like the first game to come along that was meant to be on a cartridge tucked away amongst the myriad other 2D gems of what feels like a bygone era.
The gorgeous aesthetic feels ripped from the early Nintendo days yet modern touches abound. Enemies have unique personality and animations and action is always fluid and responsive. That is a must for a platformer of this style. Things have to flow correctly and feel ..well.. right. Shovel Knight, down to its many Mega-Man style bosses to the overworld map that screams of something ripped straight out of a Mario Bros. game is dripping with style and with a true sense of love for the genre. It looks more like a late-era NES game when the Super Nintendo was just about to hit the scene and developers had really managed to push the envelope with their 8-bit machinations. The pixelated art is a sight to behold. It truly is. Rather than relying solely on the 54 colors the NES was able to achieve they approached the aesthetic with a more modern take. It was a tightrope to walk of solving the problems of limited hardware back then while never betraying the sensibilities of them.
Mechanically the game is pretty damn sound from top to bottom. Controls are simple enough with the use of a D-Pad and two buttons for jumping and attacking. This game is MADE for playing with a controller. The Scrivener can attest that it worked like a charm using a USB gamepad on PC and also on the 3DS (best use of an Nintendo e-Shop card by far). The movement throughout feels great and the jumping is magnificent. You know you're on the right track with a platformer when jumping just feels spot on. The game never coddles you or punishes you unfairly. Bad hit detection and things other lesser decidedly retro pixelated titles are plagued with are nowhere to be found here. You're going to die a whole lot, though. That is more of a guarantee unless you're a true veteran to the genre. There is some really tough platforming to make your way through the sprawling dungeons that comprise the levels.
Dying isn't all that bad really. You don't have continues so to speak and you can just keep retrying the level until you finally make that jump onto the moving platform or avoid that enemy. It is a definite modern idea applied to the classic formula but it also means the frustrations that came with those similar games are taken out of the equation. Jewels are what matter not even so much health or power-ups. The penalty for dying is present but not so punishing that you'll want to toss your controller/handheld out the window for not making that jump. You drop a chunk of your gold -- much like in Dark Souls -- that will be waiting for you once you venture back towards the spot of your demise.
There are no 1UPs to collect and no energy tanks or the like to find. All the Blue Burrower wants, aside from dispensing indiscriminate shovel justice, are jewels. They're all around in mounds of gravel, walls that explode when struck, gravestones and any other number of places you could imagine. They serve as currency but also as an incentive to explore levels further than just a cursory run-through to the boss. Those jewels can be used to purchase items and health/magic upgrades and swapped color palettes for our hero, etc.
The world in which Shovel Knight kicks a whole lot of ass is meticulously designed and so well rendered. I can't recall level design this good in a game of its kind since Mega Man 2 or 3. The opening tutorial level is brilliant (maybe one of the best I've played) in not only giving the player a taste of every mechanic necessary to beat the game but also introduce them to the idea of platforming, shovel-hopping and encourages exploration of all-kinds. Each baddie Knight (with names like Plague Knight, Tinker Knight, Polar Knight and the like) has their own appropriately themed level to traverse. Specter Knight was my hands down favorite. The undead level ruled.
The thing that really hammers home just how tremendous a title this is? The soundtrack. Composer Jack "Virt" Kaufman (who put together Way Forward's kick-ass OST for Double Dragon Neon) along with Manami Matsumae (original composer for the first Mega Man and countless other classics) delivers, without a doubt, one of the best chippy, upbeat and thoroughly entertaining mix of tunes for a game in a long time. It evokes the feeling of those early Capcom games (especially Mega Man) without just being a clear rip-off. Much like the game itself it pays homage while carving out its own niche.
If there is anything to complain about really? Some of the stretch goals promised during the Kickstarter campaign didn't make it into the launch release. That will be remedied by free DLC, though, for anyone who contributed or purchased the game. So, really, my complaint is that there wasn't more of this game for me to play.
FINAL WORD: Shovel Knight is a game that stands along-side greats like Mega Man, Duck Tales and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest that would have fit in quite well on a shelf of cartridges. It isn't often a game come alongs in this new generation that immediately feels timeless like this. It is a stellar platformer with responsive controls, gorgeous pixelated art, a rousing (if simple) story and a soundtrack that cannot be beat. This could already be my Game of the Year. Buy this now.
Shovel Knight is now available on PC, Mac, Nintendo WIi-U and Nintendo 3DS. Retail cost: $14.99 (Soundtrack can be purchased seperately at Jack Kaufman's Bandcamp page