Nostalgia can make us think of older games as being better than they actually are. Revisiting older NES or Genesis games can be all too challenging due to finicky controls and unforgiving level design.
But one game, which just celebrated its ninth birthday, feels exactly how many of us remember those classic platformers. That game is Shovel Knight, a 2D action platformer that borrows heavily from Mega Man, DuckTales, and Castlevania, but carves out its own identity thanks to tight gameplay, visuals, and sounds.
Immediately, Shovel Knight will grab your attention with its beautiful 8-bit style. Thanks to newer technology, Shovel Knight is able to do a lot more with its visuals than ‘80s consoles ever could, resulting in an experience that feels old and refreshing simultaneously.
The color palette is vibrant and the character designs are impressive, ranging from the titular Shovel Knight himself to wild creatures and bosses. The sheer breadth of the game’s characters makes each screen appealing, even if you’ve played a level hundreds of times.
But the appeal goes far beyond visuals Its catchy chiptune soundtrack is incredible, with upbeat songs that will take you back to the ‘80s, keeping you in the groove of whatever stage you’re on. Composer Jake Kaufman matches each track to a particular stage, offering plenty of variety throughout.
Strength in Simplicity
The beauty of Shovel Knight is that it’s relatively simple to play. You can jump, slash your shovel, and plummet downwards (just like in DuckTales). There are a handful of spells you can utilize, as well, such as the Flare Wand that shoots fireballs, or the ability to phase through enemy attacks using the Phase Locket. But for the most part, you’ll find yourself platforming and using your shovel as a weapon for the majority of your time on any given stage.
Since the gameplay design is so straightforward, it allows each level to shine in terms of the layout, enemy placement, and platforming. For instance, you can plummet downward onto certain blocks only once or twice before they disappear for good. You can use these blocks to reach previously inaccessible areas containing treasure or other hidden items if you’re skilled at utilizing the plummet mechanic.
Stages are littered with goodies, many of which are easy to miss, offering lots of replay value throughout. Sometimes, you’ll discover a new ability like the Phase Locket, which can help you get through a tricky platforming section that leads to treasure. Other times, your skills improve and eventually, you may be able to revisit older areas to get through them with ease.
Tough, But Fair
The same can be said about combat, which also shares a simplistic design, but feels even more dynamic. You need to keep moving when battling foes, as standing still will almost certainly result in taking damage, even if you continuously slash your shovel.
But thanks to the different types of attacks, you’ll likely come up with your own strategies and combos. For instance, you might strike an enemy with your shovel, then jump above them before plummeting down for a final blow. Or why not try out the large arsenal of magic attacks to take down your enemies? There are plenty of ways to dish out attacks and each feels viable, allowing for multiple strategies.
While Shovel Knight wears its old-school inspirations on its sleeve, it also has a bit in common with Dark Souls — which sounds almost like a joke. When you’re eliminated in Shovel Knight, you have a chance to revisit the spot where you were taken out to retrieve a portion of your lost treasure. If you’re taken out once more, your treasure is gone for good, just like in the Souls games. This sort of softens the blow of each death, introducing an intriguing risk/reward system that can impact your performance.
Speaking of which, you’ll likely fall victim to many of the game’s bosses, and while each feels insurmountable at first, you’ll eventually be able to overcome them after a few tries. For the truly difficult battles, you can always visit the village to spend your hard-earned treasure on additional health, mana, or other powers to aid you on your journey.
Shovel Knight feels new and nostalgic at the same time, harkening back to beloved games from the ‘80s while carving out an unforgettable identity all its own.
Shovel Knight is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.