During a time when the loudest voices on the Internet seem mostly concerned about how many P’s there are in a game, or how many frames are running per second, a game like Shovel Knight is exactly what fans of the gaming industry needed: proof positive that fun is all a game needs to be in order to succeed. And damn, let me tell ya, Shovel Knight is one of the most fun games I’ve played.
And I don’t just mean this year — I mean ever.
After numerous delays, and what felt like a lifetime of waiting, Yacht Club Games delivered on its promise: a groundbreaking love letter to the 8-bit era. Shovel Knight is influenced by some of the greatest platforming games ever created, from a time long before a lot of today’s gamers we even born, and like its predecessors, offers brilliant level design, outstanding music, pin-point accurate control, and some of the best pixel art I’ve ever seen.
The story begins by introducing our two adventurers, Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. The heroes travelled together until Shield Knight goes missing and Shovel Knight becomes a depressed recluse. Eventually, as evil starts to overwhelm the world, Shovel Knight decides it’s time to not only fight back, but find out what happened to his friend. Standing in his way are eight, Mega Man’esque Knights that Shovel Knight must overcome. It’s pretty standard fare as far as video game tales go, but no 8-bit outing in history ever relied on it’s story to carry the gamer forward.
This is a game that anyone can pick up and play thanks to brilliant controls and an intuitive tutorial level that doesn’t stop every 3 seconds to teach the player how to do a new move. Like the early days of game, Shovel Knight is played using the D-pad and two buttons – jump and attack. Anyone who has played old NES classics like Ducktales, Castlevania, Mega Man, or Link’s Adventure, will have an immediate leg up, but the controls are so precise that anyone will get a hang of how to play almost instantly. They so spot on that if you die in this game, the only thing you can blame it on is you.
The game map takes inspiration from Super Mario Brothers 3, which has branching paths leading to different enemy stages. The level designs is brilliant in that it allows you to set the level of challenge for yourself. Each level has four or five checkpoints, meaning death never sets you back too far. However, these checkpoints can be destroyed for more loot, at the expense of dying sending you back to the previous checkpoint (or even the start of the level). It’s a risk reward scheme that not only provides the game with replay value, but allow you to set your own challenge and truly master every level. The game also lets the player decide if and when to strengthen their character. You are given – or can buy – meal tickets at different intervals which can be traded in for an increased health bar, but you are never forced to do so. It is entirely possible to beat the game with the small health bar you start of with, should you so desire to challenge yourself further.
Your main weapon in Shovel Knight is, of course, your shovel, which Shovel Knight brandishes like a sword. You even get teased early on in the game about how a shovel isn’t a weapon at all, but in this knights hands, it is as powerful as any blade. It also works at a tool for traversing stages à la Uncle Scrooges cane in Ducktales and it also works for digging (fancy that) treasure out of mounds of dirt.
The treasure is used to purchase a wide array of items and upgrades for your character, such as the throwing anchor, the fishing rod, a sword that lets you fly through the air, and more. All of the items are quite powerful and while you could stick with one for the entire game, it’s fun to be able to mix and match. You can also upgrade your armor, which will normally slightly increase a skill at the expense of another. The loot system encourages you to search every nook and cranny, which I found extremely enjoyable. The game never forces you to explore and entire level like the Ducktales remake did — it makes exploring enjoyable and purposeful. You never feel forced to do anything and you can play the game your own way, just like you could with games in the days of old.
The level design of Shovel Knight is absolutely brilliant, and while none of it is revolutionary (most of the levels can be directly linked to a level in Mega Man) each new stage is fresh and different than the previous one. The levels are always challenging, but never to the point of breaking the player because of another game design innovation that I wish had existed back in the 8-bit era: there are no lives in Shovel Knight.
When you die, rather than lose a life, you lose three bags of money which float out onto the screen. If you can make it back to the bags and collect them, you retrieve the lost cash. Die before making it back, and three more bags will pop out at the new location, however, the first three you didn’t retreive are gone. Since much of the game relies on spending money for upgrade, there is a lot of benefit to not dying, but you’ll never scream at your screen because you just fell in a pit or to a boss and need to start a level all over again. It’s an amazing system that dwarfs any system conceived in the 8 or 16 bit generations.
Having played the game on both the Wii U and the 3DS, I can tell you that both experiences are spectacular. It’s a great game to have on the go, however, given the choice of the two, I would give the nod to the home console (or PC) version. The colours are bright, vibrant and beautiful and you really want to experience these on a large screen. I mean, this is some of the most amazing pixel art I have ever seen. Graphically, the game seems to find itself some place between the 8 and 16 bit eras. Not as nice as Mega Man X, but better than say, Mega Man 4 or 5.
Over halfway through 2014 and Shovel Knight is without a doubt my lead contender for Game of the Year (knocking South Park down to second and Child of Light to third) and I think any game will be hard pressed to take it’s place at the top. It’s easily one of the best games I’ve ever played, and happily took me back to a time when level design, game design, control and just straight up fun meant so much more than frames per second or graphic fidelity. The only thing that matters when having fun is having fun.
Martin Luther King once said “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” and while he clearly wasn’t talking about judging video games based on their design as opposed to their graphics, I still stand by what I consider to be an apt comparison. MLK wouldn’t want us to fight over which is better, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo — he would have wanted all of us to get along, and not judge our gaming experience on how they look, but rather the fun we have experiencing them. Shovel Knight is, in essence, the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream.