Old-fashioned trappings do not automatically denote quality or merit. J.J. Abrams is shooting Star Wars Episode VII on 35mm film. That doesn’t mean his movie will automatically be a masterwork that harkens back to a magical past when art was just plain better. Neil Young’s A Letter Home isn’t good because it was recorded in Jack White’s 70-year-old instant vinyl booth, and today’s retro video games aren’t grand just because the creators decided to make them look like they could have been made on the NES back in 1988. Making something new in an old way only works when affectation is abandoned—when classical tools are used because they’re the ones best suited to the job. At a moment when many games are bleeping, pixelated old-style works made by small teams, Shovel Knight is still a singular work. Aesthetically antiquated but still smartly modern, Yacht Club Games’ debut is the work of creators who apply their tools to more than superficial ends.
Wrought in the mold of Capcom and Konami’s best work from the late ’80s, Shovel Knight is the tale of a diminutive blue knight with a horned helmet and a versatile spade. Like William H. Macy in Mystery Men, he shovels well, using his God-given gift to conquer trap-laden fortresses ruled over by the crazy knights in The Order Of No Quarter. His aim is to save his one true love, Shield Knight. Eight unique knights stand between Shovel Knight and the Enchantress in The Tower Of Fate, which is where our hero lost Shield Knight in an adventure that still haunts his dreams.
Were it not for Yacht Club Games’ artistic chops, sense of humor, and rousing fortresses, Shovel Knight would be cloyingly referential. For anyone who has a passing familiarity with the era, the team’s inspirations glow like neon signs. There’s the map of Shovel Knight’s world, with its multiple paths to challenges and wandering enemy encounters, straight out of Super Mario Bros 3. The secret rooms that are squirreled away behind destructible walls and the ability to use your shovel like a pogo stick are plucked right out of DuckTales. And with eight colorful bosses—like Propeller Knight in his flying fortress or Specter Knight in his ghost-filled graveyard—and a little blue dude to put them down, Shovel Knight reeks of Mega Man.
Just listening to the soundtrack, co-written in-part by original Mega Man composer Minami Matsumae, proves that Shovel Knight transcends homage. With a flow and tone all its own, it’s less like a collection of parts pulled from classics and more like a peer. For starters, the Knight himself has a litheness that surpasses his forebears. Running through stages like Tinker Knight’s gear-filled machine castle, the swift feel of steering the knight over bottomless pits and slashing with his short shovel belies the overt callbacks to Mega Man 2. Further distinguishing Knight is the emphasis on collecting jewels and coins throughout these stages. Little piles of gravel, false walls, and treasure chests hide myriad gems that not only act as currency for buying health and magic upgrades but also play into a fluid risk-reward system.
Therein lies Shovel Knight’s most ingenious structural maneuver. If Shovel Knight loses all his health in battle, touches spikes, or falls into a bottomless pit, it’s not game over. Three sacks of cash, representing a fraction of your total loot, pop out of his body. They’ll float around waiting for you to come collect them near the exact spot where you beefed it, but only if you get back there before dying again. This is easy if you’ve recently activated one of the four or five crystal ball checkpoints that dot the levels, but doing so limits your potential reward. The checkpoints can be destroyed for extra jewels, making a long run at a level more dangerous but far more lucrative. By tying the Knight’s loot to his survival, Yacht Club Games creates a fluid method of adjusting the difficulty in a way that’s never patronizing to the player or restrictive to those seeking the steepest challenge.
It would all be for naught if the loot didn’t have real value, but Shovel Knight perfectly paces out its purchasable gear and upgrades. These goodies can broaden the game in unexpected ways. Special tools, like a sword that lets you briefly fly through the air, add new strategy to existing stages and open up new optional challenges on the map as well. It’s only at the end of the game, when you’re finally scaling the Enchantress’ tower, that you no longer need to use the treasure to enhance your capabilities. That is ideal. All the money you have left is for survival, making for both palpable and emotional stakes in the final confrontation.
Shovel Knight isn’t literal about its aesthetic tribute to the 8-bit era. Like the inspired browser game The Great Gatsby NES, Knight couldn’t actually run on the machines whose games it’s styled after. The pixel art is too colorful, and the music and sound too complex, to properly run on an NES. (However, according to its creators, the music could play on a Japanese Famicom, given the right circumstances.) The game also sings because it’s never a slave to the perceived merits of tradition. It would have been all too easy to, say, shove in some little floating Shovel Knight heads, making you collect pointless extra lives for no reason other than that’s how things were done back in the good old days. Yacht Club Games is smarter than that, and their game is, too.
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS, PC, Wii U
Reviewed on: Wii U