Indie gaming – it’s such a polarizing thing for reasons that are perpetually beyond me. We either have people that see a bright future full of highly versatile smaller scale games, or we have people that see a bunch of low quality titles that flood that market and undercut better AAA developed games. No matter what side you sit on, it is impossible to deny the quality of the recently released Shovel Knight. Made by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight is an indie through and through. It apes gameplay and ideas from older classics including Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Castlevania, Duck Tales, and The Legend of Zelda among others. And it presents itself in a retro style, being an 8-bit game with a chip tunes soundtrack. In other words, Shovel Knight is the indiest of indie games. Yet, to dismiss it as purely derivative would be a severe mistake.
The premise of Shovel Knight is simple and weird, much like many NES classics. The titular Shovel Knight and his partner/love interest Shield Knight are great adventurers. During one adventure, Shield Knight apparently dies, sending Shovel Knight into a deep depression and takes him out of commission for a period of time. During this absence, the evil Enchantress appears and, along with the fiendish Knights of No Quarter, starts to take over the land. It’s up to Shovel Knight to fight his way back to the tower where Shield Knight was apparently killed, stop the Enchantress, and save the world. There are a few minor changes as the game proceeds, but it’s essentially this all the way through. Despite the simplicity, the game’s story is surprisingly touching, especially at the end.
With a name like Shovel Knight, you may expect the game to be comedic. You’d be right. Ignoring the fact that you can turn on something called “butt mode”, which replaces key words of the dialogue with the word butt, the game is full of funny moments. Particularly, each level opens with a quote such as “for shovelry” or “it’s shovelling time”. These are simple additions, but this kind of comedy lines every part of the game. So too, the dialogue with the various Knights of No Quarter are particularly humorous, but in an entirely straight-man way. In other words, if you are looking for the overt Borderlands 2, or Leisure Suit Larry humour, you’re out of luck. The humour in Shovel Knight is more akin to the tongue-in-cheek awfulness of a B-movie, and Shovel Knight does wonders lampooning the craziness found in old games.
The gameplay of Shovel Knight is easy to pick up, but hard to master. Shovel Knight is a basic platformer by heart, meaning you’ll jumping and killing enemies as you travel to the end of the stage where you’ll discover a boss battle in the same vein as Mega Man. Your primary weapon is, of course, your shovel. You can use this to strike enemies in one of two ways. Either you can smack them with it on the ground, or you can bounce off of enemies by using it as a pogo-stick, which is more akin to Link’s downward strike in Zelda II than Scrooge’s pogo cane in Duck Tales. Killing enemies and exploring for chests and dirt piles to dig up will reward you with gems, which can be used to buy upgrades such as the ability to charge you strike or increase your total health.
As you travel through levels, you’ll find secret paths that can lead to a hidden sub weapon (one per stage). Each of these weapons cost MP, which can be increased in town for a fee. If you miss them in the stage, you can buy them for a larger fee in town when you’ve completed the stage. They provide a huge amount of variety in gameplay. One item, for example, lets you soar forward in a level. Another gives you three seconds of invincibility. Another still lets you shoot fireballs at enemies. There is a lot of diversity, and all with maybe one or two exceptions are useful. These sub weapons are particularly fun to play with in the game’s new game + mode as you can replay harder versions of the stages with far more tools at your disposal than the first time through.
One of the highlights of the game are definitely the bosses. Taking a distinct page from Mega Man, each boss is oozing in charm and every one of them involves a fun and challenging pattern to master. You have some, like Plague Knight, who will run around the stage, nimbly avoiding you as they rain dire alchemic potions upon you. Others, like Spectre Knight will fly above you, slashing you with their mighty scythe. No two Knights play out the same, and each of them is a ball to play, especially when you get to the harder new game + and they are tough enough to weather some of the more cheap tactics in the game. The bosses are one of the big reasons the game is so effective because, despite taking the idea from Mega Man, each boss fills the game with charm and interesting characters. This is one of the key elements of the game that let it fly as high as the games it imitates.
The game’s level design is, in a word, excellent. There are tons of details to be found in each stage. Along Shovel Knight’s gallant path to the boss’ lair, there will be traps, enemies and scores of secrets. Some lead to new sub weapons as mentioned above, others simply lead to a cache of treasure, or a sheet of music, which lets you replay some of the game’s great tracks while you’re in town. Detail doesn’t stop at gameplay, however. Each stage is thematically appropriate to the Knight. Polar Knight has a predictably icy home. Propeller Knight, it wouldn’t surprise, likes to live in the heights of the sky. Others are less predictable such as Treasure Knight, who lives in the body of a giant mechanical whale. Notwithstanding, each level looks amazing, surpassing the style and substance of games that are cherished classics.
Also charming is the game’s soundtrack. If you have any fondness for the great tracks found in old NES games, particularly Castlevania, Duck Tales, and Mega Man, you’ll instantly fall in love with what Yacht Club put together for the game. Each level has its unique theme, which fits perfectly with the level and boss Knight’s schtick. It has been awhile since I’ve heard 8-bit music that managed to be as addictive and charming as in Shovel Knight, and it goes to show that there’s still a lot left to hear from this style.
What this combination of characteristics leaves us with is a game I wholeheartedly recommend. It is just as good as some of the great games those of us who grew up with 8 and 16-bit games played when we were children. Every element strikes true and strikes hard. If you hate, or distrust indie games, Shovel Knight may be the one to change your mind.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer