A Love Letter to Platformers Past
In just five days time of this writing, Yacht Club Games will release a free expansion pack for their platformer hit Shovel Knight called “Plague of Shadows”. When I first heard the news, I very excited. I had never played Shovel Knight, despite all the wonderful things I had heard about it. With an expansion looming on the horizon, there was no time like the present to get off my butt and shovel some dirt. Or something. Truth is, I hadn’t the faintest idea what Shovel Knight was about. I had a vague notion that the game was a 2-D platformer. Well, after a weekend of retro chip tunes and air-tight platforming goodness, I emerge a wiser man. A better man. A man who has played Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight was first released June 26, 2014. It was announced by Yacht Club Games on March 14, 2013, when the development studio submitted their project to Kickstarter. After a month, the project had not only met their funding goal, they shattered it, reached several stretch goals by raising a total of $311,503. The game is a faithful homage to the classic Mega Man series. Shovel Knight plays out in much the same manner. The player controls the titular character and traverses levels in the same screen-by-screen fashion as Capcom’s Blue Bomber. The gameplay feels great. The weight of the character is just right and levels, while easy to begin with, become more and more brutal as you progress. The difficulty ramp feels natural, though. I never found myself stuck, even though some screens took a bit of trial and error to pass. Each level ends with a climatic boss battle with a foe who share’s knighthood with the protagonist. Specter Knight, King Knight, Treasure Knight… the naming convention of the bosses seems like another direct nod to the Mega Man series. The boss design is impeccable. Each fight feels very unique and cleverly represents the villain’s personality through gameplay.
Unlike Mega Man, however, Shovel Knight features an overworld that you traverse. The main levels are scattered about, and there are also optional bosses to defeat. Enemies drop fat loot that you exchange for upgrades which can be purchased at one of several towns located on the overworld. Interestingly, the character upgrade system is another aspect that Yacht Club Games did not borrow from Capcom. Instead of acquiring powers by defeating bosses, your Knight purchases upgrades from villagers. These upgrades can be health and mana, or relics that bestow unique abilities to the Shovel Knight. They are all entirely optional, though. The game can technically be completed without any upgrades whatsoever. While there is a certain purity that I can appreciate here, I think a power-stealing mechanic like those found in Mega Man titles would have been a natural fit. I was legitimately disappointed when I didn’t acquire a power from the first boss I defeated. That may have been due to the fact that the game spent so much effort trying to convince me I was playing Mega Man that it caught me off guard when this key mechanic didn’t appear.
Story plays a larger role in Shovel Knight than older games like it. The uber-retro platformer manages to deliver a surprisingly compelling narrative. Story-focused scenes play out between levels that guide you through the Shovel Knight’s quest to redeem his fallen companion, Shield Knight. The game doesn’t beat you over the head with it’s story, though. It gives the player just enough to keep them invested in the characters. Shovel Knight’s 8-bit visuals look great. They’re accompanied by an awesomely large array of kinetic chip tunes. As I played through Shovel Knight, the music alone kept a fat grin across my face. Upon completion, the game offers standard new game+ affair. Enemies are more stronger and tougher, and you keep all of your gear from the first playthrough. I don’t see myself diving in right away, but I can see how more hard-core genre advocates might enjoy challenging themselves. This game screams speed-run. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it has been adopted by the more serious speed-run communities.
All in all, Shovel Knight is just plan awesome. The game aimed high and hit the mark. Yacht Club Games were obviously out to honor some of the classics, and they did a damn fine job of it. The music, visuals, story and gameplay all come together to offer a near-perfect entry in the platforming genre. And while I still think there is room for improvement when it comes to character abilities, I still hold this game in the highest regard. I can see Shovel Knight standing the test of time and becoming an all-time classic in its own right.