Yacht Club Games’ debut title Shovel Knight is a game inspired by the greatest titles from the 8-bit NES era, but what makes it special is the game’s ability to host its own identity and build upon the games it draws inspiration from. Make no mistake, this is a game that stands out on its own and puts itself right alongside the classics like Mega Man II, Zelda II, Castlevania, and more. Shovel Knight feels like playing a game that I didn’t know existed when I was a kid, and it’s being released 25 years after I was born.
The Adventure Begins
In a game that is designed to look and feel like a game for the NES, Shovel Knight gets the most important aspect of those games right, and it does so immediately. After a brief introduction to the story of the game, you are tossed into gameplay. The game opens to find the titular Shovel Knight being separated from his partner Shield Knight, as the Enchantress takes over the kingdom in which they live. Following the opening, you are in the first stage and there is no tutorial. This is absolutely integral to the experience of games from the NES era and it would have been a detriment to do otherwise. It also shows the brilliance of this game’s design, because through gameplay it teaches you how to play the game. Nothing is worse than being excited to play a game and having to sit through an hour long tutorial on how to jump or shoot, and Yacht Club Games understands the importance of this.
I will say, when I was first dropped into the world and I started moving around, I pressed A to jump, only to find that I was swinging my shovel. In fact, the B button was designated for jumping and I scratched my head a little. For a game that clearly learned from the classic, two-button games of our past, I assumed the developers would get rule number one correct. Then, in a moment of clarity, I realized that they did get it right. Having B assigned to jump and Y assigned to attack is actually so much more intuitive and effective on the 3DS than A and B. In fact, it’s one of the problems I’ve had with Virtual Console releases on Wii U that don’t allow the remapping of buttons, and I’m stuck playing Mega Man IV with a botched positioning of my fingers. It’s a little thing to notice when looking at Shovel Knight as a whole, but the fact that the developers paid attention to this detail shows the level of commitment to gameplay in a game like this.
Once you finish the first stage and fight the Black Knight, Shovel Knight’s rival, the game opens to an overhead map that bears a strong resemblance to that of Super Mario Bros. 3, down to its random enemy encounters that circle about from stage to stage. Here you can choose the path you set down, but not before dropping into the main village. As soon as I entered the village, I felt my brain firing off images of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The village is populated by an assortment of strange characters who each have something to tell you, and knowing the tricks and lies of the classic games, I was cautious to trust anyone here. After letting my guard down a bit, I met a Bard who became one of my favorite parts to the game. Throughout the game, you will find sheets of music that you can bring back to the Bard who will buy them for 500 gold each. The money is nice, but what is great is the ability to have him play any of the songs you have found while you wander about town. It harkens back to the debug menus of the past where we would sit at the sound test and listen to every last bit.
The aforementioned Enchantress has her Order of No Quarter, a group of eight villains that wait for you at the end of each stage. What I noticed about Shovel Knight was the variety to not only the bosses but the stages as well. While limited to the NES color palette, with a few extra channels utilized, there isn’t a stage that looks alike. Shovel Knight explores the depths of the colors in its art design and had me constantly stopping my playtime to stare at how beautiful the game is.
Climbing the tower at the end is definitely one of my favorite parts in the game, not only because it incorporated elements of every stage, but because it just looks gorgeous. If I had to pick an absolute favorite portion of the game, it has to be the Lich Yard. It reminded me so much of Castlevania, a game series that I have a long history with. The music in this stage has actually been on repeat not just on my laptop but in my dreams. Yes, I’ve been dreaming about Shovel Knight and playing it in my dreams. But the Lich Yard actually stands out to me because it was the first stage I played after leaving the village, and it presented some new challenges not just for the game itself but for classic games like this. Shovel Knight uses his shovel to attack enemies, but you can also bounce on them like Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales. Lich Yard suddenly kills the lights on the stage and you are guided by shadows and the occasional flash of lightning. I was trying to bounce my way to secrets or enemies while avoiding the fall to my death.
That doesn’t mean that the other stages are any less spectacular, just that the Lich Yard struck a particular chord with me. In fact, the developers haven’t wasted a pixel in this game when it comes to level design. Every stage I walked into was memorable and unique. There are a few recycled enemies that cross between stages, but there is always something new to find. While playing the game, you discover different types of treasure in the form of gems. Enemies will drop these, you can find chests that are cleverly placed or hidden entirely, and there are secret walls to break that will lead you to a massive treasure room. I played through every stage at least twice before finishing the game and when I watched the credits roll I had only collected 86% of the goods in the game. Despite my careful exploration of each stage, I still missed a decent amount which shows how much of this game there is to explore.
Going Home Again
One of the best parts about this game is its accessibility. Because the game is so well designed, you learn new tricks by playing the game and paying attention to how it works. When a ledge is just out of reach, you stare around the screen looking for a way to bounce off of something and land on the ledge. Unlike a lot of modern games, this game will never hold your hand or treat you like an idiot. It’s the same way that games from my childhood were. Games took a lot of replaying to understand the timing and the minutia of its design. Even though I’ve only played each stage a few times each so far, there were countless times throughout my first time with the game where I was running through the same halls or bouncing off of the same electrified cephalopod. The game has a lot of areas where you just need to try different approaches to see what works and what will advance you to the next area.
While it might not be as difficult as the games it draws inspiration from, Shovel Knight still presents quite the challenge, and after completing the game you can continue on New Game+, which after playing a few levels of proved it will surely provide the player with new levels of difficulty. I think that it is a perfect way to release a game like this today. You can’t alienate an audience who never played games like this by making it impossible to play by kids without the patience that we were sort of forced to have, but you also can’t alienate the audience of people who grew up playing games like this by making it absurdly easy. I think that it falls somewhere in between and that it is approachable by any player, new or old.
Every year, I spend time going back to my favorite games from childhood. They approach me at different times, depending on my mood or just the time of year that reminds me to turn on a particular title. There is a reason that I am still playing those games that are as old or older than I am, and I think that Shovel Knight has that reason as well. Just like Metroid was a blend of what Nintendo was doing with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Shovel Knight is a blend of the classics that can stand right beside them. In another 25 years, some kid with a beard worse than mine is going to talk about how he remembers playing Shovel Knight as a kid like I remember playing Castlevania. I guarantee it. That same time, I’ll be a 50 year old man trying to figure out how to recharge my 3DS so that I can go back to Shovel Knight as well.
Shovel Knight is a true classic, and it’s a shame we didn’t have it 25 years ago. We have it now, and it is a must-play. Yacht Club Games’ debut title is a masterpiece in all stretches of the definition, and I can’t wait to play more and see what they have coming next.