First Impressions: Shovel Knight

We dig it

Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight for Wii U, which made waves with an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, was on display at the recent New York Comic-Con. While more mainstream releases were generating huge lines and impatient parents, the deceptively simple-looking Shovel Knight was something of a hidden gem, making a great impression on anyone who tried it. We got to spend some time with the upcoming retro-styled platformer, and came away anticipating it more than ever.

Shovel Knight's pedigree is immediately noticeable. Yacht Club Games is a small indie developer founded by ex-Wayforward Technologies developers, and it shows. The NES-like pixel art is authentic and avoids being nostalgic. The detail in every sprite and tile is a reminder that Shovel Knight is very much a modern game, and the chiptune music score is intricate and suitably epic. Yacht Club has said that their intention is to make Shovel Knight play how gamers remember their favorite 8-bit titles — rather than how they actually were — and they've certainly succeeded so far.

The demo, which featured an early level in a gothic castle that has been showcased in various trailers and demos, was a good introduction to the controls and gameplay mechanics. The controls are very responsive and tight; jumping is precise and doesn't suffer from being too floaty. While the circle pad can be used, the D-pad is much more accurate and reinforces the game's retro feel. The GamePad, meanwhile, serves as a second screen and doesn't appear to have any touch-related features.

Combat is where the adventure truly shines, though. Shovel Knight is an expert with the titular weapon, and Yacht Club Games appear to have thought of every way the shovel can be used. While Shovel Knight can simply use his ShovelBlade like a sword to attack enemies, there are many more strategies that make for a more fun experience. The first, and most publicized, is the downward thrust, which is similar to Scrooge McDuck's main move in Wayforward's Ducktales: Remastered.

To execute the downward thrust, the player simply jumps and presses down on the D-pad. The mechanic takes a little getting used to — it's tempting to press down and the attack button before realizing that doesn't work — but once mastered can be used not just for killing enemies but to reach higher platforms that hold elusive treasure chests and power-ups by using an enemy as a jump-off point. The ShovelBlade can also be used like a baseball bat and hit incoming projectiles back at enemies. There are also power-ups, like a staff that shoots fireballs. Power-ups have limited uses, so players won't be able to breeze through a level without using their trusty shovel.

Treasure is peppered throughout the level. In addition to treasure chests, there are mounds of treasure to shovel, with varying size. Getting hit by an enemy results in treasure loss, which brings to mind the Rings in the Sonic series. In an interesting (and modern) twist, there are no lives in Shovel Knight; upon being defeated, the player loses half of their treasure and can continue until there's none left. Thankfully, it's possible to recover the lost treasure upon playing through the area again.

There is always a risk in backing Kickstarter projects; some games sound promising at first and end up rushed or unpolished. Shovel Knight doesn't appear to have that problem. We're looking forward to its winter release on Wii U and 3DS. Are you excited, too? Did you back Shovel Knight on Kickstarter? Let us know in the comments below.

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