Review: Shovel Knight (3DS eShop)

This is the kind of shovelware we can dig

Shovel Knight is the adventure of Shovel Knight, a knight with a shovel. That simple — and gloriously absurd — premise has somehow resulted in some of the strongest hype the 3DS eShop has seen yet. The good news is that the final product absolutely lives up to the lofty expectations; the even better news is that it effortlessly exceeds them as well. When you consider the fact this is the début title from Yacht Club Games — comprised largely of former WayForward employees — and that this is also on Wii U, you get a sense of the love and care invested in this game.

To say too much about Shovel Knight would be to rob the game of many of its surprises, but it's safe to say that fans of 2D platformers are in great hands here, and fans of retro gaming are in even better hands.

Shovel Knight, as has been clear from the start, is an 8-bit throwback title. However it's worth pointing out that unlike Retro City Rampage DX or 1,001 Spikes, Shovel Knight doesn't simply borrow an aesthetic and winkingly acknowledge the conventions as it subverts them. While those are each great games, they are great games that deliberately dress down for the occasion.

Shovel Knight, on the other hand, isn't content to remind us of what classic platformers looked like, or the kind of brutal difficulty for which they're still known. Shovel Knight's similarities dig deeply enough into its inspirations that it actually manages to figure out why they worked the way they did, why they're so fondly remembered, and what, specifically, it took to make a game like that work. In short, Shovel Knight doesn't want to remind us of the past — it wants to take us there.

The game itself draws from many obvious inspirations, but it never, even once, relies on our fondness for those original games to carry us through. In every case, it unearths some recognisable aspect of another title, and then actually makes it better.

The clearest example of this is probably Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Whereas that game has its fans (and rightly so) it's difficult to argue that there wasn't room for improvement. Shovel Knight adopts so much of what made Zelda II great, but strips away what held it back.

For instance, the swordplay. Shovel Knight's weapon works a lot like Link's, but the actual combat is more refined. To make clear the parallel, Shovel Knight even recreates specific enemy types — the slimes, the flying horse heads, the shielded warriors — and gives us a chance to engage with them more fairly, more interestingly, and more cleanly. The corridors aren't as tight, the enemies don't take obscene amounts of hits, and adversaries can actually be out-thought rather than exploited. In fact, much of Shovel Knight plays like the game Zelda II should have been, right down to the purchasable health and magic upgrades that negate the need for tedious grinding.

But that's just the start. The Castlevania series finds its treacherous clocktowers and vertical climbs reborn here with more natural physics and less of a reliance on pixel-perfect jumps. The challenge in these sequences isn't stripped away, or even reduced; it's simply refocused. It's a game of skill now, rather than luck and memorisation.

The Mega Man series is another obvious touchpoint, with Shovel Knight's themed bosses, environments, and weapons. (The fact that one of the original Mega Man composers is on board for the soundtrack doesn't hurt anything, either.) However, instead of expecting one or two truly good boss fights, as most Mega Man games were able to offer, every one of Shovel Knight's bosses is a unique experience, requiring entirely new kinds of skill-sets to master. Additionally, each boss's weapon is hidden within the stage; you aren't simply handed it upon lucking your way through a battle. None of them are necessary for progression, but this game expects you to work for your rewards.

Even the legendary Super Mario Bros. 3 makes a thematic cameo in the form of the main map screen that links each of the levels, from world to world, and populates with optional battles and bonus stages as other levels are completed. Rather than asking you to take out a Hammer Brother or two as quickly as possible, these are full-fledged challenge stages and boss fights. New strategies need to be learned even in these tiny, optional crannies. At no point does Shovel Knight say, "You've learned enough. Now do it again." There's always something new around the next corner, and you're not likely to encounter the same gimmick twice until you replay the game. (Which is a prospect that the New Game+ feature makes very tempting.)

Much of Shovel Knight's appeal comes from its absolutely perfect control scheme. True to its 8-bit ancestors, you'll only need two buttons. You can map them however you like, which is nice, but ultimately you'll never have to do much more than jump and swing your shovel.

Upgrades to your weapon and armour add minor wrinkles to the otherwise simple moveset, and the ability to thrust downward by pressing down while in the air is a thrilling, infective lifesaver, but overall, those are your tools. You can jump and you can melee. Your enemies can do a lot more than that.

By limiting the moveset, the game forces you to master it. Not get comfortable with it or understand it, mind you, but actually master it. Your job is to strategise within tight boundaries, a task that seems all but impossible at first, but soon settles into a rhythm of ongoing, surprising evolution.

The "special weapons" in this game are referred to as relics. As you might expect, some are more fun to use than others, but they all have their purposes. From arcing anchors to fishing rods to deadly coins that shake more treasure out of fallen enemies, there are a lot of optional moves to master, but the limited amount of magic means that you'll never be far from relying on that trusty shovel of yours again.

The relics can be selected from the 3DS touch screen, which is great for spur-of-the-moment switches, but in certain puzzle rooms you may want to pause and choose your relic that way, so that platforms and enemies don't keep moving while you find what you're looking for. Otherwise the touch screen doesn't do much, apart from display an image of a fallen Shovel Knight upon death that we're 99% certain is a reference to a similarly dispiriting image in the NES disaster Silver Surfer.

Collecting treasure is one of Shovel Knight's most urgent goals...even though you don't actually have to do it. There's something relentlessly satisfying about digging up gems, smashing locks off of chests, and raking in a huge haul after a boss is defeated. And yet, the amount of temptation you'd like to surrender to is up to you.

You can explore all of the optional rooms and paths, but the ones that lead to treasures are the deadliest, so it's safer not to. You can crack open various posts throughout the levels for a nice flood of cash, but those "posts" are actually checkpoints, and if you destroy them you'll lose your progress when you die. If you do die, will you return to the place of your death to collect your scattered bags of riches? If you manage to snag them, you lose nothing...but if you die again, they're gone for good.

This passive element of risk/reward is one of Shovel Knight's most impressive tricks. While money in this game has several uses, each of those uses are optional. Collecting massive amounts of gold and gems is unnecessary, and yet totally irresistible.

That's at least partly due to the fact that the game is so much fun. Sure, you might live longer if you don't try to navigate that maze of death spikes for the chest that's on the other side, but if you don't do that, you're missing at least one of Shovel Knight's excellently designed rooms, and that just won't do.

Every detail of the game is perfectly chosen, from the way liquid splashes outward due to the 3D effect to the unimpressed face of the toad that listens to your bad jokes. That autostereoscopic 3D doesn't affect gameplay in any substantial way, meanwhile, but it does add a very nice element of depth, helping the levels feel larger and more rich. Every stage has at least something going on in the background, and certain effects — such as the dirt Shovel Knight scoops from the ground — make their way into the foreground, which is a nice touch. The soundtrack, likewise, is an impassioned collection of compositions that fit the specific atmosphere of each stage flawlessly, and yet still manage to stand alone as excellent tracks in their own right.

It's also worth noting that while the Wii U version incorporates Miiverse with its "Digger's Diary", the 3DS entry has a StreetPass Arena instead, which is unlocked early in the story. Here you will have a tight timer and be asked to collect gems; whatever you do in this time will be recorded, and getting a StreetPass hit means your recording will be overlaid with somebody else's, the winner being determined by who collected the most gems or who managed to successfully land a hit on the other person. It's a minor feature and doesn't amount to much more than a novelty, but it's nice to see the game taking advantage of the unique features of the portable system.

All of this is superficial to what truly matters, however. To understand Shovel Knight you have to feel Shovel Knight. It's a game that cannot be captured in screenshots, in video, or even in a review. It's a game that has to be experienced to be understood, and the experience is one that every fan of action platformers should enjoy.

Conclusion

Shovel Knight is more than just a great platformer; it's a celebration of classic gaming. Excellent controls, gorgeous graphics, an incredible soundtrack and endearing characters make the game worth playing, but top-notch level design, varied gameplay, hidden rooms, optional challenges and a deceptively rich combat system make it brilliantly memorable. The entire experience comes together so naturally that it feels more like a recently unearthed gem from the days of the NES than it does a latter-day attempt to milk nostalgia. Shovel Knight is the rarest kind of game: one that set sky-high expectations prior to release, and then managed to exceed all of them. It's a must-buy for platformer fans, and one of the most charming and satisfying experiences on the 3DS eShop to date.

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