Review: Shovel Knight (Wii U eShop)

Digging for gold

Yacht Club Games' faux-retro platformer Shovel Knight has become one of the most anticipated titles to come out of the crowdfunding craze. It's frightening to think that Shovel Knight might not have come to fruition without Yacht Club Games' highly successful Kickstarter campaign — games like this don't come around often. Yacht Club Games, a developer made up of former WayForward employees, has more than fulfilled its promise to create compelling new content. A charming slice of pure, fun gaming, Shovel Knight combines a retro aesthetic with modern gameplay ideas to create something utterly satisfying and wonderful.

Shovel Knight is a retro-styled platformer that intentionally recalls character-based franchises of old. While Mega Man is a clear source of inspiration — each level is styled and themed around bosses with "Knight" names and can be completed in a semi-nonlinear fashion — there are callbacks to Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and other genre-defining franchises. But Shovel Knight is much more than a throwback to gaming's old days. While taking inspiration from its ancestors, it showcases smart, modern gameplay sensibilities and feels totally fresh as a result.

As Shovel Knight, players are tasked with defeating the Order of No Quarter, a group of Knights dead-set against him reaching and defeating the evil Sorceress so he can save his lost love. Though it's a simple, intentionally melodramatic tale, the earnest hero takes his quest very seriously, lending a sweet innocence to the would-be generic setup. Most of the story is told during the levels, with text and character portraits, but we still get a sense of personality due to the stunning artwork on display. Shovel Knight's pixel art is not truly retro; instead, it's designed to look how we remember our favourite 8-bit adventures. The levels are intricately detailed, with each pixel feeling important. Parallax scrolling backgrounds make for a colourful spectacle, and superior sprite animation make the game feel fluid and natural; the bright colour palette is a particularly welcome respite from the dark, gloomy visuals we're used to these days.

The accompanying audio complements the stunning visuals — the soundtrack will eventually be considered a modern classic. Terrific chiptune songs in each level bring to mind those found in other games of this ilk, like Cave Story. From the infectious main theme to fearsome battle music to even poignant, introspective songs of longing and regret, players will be humming these songs long after the adventure wraps up; it seems Yacht Club Games knows this — music sheets are hidden throughout the game, and returning them to a certain character unlocks the songs for repeat listening.

The excellent presentation would be for naught if Shovel Knight's gameplay didn't deliver, and thankfully it does. The gameplay is simple to learn, challenging to master, and highly addictive. Using his Shovel Blade, Shovel Knight can dig up treasure, secret rooms and volley items that are being jettisoned across the screen. His signature move, though, is a DuckTales-inspired bounce that can be used to traverse tricky platforms and kill enemies. Bouncing about is an absolute joy, as is collecting treasure and other items.

Shovel Knight can use the treasure he collects to purchase upgrades to his health, magic, as well as new items, like a fire rod, a "phase locket," and many more useful trinkets. Treasure is such an important part of Shovel Knight that players will often be faced with difficult choices throughout the many levels. While each level contains multiple helpful (and meticulously placed) checkpoints, and they can be broken to unleash a huge amount of treasure; yet breaking a checkpoint also means that getting killed will set you back earlier in the level. As the difficulty ramps up — and it ramps up fast — players will often be conflicted. Dying also causes Shovel Knight to lose treasure, which can be recovered, but if he dies again, the lost treasure will be gone for good. Players who want to revel in their spoils will have to learn how to master Shovel Knight's skills, which is incredibly hard and incredibly fun.

Each boss battle is clever, dynamic and surprising. Early bosses follow familiar behaviour patterns, with clear entrances for Shovel Knight to attack, but later battles will have players scrambling to come up with a strategy. While the boss battles are immensely challenging, they're always fair and never cheap. It's great to finally defeat a boss after several tries, and the game knows this, as the screen slows to a crawl and flashes with bright colours as a visual payoff.

As with most Kickstarter-funded games, Shovel Knight has several nods to its backers. There is a special level that is specifically made to recognize the backers, and it's very easy and fun to ensure that anyone can get through it. It should be noted that the game's many stretch goals will be released as free updates in the future, adding playable characters and new modes. Luckily, and to Yacht Club Games' credit, the main game stands on its own and then some. Yacht Club Games has also added in Miiverse support to the Wii U version, the "Digger's Diary," allowing players to leave messages for each other at specific spots; the Digger's Diary is viewed via the GamePad, which is also used as a touch-based menu throughout. This feature is only available for the Wii U edition; the 3DS version, launching concurrently, has its own special features.

Conclusion

Yacht Club Games has a hit on its hands with Shovel Knight. With brilliant game design, charming presentation and a ton of content, this is a wonderful first title from the fledgling developer. It will only get better with post-release content, and if Shovel Knight becomes the hit it deserves to be, gamers will hopefully be seeing much more of Yacht Club Games — and its plucky mascot — in the coming months and years.

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