Shovel Knight is an NES tribute that was kickstarted to major success in 2014. It was so successful that Yacht Club Games even developed three other campaigns and a multiplayer battle mode. I have a soft spot for NES platformers, but I admit they have a lot of problems. The NES is known for rock-hard titles with quite a few unfair gameplay sections. How does a modern indie stack up in gameplay? Let’s find out. Shovel Knight was originally just named ‘Shovel Knight’, but it was renamed to ‘Shovel of Hope’ as part of the ‘Treasure Trove’. Which is all 4 campaigns in one. A couple of them not even sold separately. With the release of King of Cards, and Showdown I figured I’d take a look at the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, and see what it’s worth!
You are the Shovel Knight, a retired knight grieving the loss of your beloved. After the evil Enchantress assembles a team of knights looking to take over the world it becomes your job to stop them! You must steel thy shovel’ and put a stop to the Order of No Quarter. One of my favorite things about Shovel Knight is its focus on the story. The game allows you to explore towns with NPCs that have wonderful dialogue. The boss interactions also give you a lot of context to the history of the world, and the relationship Shovel Knight has with these other knights. Most of them anyway.
Nobody played an NES platformer for its story. I doubt anyone thought more in-depth than “Why didn’t Dr. Wily just build his own robots?”, or “Is Mario killing the Toads?”. Shovel Knight has a focus on story that doesn’t overpower its gameplay, or stretch itself too far, whilst also being genuinely thought-provoking. It would have been a really nice surprise had I not known all of the details going in.
Shovel Knight’s gameplay feels most similar to the NES ‘Ducktales’. You can pogo off enemies, swing your shovel to hit them, and destroy blocks in the ground. All to collect gold which you can either lose with death, or keep. Shovel Knight has a wide variety of relics, special moves you must buy from Chester once you find him in a level, or after you’ve beaten it in the first town. Most of the relics are one-note, but a couple you’ll use a lot.
Relics aren’t the only thing Shovel Knight offers in terms of upgrades. You can by upgraded special moves for your shovel, and different sets of armor to wear. I didn’t really find myself using any of the armor, or shovel upgrades. The option for them was nice to have, but I felt I scraped by just fine with the Phase Locket.
One of my biggest pet peeves in gaming today is developers using “8-bit throwback” as an excuse to be lazy, and cut corners. Shovel Knight is never lazy with its sprite-work, or music. It feels distinctly retro, with a modern twist. Everything is fluid, well thought out, and well-executed. Shovel Knight uses colors, animation techniques, and soundfonts impossible on an NES. I can’t applaud it more for that.
The game completely does away with the concept of a game over. Instead having a trade-off system. Every level has a few checkpoints, but every checkpoint can be destroyed for gold. If you destroy a checkpoint, it becomes inactive unless you re-enter the level. When you die, you lose some of your gold with the option to collect it back if you can get to it without dying. If you die before you get to that gold, it is gone forever.
Game over’s are a completely irrelevant holdover from the arcade. I can understand the need for money, but even as far as the SNES they were useless. Many ‘big’ series are only just beginning to ditch them. Such as Mario, 3D Sonic, and Bomberman. Gamers becoming ‘content’ with a garbage system, just because it’s usually there is crazy. “You won’t have to deal with game overs if you’re good”. Well, what about those with disabilities? What about those without much time to invest? What about small children interested in playing a game they’ve seen online, or someone else play?
Shovel Knight falls into a lot of the trappings of the NES era. Most notably with extreme knockback. Shovel Knight certainly is no Belmont, but he does go flying when you’re hit in the air. He drops like a rock in that case too. Considering Shovel Knight’s more modern game design, it was really awkward having the controls feel somewhat stiff. Like they were taken straight from the NES. In fact, I can probably list some NES controls I prefer.
If a title is going to pay homage to the NES. It is best if that title completely avoids the pitfalls. Gaming has evolved so much in all of these years, sticking to outdated technique is absolutely absurd. Huge knockback, screen flashing for explosions, and gotcha moments are never a good thing. Seeing them somewhat frequently in Shovel Knight was disappointing with how much progress it made.
I really don’t see how some people call this “the best indie ever”. I enjoyed my time with Shovel of Hope, but it’s not even my favorite Shovel Knight campaign. Shovel of Hope is a wonderful little time, but it fell into too many trappings for me to want to sit and play for hours. The second half of the game dragged along, even with it’s shining moments. I liked Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope!