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Shovel Knight

Score: 100%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Platformer (2D)

Graphics & Sound:

Nostalgia is a powerful phenomenon, one that has a tendency to make our thought processes fuzzy. Furthermore, it exerts an incredibly strong influence on how we see the past. That bittersweet sting when you look at home movies makes you want to go back to a time when things were better. But when you apply cold, hard logic to it, you start to realize that perhaps things might not have been as perfect as they were in your mind's eye. I learned that this is true of games, as well. Lots of games that were acclaimed and held aloft as some of the greatest ever made simply do not stack up against the decades of progress that have passed. A shining example is Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64. After the dual-stick renaissance, it's simply unplayable. The same holds true for lots of the games we grew up with, and while it's difficult to do, we must dispose of those sepia-tinted lenses and look at things the way they really are. Approaching Shovel Knight with that mindset makes no difference; though it's a remnant of a time long past and wears its retro intentions almost garishly emblazoned on its sleeve, it is a master class in the synthesis of style and substance.

I could say that Shovel Knight is simply an 8-bit game, but that's not going far enough. It is styled purely as an NES game, and that should be enough. Games of this sort run the gamut in terms of environments, and this one is no exception; Shovel Knight's globetrotting is of the Mega Man variety, in which all the bosses have established bases in locales that fit thematically with each character's specialty. From the endearing character and enemy designs (I will not spoil a single one) to the hazards that will claim your health and fortune, every inch of space is stuffed with colorful pixelated goodness. To top it all off, it comes with a heads-up display that's right out of the Castlevania playbook. All the information you need, you have, whether it's resting comfortably at the top of the screen or in the economical inventory space. Finally, I must say: man, am I glad I played Shovel Knight on my 60 inch LED HDTV. I could drown myself in the colorful charm of this game. The pixels. My God, the pixels!

Earworms. Earworms everywhere. That's the shortest summary I can come up with for Shovel Knight's electrifying chiptune soundtrack. Jake Kaufman (with contributions from Manami Matsumae, who did freaking Mega Man) have come up with compositions that manage to out-Capcom Capcom. It's a leveraging of the sonic arts that rivals the work of the legendary Tim Follin. Good luck getting it out of your head, though...

In keeping with the airtight 8-bit aesthetic, sound effects are pure digitized onomatopoeia. Hisses, clinks, and random cacophony is just everywhere in Shovel Knight, and it should be. Very few of these noises sound natural, and that's completely alright; the NES was full of random aural nonsense, and developers found tons of ways to make them sound fresh. And that's exactly what is done here.


In a world saturated with beasts and hidden treasures, heroes seek their fortunes by embarking on grand adventures across the land. And the greatest of them are the dynamic duo / dedicated couple Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. With his mighty spade and her protective escutcheon, no quest is too dangerous and no treasure left buried. But tragedy strikes when they venture to the Tower of Fate, where a cursed amulet claims Shield Knight, casts Shovel Knight out, and seals the Tower itself. Shovel Knight retires from adventuring and seems content to work out his grief in the fields. But suddenly, the Tower opens, and an evil Enchantress emerges with her legion of evildoers, The Order of No Quarter. Shovel Knight's story might seem full of clichés at first glance, and in many ways, it wears them like several badges of honor. But there are a few subtle tweaks to the formula that make it feel fresh and poignant in key ways.

Shovel Knight is an action platformer cut from the purest pixelated cloth. It's got an overworld level select hub, much like the one in Super Mario Bros. 3. Locks impede Shovel Knight's path through this hub, and they can only be destroyed by completing levels that always culminate in a duel with one of the eight Knights that make up The Order of No Quarter.


Hard for the sake of hard isn't a good thing, yet it seems to be the design philosophy of most developers who choose to revisit this particular gaming era. Take Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, for example. Sure, they belong to a franchise that epitomized the 8-bit generation, but they are arguably punishing to the point of not being much fun at all. Shovel Knight is a difficult game, but it doesn't have that problem.

Shovel Knight gets old-school difficulty absolutely right on the money; its legion of enemies and environmental hazards frequently does its best to kill you, but it never smothers you with its challenges. On top of that, the game introduces a very clever checkpoint system. A series of orbs can be found at intervals in each stage; if you pass them up, you respawn at the last one passed upon death. However, you have the option to shatter the orb, killing the checkpoint but earning some treasure for the extra trouble. It's a smart system.

Game Mechanics:

Run, jump, attack. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. There are several variable factors in the mix that give Shovel Knight quite a bit of depth. But first, the basics. As Shovel Knight, you make your way through each area, dispatching enemies, avoiding pitfalls and assorted traps, and seeking treasure. More often than not, that involves using the tool our hero is known for. He uses his spade as other knights might use a sword, but he also uses it in a way that would make Scrooge McDuck proud. Of course, I am referring to the pogo attack, which doubles as a means of locomotion. Several areas simply cannot be reached without making good use of the pogo attack, but responsive controls ensure that every single move you make is entirely your own.

Shovel Knight isn't really out for himself; he has people who need saving. But those people aren't the useless NPCs you might find in a lesser adventure. These are legitimate businessmen and women who provide valuable public services. You see, in Shovel Knight, treasure isn't useless like it is in countless NES games. It's currency that you'll want to spend, and there's a lot to spend it on. Meal Tickets can be purchased and brought to the Gastronomer, whose meals are so delicious and satisfying that they increase Shovel Knight's maximum health. And right next door is the Magicist, who can increase Shovel Knight's maximum magic, which is helpful, since there are many useful relics that increase his survivability, from combat to movement. Relics are found in the field, however. In each stage, a blue treasure chest contains a relic hunter named Chester. For a price, he will sell you a relic, a special tool that always has something to do with the level (like in Mega Man). As long as you've got magic points to spend, you can use these items to your heart's content.

There's a lot to discover and do in Shovel Knight, but you'll be better off going in blind. Its charms are myriad, from the colorful cast of characters (including, among others, a school of adorable half-trout/half-apple fish) to the clever level design, to the exciting boss fights. It's not an easy game, but it's fair. And it's always satisfying, whether it's your first playthrough or the more difficult New Game Plus. Nostalgia is one thing, but quality is quality. Whether you're a child of the NES era or a coddled millenial raised on Xbox Live, you'll probably see Shovel Knight for the masterpiece that it is.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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