Shovel Knight is a video game about a knight who carries a shovel. It’s an NES game released 25 years too late. It’s the type of platformer that a whole lot of people have been craving for a very long time.
There is no way to talk about Shovel Knight without talking about the games that came before it, so let’s do that first.
Shovel Knight is a whole lot of this…
…and there’s also a ton of this…
…combined with the jumping move from this…
…and the towns from this…
…with the map from this…
…and bosses that call back to this.
If all of those NES games—Mega Man, Castlevania, Adventure of Link, Duck Tales, Super Mario Bros. 3—fused together and turned into one sort of super-NES game (not to be confused with a Super NES game), it would be called Shovel Knight. And it would be glorious.
Many games try to use nostalgia to lure you in, but few of them are as well-made as Shovel Knight.
How I feel about today’s shooters is probably how others feel about the deluge of nostalgia-influenced platformers. There are always exceptions to the rule, though. Shovel Knight is one of them, a game that feels as though a historian unearthed a long lost cartridge from the late ’80s, as game developers were making the NES perform tricks never thought possible. The debut game from Yacht Club Games feels like an unearthed relic, one I’m happy has been found. Shovel Knight feels both old and new, mining our collective memories for the right reason: making a good video game. And Shovel Knight is a very good video game.
Shovel Knight is a platformer, which means it’s the type of game where you control a little avatar who moves from left to right on a series of two-dimensional screens, jumping over pits and defeating enemies as you progress toward The Goal, which is usually a boss. There are eight main stages, each themed around one of those bosses, like Polar Knight (ice-themed) and King Knight (king-themed). You can also go to a handful of bonus stages and a couple of towns, where you can use the gold you collect (dig up) to boost your health and purchase special abilities.
To clear out obstacles in each stage, you can use your shovel as a sword, swiping horizontally to take out enemies, or you can use it as a pogo stick, bouncing on top of enemies and platforms as you jump between death-pits. There are also ladders, and sub-bosses, and just about everything else you might expect from a game emulating the likes of Mega Man and Castlevania.
This all seems simple, at first, but as you progress, you’ll find increasingly difficult challenges that will test your Platforming Skills in ways that are tough compared to most of today’s games, though Shovel Knight might seem tame when held up next to, say, Mega Man 3. As with all platformers, almost everything in Shovel Knight is about execution rather than conceptualization—it’s easy to visualize how you’ll hop across each stage, but it’s not always easy to pull it off.
People will inevitably describe Shovel Knight using phrases like “old-school platforming bliss” and “a love letter to retro games,” and that’s true and all, but really, this is an experience that captures what people remember about those old games, without all of the clunky jitteriness that actually plagued them. You won’t have to worry about slowdown or random graphical glitches here. The jumps and swings have the heft of a modern game. You will get angry at the game when it kills you, but not because it screwed you over with some sort of unfair graphical trick or Battletoads-style death trap.
In other words, Shovel Knight is pure nostalgia. It’s like diving into your memory and picking out the good parts. For twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with the NES, this game will feel comforting, like a trip back to the era when we just didn’t notice flaws and glitches—they just felt like obstacles to be conquered.
I imagine players who didn’t grow up with the NES will enjoy Shovel Knight too, because this is platforming as it should be. Every stage is challenging and smart. No space is wasted. No battle is boring. Even the towns have little secrets and delightful surprises that I certainly won’t spoil here.
And goddamn, that soundtrack sure is killer.
It has somehow remained relevant for nearly three years through constant updates from developer Yacht Club Games, and it’s not done yet. While Yacht Club has confirmed that it is working on another project, we still have one more expansion to go (King Knight) as well as several more modes that were promised in the original Kickstarter campaign.
But for now we have the Switch timed exclusive of Specter of Torment, which I played early on PC (I know).
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment (3DS, PC , PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Switch, Wii U, Xbox One)
If you wanted a more personal focus after the narrative-light Plague of Shadows campaign, Specter of Torment is your huckleberry. It not only sets up the entire story as a prequel for the war between Shovel Knight and The Order of No Quarter — it’s also a prequel for Specter Knight’s tale in general. There’s playable glimpses into his past, revelations, and tie-ins to the proper campaign. Yacht Club also gets the chance to do a few more retro homages it didn’t get to cover already, like an on-rails Donkey Kong Country minecart bit. It’s all very fleeting, but it’s the best story so far, and a real tease for how much the studio has progressed with its writing.
There’s a little less bravado elsewhere, which might be a good thing if you’re done with the world map after seeing it twice already. Torment takes place in a single small hub (with the token Easter eggs and vendors), and a level select system by way of a magic mirror. At first I liked how cut and dried it was, but I couldn’t help but pine for an all-new map with all-new locations. Maybe we’ll get that with the upcoming expansion?
I mean, don’t get me wrong. Each level, while re-treading on the same themes and bosses, is remixed and custom-tailored with Specter Knight’s abilities in mind. It’s worth that third playthrough in a heartbeat, and there are some new enemy types, with several slightly new boss mechanics. Any feeling of familiarity also melts away when you’re confronted by the master-crafted level design, and start to get into the groove of what Specter can do.
With upward and downward slashes that allow him to almost stay in the air indefinitely, he operates a lot like a fighting game character. Running up walls works so well in tandem with his kit too, driving the point home that he never really should sit still and operates best while off the ground. Recharging mana through killing is just another way that Yacht Club pushes you subtly towards a new playstyle, as do the “Curios,” another form of magical items, and the new armor pieces, like one outfit that lets you grind anywhere you please on your scythe like Jet Set Radio.
Yacht Club is just damn good at what it does — possibly the best in the industry right now. Nearly every board fits together like a tapestry, and culminates in a memorable boss battle. Whereas a lot of other recent retro games have so much fat dripping off the plate, the Shovel Knight (series, at this point) campaigns keep you playing “just one more level” until before you know it, you’re starting a New Game+ playthrough.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is worth picking up on its own, but you should really just get the total package and play through all three campaigns.