Shovel Knight review: A love letter to 8-bit games

Shovel Knight
Wii U (reviewed), 3DS, PC
Yacht Club Games
Rating: Everyone

Shovel Knight
Wii U (reviewed), 3DS, PC
Yacht Club Games
Rating: Everyone

Rating

4 Stars4/5

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:19 PM ET

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

But like any drug, it can be abused. And lately I feel like the fetishization of nostalgia in video games has actually diminished my love for the classic titles of yesteryear, or at least for their modern copycats. Abuse a drug too much, and eventually you build up a resistance to it.

It’s at the point now where I audibly groan when I see another side-scrolling platform game with retro-flavoured visuals and a chiptune soundtrack. And yeah, I did groan a bit the first time I laid eyes on Shovel Knight, a Kickstarter-funded title (because aren’t they all) by indie developer Yacht Club Games.

Fortunately, Shovel Knight isn’t another game using the crutch of an 8-bit aesthetic to attract the children of the Nintendo Entertainment System era. Rather, it’s a game that consciously and cleverly deconstructs some of the best-loved classics of the genre, and rebuilds them into something that’s fresh and fun, even when it’s giving you fits of controller-flinging frustration.

Shovel Knight casts you as the titular spade-wielding champion of justice, who enjoys treasure-seeking adventures with his lady, Shield Knight. When Ms. Knight disappears inside the Tower of Fate, presumably held prisoner by the evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter, Shovel Knight must take up arms – or garden tools – in his quest to find her.

The game cleaves to many familiar platforming mechanics, but takes special inspiration from some of the greats of the late ’80s, including Capcom classics Mega Man and Duck Tales. Travelling across the overworld looks very much like something out of Super Mario Bros. 3, and visiting towns to pick up intel and beef up your arsenal is a nod to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It even deliberately mimics the distinct colour palette of the old NES.

The game is a lot deeper than it seems at first blush, with a ton of ways to spend gathered gold and gems to upgrade Shovel Knight’s offensive and defensive capabilities, as well as a long list of relics unearthed by finding hidden rooms scattered throughout the game’s many levels.

It’s also got a deft sense of humour, and an assured eye for design. Building levels for a 2D platformer may sound easy, but there’s a delicate scienece to making these environments work, mixing the right amounts of fun, exploration and challenge.

Speaking of challenge, Shovel Knight is not easy on newbies. The game has an old-school degree of difficulty to go with its retro vibe, and while there are checkpoints scattered through each level (which can be destroyed to earn money, thus cancelling the checkpoint), you will meet many, meany deaths at the hands of agile enemies and lethal obstacles. Deviously, the game subtracts a chunk of cash every time you perish but leaves the money floating in the spot you died, daring you to go back and try to retrieve it.

So yes, Shovel Knight is a great game. But I’ve heard several reviewers describe it as the best game of 2014 so far, and that makes me scratch my head a bit. It’s one thing to be blessed with a game that so wonderfully captures the feel and flavour of old-school classics, but I think some folks are a little too enamoured of Shovel Knight’s retro homages. It’s very clever and exceptionally well-designed, but it’s not a wildly innovative game, and in the years to come I’m not sure it will be as fondly remembered as the games that inspired it.

Still, it’s so very refreshing to find a true gem in the ever-expanding rockpile of retro-influenced games, and Shovel Knight is a wonderful love letter to some of the classics that many of us grew up with. You will dig it.


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