All the knight moves.
Every once in a while the bug will get me and I’ll drag out an old console or two and play some of my favorite games from growing up. It’s always a fun trip down memory lane, but usually a good reminder that a lot has changed in the last 25 years, as the control and difficulty curve in those games tend to be rougher than I remember. Shovel Knight is so good in large part because it plays like my fond memories of those old games. It takes some of the best mechanics from that era and combines them into one fantastic game.
From the opening note of the soundtrack Shovel Knight put me squarely back in my childhood. The game not only has the look, sound, and feel of an NES game, it feels like a Frankenstein-like combination of so many of them. I caught references to Mario 3, Duck Tales, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Zelda II and Mega Man, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Yacht Club Games make no secret about their inspirations, and the game is better because of it.
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Vita
Allowing those inspirations to show through frees the developer to make the most of them, rather than trying to disguise their origin to make things feel more original. There’s nothing new here mechanically, but everything is implemented incredibly well, and in a way that feels organic. Rather than simply cobble together a bunch of old game play elements, Shovel Knight picks and chooses a select few and fits them together perfectly. Nothing feels like it’s missing, while at the same time nothing feels like it’s there just because.
I spent my time bouncing back and forth between the PS4 and Vita, and the controls were tight and responsive on both. The game can definitely be difficult, but obtainable health items and checkpoints keep me from feeling like I was hitting a wall. It’s much easier to play a tricky platforming section multiple times when you know that once you’re through it dying won’t force you to do it over again, and dying (while potentially losing money) didn’t sting as much without watching a number of lives ticking away, threatening to send me back to the beginning of the level.
Rather than just contributing to a meaningless score, money collected in the form of gems allowed me to purchase secondary items and upgrades to both magic and health from vendors. I could also upgrade my shovel and purchase new armor with different perks, such as losing less money on death, or being too heavy for enemies to knock back. Secondary weapons can be swapped at any time once purchased, and having the right one for the situation can make a big difference.
Shovel Knight supports cross-save, and going back and forth between the PS4 and Vita was a simple affair. It’s nicely implemented; choosing the cross-save option from the menu displays the local and cloud saves, each marked with the amount of time played, which was reassuring when copying one over the other. My only gripe is a small one: occasionally that screen would show the cloud save as blank (no time played), but exiting and re-entering fixed the problem every time. It’s likely a simple connection issue, but I would rather the game return a message that the cloud save couldn’t be found, rather than suggesting one didn’t exist.
I had heard a lot of glowing praise for Shovel Knight by the time it made its way to my Vita, and I can safely say that it lived up to all the good things I heard about it. It’s an exceptionally well made game, and in an era of constant bickering about graphical power and framerate proves that game play and execution are still the ultimate measure of a game’s worth. It felt like I was discovering a wonderful game from the past that I had somehow missed when growing up. In-game achievements and a New Game+ mode add to the replay value, but even without those it’s a bargain for the fun. I would say it’s a must play for anyone old enough to remember blowing on a cartridge, but that would be selling it short. Nostalgia certainly enhances the experience, but this is a great game for anyone.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.