You may have been fortunate enough to be gaming during the early 90’s, a time of constant advancement and improved sophistication in our games. Sure, they don’t look like much now, but at the time, it was good to be alive. Just to put this into context: I was born in 1988 and took my first tentative steps into the gaming world during this golden era. Nostalgia has taken hold and smoothed over many of the rough edges, looking back I wasn’t really a gamer until a few years later, after the arrival of respawns, save points and regenerating health. My chubby little prepubescent hands lacked the dexterity these games demanded, my young mind lacked the processing power to take in my surroundings to make a snap decision and most importantly, I lacked the patience to get up and start again when I died. So looking back it is no real surprise that even though I played the odd game, I wasn’t a 90’s gamer. Time passed and games got easier and more forgiving with things like memory cards, frequent checkpoints and of course, internet walkthroughs. As I sit here, now a veteran gamer with titles like Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Dying Light, Gears of War and more First Person Shooter’s than you can shake a stick at under my belt, I felt confident as I watched the retro introduction to Shovel Knight.
I could taste the fantastical sense nostalgia that hit me the instant I saw the introduction of Shovel Knight, I had to check my controller to make sure my Xbox One pad hadn’t morphed into one from an old Sega Megadrive (Saturn). There is something incredibly special about the authentically retro Shovel Knight, but as I began to play I realised that even though Shovel Knight released in 2015, it was an early 90’s game.
You play as Shovel Knight, he is exactly what his name suggests, a Knight who is armed with a shovel. It’s a brilliant premise that really sat well with me, call it what you will but I like it. After a tragic event, you confine yourself to exile and a life of solitude. It’s not long before everything goes to hell and an evil overlord called The Enchantress has her dark minions making a right mess of the place. And so the journey begins. . . . . .
The basic gameplay boils down to a left to right scroller but I was impressed with the diversity in each level as there were plenty of secret or hidden areas that provide the dedicated treasure hunter the chance to explore the levels fully. To complete each level Shovel Knight has to navigate platforming sections, tackle a plethora of enemies and other dangers and un-gentlemanly after all that, you have to face off with a Boss. Boss battles are showing a trend of coming back into fashion after a rather long hiatus, but the Boss battles in Shovel Knight have the harsh and unforgiving cruelty that my younger self remembers all too well.
It’s unlikely that you will defeat each Boss the first time you fight them, it took me a couple of lives to learn their moves and tactics (just like in the 90’s). It may have just been my childish side showing but the regular repetition really worked my frustration levels up and after a few ungentlemanly words, I realised that I may not be as proficient a gamer as I thought I was. Shovel Knight hits the early 90’s nail on the head, and it absolutely knocks it out of the park, but in doing such a swell job of creating the authentic experience, it also brings with it some of their problems and time has not been kind.
The combat in Shovel Knight is entirely solid and straight forward. You hit things with your shovel, not that it should be a surprise to anyone. The basic moves consist of a horizontal swing and an attack that will damage enemies below you, there are a handful of upgrades that you can purchase using gold you find throughout each level (same goes with new armour). There’s a wide range of enemies to face in Shovel Knight with enough variety to keep you on your toes. There are times in Shovel Knight that the lack of combat control becomes a real problem. During my time playing Shovel Knight, I was never killed by an enemy that wasn’t a Boss, but I did die a hell of a lot. My demise was usually caused by my falling to my death into a fire pit, a pit of spikes or a bottomless hole after an enemy hit me. When you are hit, unless you have the correct set of armour, you will spring back a few steps or let go of a ladder while climbing. In the early levels it’s not a problem but as the game progressed I found myself growing more and more tired of flying enemies attacking me from the air at an angle it simply couldn’t strike back from.
The one concession that Yacht Club Games have made in the creation of Shovel Knight is the inclusion of checkpoints. Each level will have a hand full of checkpoints that you can restart from, each level only has a few of these so there is no issue with the game becoming too easy. I noticed rather early on that you can crack these checkpoints open in order to get more money, it was only later that I realised, much to my dismay, that if you take this approach, it actively destroys the checkpoint, meaning you have to begin earlier in the level, so there is a fantastic element of risk/reward.
Shovel Knight takes inspiration from classic games from the 90’s like Kirby, PowerBlade and Mario, you move around the world and enter levels by using a world map that is the spitting image of the Pokemon maps, it is delightful. Each level is very well designed and each new area will throw different challenges at you. I went from dodging lava falls to navigating a treacherous ice level and more. It really has the ambiance of a retro title but it holds well today.
I loved the soundtrack to Shovel Knight, it is funky and fitting for the great retro feel of the game. If you want to change the music then Shovel Knight has you covered. You can pick up music sheets as you explore that will not only bring in a tidy 500 gold but will also mean you can select any of these songs to play. It’s a minor addition but one that struck a chord.
Shovel Knight is a great retro game, if it had been released 20 years ago I think it would have fit in perfectly with the games of the time and I think that Yacht Club Games have succeeded in everything they set out to accomplish. Gaming has changed in the last two decades and I don’t just mean graphics, frames per second or motion capture. The very essence of games has changed from titles that didn’t want to be completed and sadistically difficult games to frequent save points and all the help that the developers can possibly provide. Shovel Knight is somewhere close to the former. It is difficult but not sadistically so and will reward a patient player. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: do you want an authentically retro game that is as hard as games of the era were or do you want your hand held? If you feel you need regenerating health and cheat codes………maybe try something else. If you can take a face full of dirt just to spit it out and ask for more, then Shovel Knight just might be the game for you.
Shovel Knight is pure, unabridged retro gaming at its finest. The old school graphics and music offer a great sense of nostalgia while the fundamental gameplay is excellently solid. Shovel Knight does have some issues during combat and difficult platforming sections that require a fair few retries. The inclusion of checkpoints is the one concession that takes Shovel Knight out of the 90’s and makes it completable for the average gamer. It’s a great little game, but don’t underestimate it.
- Graphics – 66/100
- Audio— 88/100
- Gameplay— 84/100
- Story— 52/100
- Replayability— 59/100
- Value For Money— 82/100
Overall – 71.8