Sometimes it’s all about taking something simple and executing it incredibly well. That’s the case with “Shovel Knight.”
Just think about the name—it’s an incredibly simple, eponymous description of the main character (much simpler than dropping the word eponymous in a sentence, but let’s skip past that).
The story behind this 8-bit gem is just as simple and is laid out as plainly as possible through a series of screens. First you have a simple introduction to the heroes of our story:
Long ago, the lands were untamed, and roamed by legendary adventurers!
Of all heroes, none shone brighter than Shovel Knight and Shield Knight.
Then the roots of the main conflict of the game:
But their travels ended at the Tower of Fate; when a cursed amulet wrought a terrible magic.
When Shovel Knight awoke, the tower was sealed and Shield Knight was gone.
His spirit broken, a grieving Shovel Knight went into a life of solitude.
And finally the introduction of the villains and the start of the hero’s quest.
But without champions, the land was seized by a vile power: The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter!
Now the tower is unsealed, and devastation looms. A new adventure is about to begin.
In the course of exactly 100 words, the game’s developers laid out what a Final Fantasy title might take hours to unfurl. It’s this simplicity that gives the game its charm.
The game itself is a throwback with elements from various 8-bit titles sprinkled throughout. Some of them are more obvious than others —the overworld map draws inspiration from Super Mario Bros 3, and the various themed bosses are reminiscent of the Mega Man series (but without the power absorption), and one of Shovel Knight’s main attacks is a downward stab like the one from Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link.
But even with all of the games it pulls its inspiration from, Shovel Knight is very much its own game. It looks and plays like a modern refinement of the 8-bit aesthetic.
And it manages to do this without ironic detachment. There are no jokes like “Press B to jump, whatever that is.” It’a refreshing to see an original game show this level of confidence in its world and mechanics.
The best example of the gameplay comes from its first stage. There have been plenty of write-ups on the stage design of Super Mario Bros. first stage (just google “Super Mario 1-1 Design” and you’ll find a bunch), but it’s clear Shovel Knight followed in its footsteps.
The game doesn’t give instructions or hold your hand. Instead it introduces you to each mechanic by throwing you into the wolves. You’re walking along and encounter an enemy and you have two choices: kill it with your shovel or jump over it. The entire level is a series of challenges forcing you to explore what the buttons on the wall mean and how to down-stab a bubble to bounce higher.
As an added bonus, the soundtrack is a collaboration between Jake Kaufman and Manami Mastumae. Mastumae was behind the music and sound effects of the original Mega Man. Her work will also be featured on Mighty No. 9, a game funded on Kickstarter just as Shovel Knight was.
Kaufman has a special place for me because of another retro-inspired game soundtrack he worked on: Double Dragon Neon.
The combination of the two creates a fantastic aesthetic throughout the game. The opening level theme is bound to get stuck in your head. It’s available for sale through Bandcamp at whatever price you name.
The game features a new game plus mode where checkpoints are fewer and farther between and enemies do more damage. The game’s makers are also promising DLC coming soon.
The game is currently available on Wii U, 3DS and Steam (PC, Mac and Linux).
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One more thing: You can’t go wrong with a game that features a level called “Explodatorium.”