Shovel Knight: Not Just For The Nostalgic

By Ethan . July 1, 2014 . 2:01pm

What makes writing a playtest for Shovel Knight tricky is that it’s a game unabashedly designed to inspire nostalgia. There’s some Mega Man in here, some Castlevania, some Super Mario Bros. But I’m not nostalgic about those games so I can’t really report on how well the game achieves its mission. I can recognize certain specific borrowed features, but whether those elements combine to pay tribute to or desecrate those original experiences is beyond me.


So instead, I report to you as an explorer in unfamiliar territory. Though you may roll your eyes as I describe concepts familiar to you, I hope that an outsider’s perspective can shed new light on a game that—frankly—is not designed for outsiders.


I think probably the most important thing to know about Shovel Knight is that there are unlimited lives and five checkpoints per level. For all the old school difficulty (both for better and for worse) that this game throws at the player it has a very contemporary sense of player punishment. Failure sends you back a few screens at worst, refills your health to full, and if you can make it back to where you fell you can usually get your treasure back too. Not even all of your treasure, just the little bit that you dropped upon dying.


For me, a player lacking in genre experience and reflexes, this generosity is not just time saving, but it saves the entire experience. If I had to go back to the beginning of a level every three or five or even ten deaths it would not have enhanced my experience or taught me how they played games in the “good old days”—it would have upset me and probably led to me never beating that darn snow level at all. Players who want more punishment can destroy the checkpoints for money. Why anyone would do that is beyond me, though.


I don’t much care for Shovel Knight’s tone. It seems like it’s gunning for comedy, but the comedy never really extends beyond the initial joke in the title. A knight is fighting to save the world/the girl with a shovel! That’s kind of goofy, but when the game so frequently goes back to it, it also eliminates any dramatic potential.


Maybe this is just me, but I was ready to accept that this is a world where shovels are valid weapons and move on to the meat of the experience from there. There are some limited conversations with named characters and some dream sequences that suggest that this could have been a cast of characters and a world to care about. You know, in that old-school way where there’s not much dialogue or graphical flair so the game suggests a wider world and your imagination fills in the blanks to make it an interesting and wonderful place. But when Shovel Knight felt the need to deal out some “Shovel Justice” or otherwise get smart that imaginary universe is contradicted and replaced with lame shovel jokes that read like they were written to play well on forums.


Shovel Knight is not an extraordinarily long game, but it’s not short either. Something about linear 2D side-scrolling level design seems to put a hard cap on the amount of content in a game. The game is an 8+ hour experience for me, but skillful players may burn through it faster. Suffice it to say that Shovel Knight has as much content as the games that inspired it, plus a few extra bits of optional content scattered around. This is one area where I wish the game had strayed from old school design. More levels, please!


Why do I want more levels? Because the level design is good. That’s ultimately what everyone needs to know, I suppose. Accessible or inaccessible, well written or lame, short or long… none of that addresses the quality of the core game inside. So, the good news is, that game is good. The levels are all really unlike one another and feature different level gimmicks. Some are better than others, but none are terrible. All of the levels teach the player without tutorializing, all of the levels feature clever traps in places where the designers predicted your movements.


Every jump, every enemy, and every gem stone has been placed purposefully.


What Shovel Knight made me realize is that the nostalgia it inspires about the side-scrolling platforming or the pixels or the sub weapon that is totally just the axe from Castlevania doesn’t matter. The superficial similarities it shares with the games of yesteryear are just an appeal to an audience like high-resolution graphics or huge open worlds are for other genres. Underneath the retro stylings is a game unmistakably handcrafted, and even though I can’t comment on NES similarities, I can definitely say that I like it a lot.


Food for thought:


1. I playtested the 3DS version of the game, and the 3D is nice! I feel like most 2D sidescrolling games can benefit from just a little bit of 3D effect dropping background layers behind the action a little bit, and it works well here.


2. The music was pretty good, but kinda started to sound the same to me after a while. Most of the tracks seemed like they could have been assigned to most of the levels. So although I don’t see any new classics coming out of this soundtrack, it’s perfectly serviceable. Just a lot of chiptune anthem type songs.


3. I can’t comment on post game content because I couldn’t beat it. I hope to eventually, but if I died on this last (I think last?) level one more time I was going to break the 3DS. So this playtest covers everything up through the final level – and I wouldn’t have spoiled anything about the final boss for you folks anyway.

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  • Aleister Crowley

    How is using a shovel as weapon goofy? Sure, a knight would probably use a sword, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be somekind of gag, more like a multi-purpose weapon. Also,

  • if someone asked the shovel knight why he has a shovel as a weapon, he should reply “It is so that I can bury you with it after I kill you”.

  • wyrdwad

    “So although I don’t see any new classics coming out of this soundtrack,
    it’s perfectly serviceable. Just a lot of chiptune anthem type songs.”

    Blasphemy!! ;)

    This may be Jake Kaufman’s best soundtrack to date, which is a claim I do not make lightly. I’m going to be listening to this soundtrack for years to come, I think.

    It’s definitely geared more toward diehard chiptune fans, though, so if you don’t have nostalgia for this era of music, it’s understandable that it wouldn’t really speak to you as much as it does to me. But man, for me, tracks like “Plains of Passage” and “Lost City” are just… sublime. And from the reviews I’ve read elsewhere, I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many are comparing this soundtrack to the best of the Mega Man series (and the game itself, for that matter!), and I think it speaks volumes that the original composer for Mega Man, Manami Matsumae, contributed two tracks… and they’re just average compared to the stuff Jake Kaufman composed. Dude is good enough to beat Matsumae-senpai at her own game. That’s HARDCORE, yo! ;)

    • It’s a fantastic soundtrack, but I’d argue that the original Mighty Switch Force soundtrack is still his magnum opus

      • wyrdwad

        Admittedly, when you’re dealing with the Kaufman, it’s difficult to pick a “best.” Dude is a game music MACHINE.

  • Blackburn7

    Finished the game a few days ago and loved it. There’s no way around it if you’re into oldschool 8 bit sidescrollers.

  • Kornelious

    Looks like the game did good for itself. I’m trying to decide whether to get it for 3DS or Wii U right now…….3DS would probably be better….

    • I got it personally on Wii U– a game like Shovel Knight calls for focus and attention, so I’m more likely to give that on a home system than out and about on portable. And hey, HD! Everyone loves HD. I love seeing every pixel that was lovingly made.

  • BlackC#Bro

    Food for thought, lots of modern special forces use shovels as weapons. They are just as lethal as knives, but can fulfill more survival purposes. (The edges of a shovel can be sharpened to make it a cutting tool as military shovels are)

  • Ethan_Twain

    Author’s Update: I just finished the game, and the final boss was kinda cool actually. Still not going to tell you anything about it though. I’m also not NEARLY brave enough to jump into new game plus but I see that there is one available.

    • Icedus

      Don’t feel too bad about sitting New Game + out. I grew up on this stuff, and the last stage wasn’t too rough on me. I tell you that to tell you that when I heard that New Game + is just the same thing with double damage and no in-level health drops, I immediately dropped my controller, formed an X with my arms and shook my head before calling it a wrap.

  • Daniel

    Answered your own question. For the love of money!

  • Ms_Fortune

    You can destroy the checkpoints if you want and make the game as hard as you want.

  • Tiredman

    I was honestly shocked with how easy the final boss was. Really enjoyed the twist in the fight though, made me think of other things the company can do to make the play experience entirely different. Looking forward to being able to play as 3 of the bosses at some point as well.

    • Ethan_Twain

      I died 23 times on that final boss :( Not as bad as the 29 deaths on Propeller Knight’s stage (my personal worst) but it still took me a while.

      • Tiredman

        I will admit, I am a bit biased. I haven’t played platformers in such a long time, but I used to be into them during the early Megaman and early Megaman X days. The most deaths I had was 9 on Propeller Knight’s stage. Final boss took me about 7, due to having to figure out how to work the floor, during the first half.

        I was expecting something like Capcom fighter’s final bosses, that are unfairly hard. I am glad that wasn’t the case though.

  • Tiduas

    I reaaaally loved this game! I didn’t find the end part that hard though, rather the whole package had a very good difficulty for me. Looking forward to follow Yacht Club Games from now on and see what they can deliver :)

  • Shovel Knight is the Mega Man x Ducktales game we all actually wanted.

    Seriously, this is a very smooth game to see in motion, and the controls are probably the absolute tightest I’ll be feeling in a long time– everything feels right. I feel like I know exactly how far I’ll be moving or jumping, which is a godsend for platforming. It’s a game that very clearly tells you that everything is entirely within your ability to do.

    The one complaint I would make though is Spectre Knight’s stage. It might just be me, but the combination of parts of it being so absolutely dark, and then the lightning flashes, actually served to mess with my eyes a lot. It’s only by a miracle I /didn’t/ fall at all and have to redo those segments, but again, I give that to the very good controls of the game. But I think they’d do well to try to at least make the lightning transition a lot smoother, a little slower. While it might make it easier (and who wants /that/), it’d probably help to not screw up one’s eyesight in the long run.

    Also, just gotta say: The ORDER OF NO QUARTER is the best name for a group of villainous knights, hands down.

  • DamTheLad

    I saw Smoothmcgroove played it monday and it looks really awesome. I wonder if they plan to release it on vita or PS4?

    • Far as I know, it’s only PC/Mac/Linux/Wii U/3DS.

      But I imagine if the game does well enough, they’ll be able to justify bringing it to other systems as well. The PS4 wasn’t out yet when the game’s kickstarter was going on, so it’s almost understandable.

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