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The New Blue Bomber

After a much-hailed and well-funded Kickstarter campaign, Shovel Knight was released on multiple platforms Thursday by Yacht Club Games.  Dear Lord, April 2013 now seems as much an eternity ago as being reminded it’s been 20 years since the O.J. Simpson trial concluded, and nearly THIRTY since the release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the classicest shrine of 8-bit to which Shovel Knight proud proclaims its being “a groundbreaking love letter”.


My inner child screams with glee

You control Shovel Knight, a hero who lost his BFF Shield Knight, took to plowshares, and when the evil Enchantress and The Order of No Quarter reared their ugly heads, there was only one armored champion who dared turn back the tide of bravado and occasionally fantastically horrid puns.  Employing a vast array of items, magic-powered relics and of course, your trusty spade, and the help of a village full of evolving NPCs, you embark on a journey at once wholly new, yet taking you back to late nights in front of the family TV, putting off your homework for just one more level.  Only today, I’m putting off laundry and changing the oil in the Corolla.

The game supports controllers as well as the keyboard, so of course you’re going to do yourself a BIG favor if you have a USB gamepad around.  I prefer the good ‘ol Xbox 360 USB variety, but anything with a D-pad and at least 4 buttons will do.


In this case, WASD is a 4-letter word.

Familiar Territory

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years of indie game releases, you might simply dismiss a first look at SK as just another face in the crowd of an arguably crowded retro field vying for your last Steam or DRM-free dollar.  Looking closer, there’s a true wealth of gameplay nostalgia that older gamers will immediately pick up on, especially if you perfected your craft with such classic series as Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, DuckTales, Castlevania and pretty much every Mega Man title you can think of.


Use your spade to dig up jewels from piles of detritus

The intro level is your basic primer on how the controls and various aspects of the environment work, though it lets you figure all that out on your own.  Of course, your shovel attack if your basic melee standby, but holding down enables you to point your shovel downwards, bouncing off enemies, bubbles, plants, and other things.  Different types of platforms and enemies require different tactics, especially as this is one of those platformers where pits, spikes, and suspicious water will kill you, and one hit from an enemy can send you careening to your doom.  The characters obviously have a Mega-Man-in-the-Dark-Ages sort of theme, and each enemy Knight has their own look and feel, with a fairly long stage to match their personality.  You collect various types of gems and valuables as Gold, which you can use for purchases and upgrades.


Bubbles KILL

In the village, you can talk to NPCs for hints and color commentary, as well as obtaining items and power-ups between missions, and over time, gain access to greater powers and rewards.  You’ll visit the town again several times, so you can come back later if you didn’t talk to everyone the first time around.

Intuitive Design and Player Opportunity

You only have the option to clear a few different stages at a time before you progress (making the game a little on the linear side), but the sometimes obscene amount of secrets and bonuses packed into each board keeps things really fun.  There are often visual cues that suspicious veterans of the genre will notice, and paths to risky side areas that reward you richly for concentrating on exploration.  You’ll often find yourself just seeing a hidden path and going back to try and make the jump or clear the secret wall, and there’s a great deal of satisfaction in continuously finding caches of treasure.


Well, OK SOME of them aren’t too well hidden

You may recall the overworld map from Super Mario Bros. 3, including treasure stages that offer unique challenges, as well as occasional sub-bosses that appear from time to time, but are wholly optional.  However, all the swag you earn can go directly towards upgrading your character, so there’s a very clear design link between your effort in each stage and becoming more powerful.  I never had a moment where I was bored and just going through the motions.


Not a Hammer Brother in sight.

One of the most inventive systems toward this player opportunity goal is the checkpoint sconces you find through each level.  Instead of having a set number of lives, you can continue as much as you like, from the last sconce you activated.  HOWEVER, THOSE DASTARDLY DEVELOPERS decided to give you the option of BREAKING them to score bonus loot, but in doing so, making that progress point no longer available.  So depending on how badass you think you are, you can actively choose to play it safe or go for extra riches organically.


Smash the Save Orbs for loot, and then regret it later 😛

Progression and Items

As you clear stages, you have the opportunity to find Relics, which are powered by your available Magic, rechargeable with magic vials you find along the way.  Make sure to keep some $$ on hand, because SOMETIMES the treasure chests have already been looted by the village’s Relic vendor, who will part with them for a modest fee.  Gotta make a living somehow.  As in Zelda titles, each item has specific uses which can range from providing long-range attacks to FISHING (!) which you can use in any stage for a chance at life-giving items or other treasure.


Forgot to stop by the Troupple Pond? NO PROBLEM

None of these items are essential to gameplay, but not only make some fights / situations easier; also opening up your ability to reach treasure or clear optional stages such as the Phase Forest, primarily using an item that gives you temporary invincibility from enemies and those familiar one-hit-kill spikes.

Another innovative mechanic is the Chalices you can obtain from one of the village NPCs, and refill them at the Troupple King’s pond.  Yes he’s some kind of apple-fish-god, and THAT’S OK.  Once you witness the splendor of dancing Troupples, you can choose from a health/magic refill, 10-seconds of invincibility, or 30 seconds of being able to absorb nearby treasure at range.  Again, completely optional, but can often make the difference in a boss fight or particularly tough area.


Still better than some recent Superbowl halftime shows

Tragedy and Triumph

Some stages are less of a pain and are pretty intuitive, and occasionally add additional elements to get past, such as platform-jumping in darkness, platforms that react to the level of weight on them, boiling vats that dump hot pain on you, and ghosts that can’t be killed, but temporarily become inactive for a few seconds if attacked.  I found there to be a fair amount of challenge, not so much in having to have the split second timing of the Force Beams in a section of Quick Man’s stage from Mega Man 2, but in solving the puzzles right in front of your face, with secrets in almost every screen, waiting to be discovered.  Each area has, of course, a theme around the Knight boss that controls it, and the few unique elements present in each will test you towards the end after giving you some time to get used to each new mechanic.


You’ll see a new object and just KNOW what it does

Speaking of mechanics, remember that whole infinite-continue thing?  Well, upon death, some of your treasure will fly out and stay on the screen where you died, and must be recovered by re-collecting it when you pass back through that area.  This is a perfect tradeoff for the player, allowing another decision to be made as to whether it’s worth going after the floaty bags, or forgetting them to press onward.  It makes character death more meaningful in terms of risk, and provides extra incentive to get things right.


Never leave a good swag bag behind

July 4 Update: Endgame

After working my way through the Order and the Enchantress, I definitely felt the challenge ramp up a good deal over time, with more and more stage mechanics adding up to a fairly rough final exam in the Enchantress’ Tower, where all the platforming skills you’ve worked on throughout the game will all be used together.  Hopefully if you’ve put in the time to acquire a toolkit of Relics, you’ll have not only an easier time through, but more options to move forward.


It was only a matter of time before crushing walls.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to slam your controller into the floor from time to time, but this is the entire POINT; Shovel Knight sets out to draw from some of the most popular classics of videogame yore and create a new adventure, with new puzzles to solve and challenges to overcome.  For the duration of the entire runthrough, my middle-aged self felt wholly 12 years old again in front of the old Radiation King.  I could practically hear my mother summoning me away to dinner and frantically getting past a level in the precious few minutes left before bed. The game entirely succeeds in what it sets out to do, with a variety of gameplay between different stages, each with its own look and feel, with boss battles and optional challenges that feel memorable, and are tough enough to scratch that old 20th century gamer itch that many modern titles fail to deliver.

Fans of Mega Man, well frankly you should have been enough in the know to have Kickstarted this back in 2013, but you really need to get it YESTERDAY.  Platforming fans will be plenty sated  with the plethora of obstacles in their way, and any classic gamer will more than appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this Love Letter, digging deep into gaming history and polishing up plenty of gems.


And you better damn well have an appetite for puns.

P.S. It’s ALSO too late to get in on the ground floor of another forthcoming Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9, an even MORE Mega Man-esque title, but then, it’s being made by Keiji Inafune and other original devs of the series, so frankly, they can make whatever they want and you should throw money at them too.


Still not enough hands.