Shovel Knight might just be my favourite “NES” game of all time, and that’s saying a lot.
As much as I love to play new releases, I always enjoy revisiting older titles, even if it’s a game I’ve played to death. But booting up a decidedly retro title is always a double-edged sword, at least when it comes to me and NES games. Taking off the rose-tinted glasses and putting nostalgia aside for a minute, let’s be honest with ourselves; a lot of the NES classics that we hold in such high regard haven’t aged that well.
We can go back and forth on this topic, and yes, there are plenty of NES games which still hold up today (I’ll be mentioning a few of them in a bit), but the actual process of going back and playing games that are 25 years old, or older, is simply too demanding for a modern gamer like me.
And this is where Shovel Knight manages to break away from the mould, yet keeps one foot firmly planted in the retro games it takes so much inspiration from. This is no easy feat, I assure you. If anything, I take great issue with games that try to ride the wave of success by simply emulating gameplay concepts that were only relevant 20 years ago. Obviously, game development is a very iterative process; developers borrow gameplay, story, and narrative techniques from the greats, but the key to making a successful game is forging a new identity from the old, and creating something that can stand up on its own and be judged, not from the games it is inspired from, but from the directions it takes those games. Shovel Knight is that game.
Developer Yacht Club Games pulls no punches when it comes to cherry-picking different traits from the backlog of NES games, and it isn’t concerned in masking these borrowed elements. You take control of the self-titled hero, who feels like the long lost cousin of Scrooge McDuck from Ducktales. Both have a penchant for digging up treasure and using their go-to tool as a means of pogo jumping over obstacles and onto enemies (our intrepid hero trades in a cane for his trusty shovel).
There’s a heavy emphasis on close-range melee combat (clearly inspired by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link), and while he never controls as tightly as Mega Man did, Shovel Knight himself feels great to move around. He handles like a less weighty Castlevania character, though he does have an assortment of subweapons at his disposal, not unlike Ninja Gaiden, or of course, Castlevania. To top it off, the overworld map takes a few cues from Super Mario Bros. 3, and the series of eight bosses is ripped straight from Mega Man (with a similar naming scheme and the option to tackle them in different orders intact).
Yes, Shovel Knight wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the games it so heavily borrows from, but what makes it stand out (rather impressively) is how it merges these ideas with fresh ones of its own. Borrowing something from the Dark Souls approach to difficulty, Shovel Knight implements a novel approach to death, ditching an arbitrary life counter or continue screen for a risk/ reward system in favour of losing a large portion of the collected treasure stash when the shovel knight dies. You can of course ignore it upon respawning, but there is also the option of attempting to retrieve it, although you’re only getting the one shot at that. If the shovel knight dies again, that treasure is gone for good.
Even better is the checkpoint system, further building on the concept of risk taking by allowing the shovel knight to destroy a checkpoint to gain access to a large treasure trove inside of it. Obviously, destroying a checkpoint means that it stops functioning as a checkpoint. It wouldn’t make sense to do, except that health, magic, and weapon upgrades all cost gold, and while some might be able to fully upgrade before the final boss without too much trouble (which admittedly can render the entire concept of risk/ reward useless), keeping track of that treasure is a key part of the experience.
Still, what kept me coming back time after time was not the retro mechanics, but the undeniable charm that Shovel Knight has, in spades I might add. One of my favourite games of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, is so near and dear to my heart because of its lovingly crafted world, and Shovel Knight manages to create a world I also found myself getting lost in. It’s the small touches that leave the biggest impression; despite its small size, I found myself exploring the main town over and over, talking to its inhabitants, searching for secrets, and generally being a tourist and taking in the sights and sounds. I won’t give away all of the game’s secrets, but one moment that had me smiling involved a choreographed, synchronised dance sequence by a school of fish, all led by a huge fish king who’s shaped like an apple.
There are plenty of reasons to love Shovel Knight, and I’m sure more seasoned gamers than I will relish its mechanics, tight controls, or obsessiveness with all things retro. But more importantly, it’s easy to fall in love with a game that manages to breathe new life into old mechanics, without feeling like a retro-throwback that is content with playing the same hand we were dealt all those years ago. It’s the perfect example of a passion project done right, one that realises that it is important to look back, in order to move forward.
– Shaan J.