If “Shovel Knight” had come out 20 years ago on the NES, it would be one of the best NES games ever made. It’ll have to settle for being one of the best games in 2014 thus far. It confirms the old adage; what’s old is new again.
Kickstarter proved to be fertile ground for retro-inspired video games as independent developers took advantage of nostalgia. Not content to put out just any old game in the retro-inspired crowd, Yacht Club Games took its time perfecting the 8-bit gem.
Combine all of the best elements from “Castlevania,” “Duck Tales,” “Mega Man,” and “Super Mario Bros.”, and that’s “Shovel Knight” in a nutshell. If you’re the type of person whose only concern is how many “P’s” of resolution or how many frames per second are in your games, this one isn’t for you, but if you’re into a 2-D sprite-based game that features a knight armed with a shovel, running and jumping his way to a final confrontation with the evil Enchantress in the Tower of Fate, “Shovel Knight” is right up your alley.
Yacht Club Games obviously shoots for an old-school aesthetic. It hits the target with subtle nods to the trickery developers had to use in the past. Back in the 8-bit era, developers had to make the most of what they had. Ironically, Yacht Club Games actually forced constraints on itself to maintain the right amount of nostalgic feeling.
It employs more advanced color palettes and background scrolling techniques than 8-bit games but successfully mingles it all together so it doesn’t actually seem technically advanced. “Shovel Knight” noticeably lacks sprite flickering that used to be common in older games because too many sprites appeared on the same horizontal line, but Yacht Club Games uses the effect when the player takes damage.
“Shovel Knight’s” audio design goes hand in hand with the visuals. A surprisingly deep musical score makes “Shovel Knight” sound as authentic as it looks. It wouldn’t be as successful if it didn’t have the old-timey electronic chiptune soundtrack. From the opening theme at the menu select screen to the final stage, the composers did a fantastic job putting together one of the best chiptune soundtracks to date. As a bonus, collectable music sheets make the soundtrack unlockable and playable whenever the player chooses.
Sound and graphics aren’t Shovel Knight’s only strengths. It’s retro, so it has to be hard, right? “Masocore”— masochist, hardcore gaming — sprung up as its own genre in the retro-inspired game revival.
“Shovel Knight” eschews “masocore” by providing difficulty that scales with progression. Its pinpoint jumping and attacking accuracy eliminate any thoughts of being cheated by forces outside of the player’s control. Frustrating moments certainly rear their head, but those moments stem from well-designed enemies and stage layouts. You won’t conquer enemies and obstacles without learning intricate patterns that require spur of the moment precision and timing.
At times, checkpoints are impossibly far away in certain stages, especially towards the end when dealing with moving platforms, spikes, enemies lobbing projectiles, and landing pogo jumps to reach out of the way ladders. Death is certain, with money collected in Shovel Knight’s adventures as payment. The money that can be regained at the point of death if players are careful, but dying too far away from a checkpoint leads to giving up on regaining lost money and focusing on getting through the stage. That’s when “Shovel Knight” is at its most callous.
Part of the beauty of playing on the Nintendo 3DS is if frustration sets in, you can fold it up and put it away at any moment for a breather. Taking a moment to clear your thoughts and not push “Shovel Knight” too hard or too fast makes for a better experience.
If it all becomes too much for you, cheat. Yacht Club Games included more than 100 cheat codes in “Shovel Knight,” providing players all new ways to attack the game. Activation of the cheat codes disables the ability to unlock “Feats,” “Shovel Knight’s” version of achievements, but it adds all new layers to a game that can be completed in roughly six hours.
“Shovel Knight” sets the standard for future retro-inspired games. Yacht Club Games took all of the elements of developing classic 8-bit games and improved upon them, making “Shovel Knight” totally accessible to players of any generation. The sublime action and platforming pushes the player to continue.
“Just one more checkpoint, just one more boss, just one more stage,” I told myself over and over until the final credits rolled. Then I went back for more.
Reach the reporter at Michael.Jerome.Martin@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter at @Bizarro_Mike