Shovel Knight strikes a balance of difficulty and mechanics that makes it the most important homage to the 8-bit generation to date. It combines gameplay elements and style from Mega Man, Castlevania, Ducktales, Zelda II, and Mario 3 into an original premise and story, all slathered in the lessons of several decades of game design. It offers a chance to revisit the days of hardcore, old school challenge while remaining fair and tolerable throughout. For a younger generation, it’s a chance to see what those older games were like without suffering through something designed to eat quarters and beat you down.
Don’t get me wrong, Shovel Knight is a hard game, but it always strikes a perfect balance. It’s just punishing enough to remind players of what games used to be like, but without the total bullshit moments, long stretches of memorization, or restarting the entire game because you ran out of lives. Levels are filled with precise jumps, deathtraps, and pattern-based boss encounters, but they’re also broken up with four or five checkpoints a piece. Death is punished with some of your money getting left behind — which does suck — but you can always retrace your steps and get the money back.
Armed with a cerulean suit of armor and a shovel, you embark on a quest to stop the evil Enchantress and rescue Shield Knight. Along the way you’ll have to take on a series of bosses with themed levels, Mega Man-style, and you’ll navigate an overhead map inspired by Mario 3. Between challenges you’ll return to a town where you can spend your money on new items and armor. Unlike Mega Man, where you defeat a boss to gain their power, you have to save up to buy these abilities at a shop. This gives you some freedom in what you choose, and encourages exploration in the levels, where secret areas and special challenges hide bonus treasure chests.
As you amass a collection of items and increase your magic, the combat and platforming options increase in a profound way. These abilities, which include everything from projectile attacks to dash jumps, and temporary invincibility, feel like cheats. You can use them to simplify many tough sections, but Shovel Knight eventually bites back, taking your repertoire into account and upping the challenge. It always seemed possible to complete a section without any items, but I was glad to have a way to get ahead all the same.
In short, Shovel Knight takes just about every clever idea and satisfying mechanic from the 8-bit era and blends them in a way that only a smart, modern game developer would know how. Every level and challenge is a winner, the soundtrack rocks from beginning to end, and the retro-style graphics are beautifully crafted. It strikes a balance of difficulty that completely justifies how long it was in development for. The entire journey can be seen in five hours or so, which may leave you wanting more, but a New Game Plus mode is available now and Yacht Club Games is promising more new (free) features throughout the year.
Maybe you missed the great games of the 8-bit era, or maybe you’re a parent who wants to subject your children to the punishment of Castlevania, Battletoads, and Mega Man that you went through. For you, I think Shovel Knight goes beyond being a polished, fun, challenging experience. It’s a curation of gaming history in a package that’s palatable to today’s audience. There’s no longer a need to load up an emulator and abuse save states to get your fix of the NES days. You can just play some Shovel Knight.
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