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Shovel Knight – Wii U

Shovel Knight – Wii U

Shovel Knight - Wii UPlatform: Wii U

Release Date (NA):  June 26th, 2014

Developer:  Yacht Club Games

Publisher:  Yacht Club Games

Genre:  Platformer

Nerd Rating:  9 out of 10

Shovel Knight may have been released way back in the summer of 2014, but I could swear that I only started seeing physical copies on shelves a few weeks ago…  For some reason, as I walked through the Wii U games, the title caught my attention – maybe it was because of the upcoming Amiibo, or maybe it was stuck in my subconscious for another reason – and the fact that it was only $24.99 really caught my attention!  I had the vague notion (or memory?) that it was meant to act as a game from the 8-/16-bit era but really didn’t know anything else, so I picked it up.

It took a few more days to get around to it, though I quickly noticed how unusually heavy the case was.  It turns out there’s an actual instruction manual inside!  And a thick little manual at that.  I still haven’t even flipped through it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.  Shovel Knight immediately stands out as a game made both for and by fans of the classic gaming era, with just enough modern treatment to keep the pesky problems and limitations of the 8 and 16-bit eras at bay while retaining the aesthetic and reasonably simple mechanics.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

Obviously influenced by the third generation of gaming in general, Shovel Knight also takes very specific cues from popular NES franchises.  Perhaps the 3 most direct and obvious influences are Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania (specifically the first and third entries on the NES), and Mega Man (particularly games 3 through 6).  I’ll touch on the similarities as we go, and I would like to point out that it is not a rip-off or copycat – Shovel Knight is an extremely well done tribute/homage to these past games.

The game kicks off with a short intro describing current events: we’re in a land of magic, knights, legends, and adventures.  Shovel Knight and his companion Shield Knight have enjoyed their status as heroes, but after journeying to the Tower of Fate, things go terribly wrong.  Shield Knight is possessed by a powerful amulet, Shovel Knight is expelled from the structure, and the Tower of Fate seals itself shut.  A despondent Shovel Knight – for Shield Knight also seems to be his girlfriend – goes into exile.  With the land’s heroes off the grid, an evil being known as The Enchantress claims dominion, along with her cadre of fiercesome knights known as The Order of No Quarter.  She also manages to crack open the Tower of Fate, which immediately grabs the attention of Shovel Knight, who then promptly sets off to rescue his beloved.

After a vigorous first level that introduces the player to the basics of Shovel Knight,  the player then moves on to a map looking very much like the maps of Super Mario 3, complete with locked doors, a shortcut, bonus levels, and the occasional moving enemy that shuffles around on the path.  The visuals are gorgeous and the game wastes no time in getting the player started.  Instead of the Mario-style setup of several stages within each world, Shovel Knight adopts a very Mega Man-ish approach.  For the most part, each level serves as the abode of a particular boss, and each boss has its own theme such as Polar Knight, Propeller Knight, or Treasure Knight, etc. – highly reminiscent of Mega Man’s many foes, like Gravity Man, Top Man, and Snake Man, and so forth.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

Interspersed with these main levels on the map are a couple of villages similar to what one might find in Zelda II.  In these areas Shovel Knight can talk to NPCs, buy items, and upgrade his health and magic.  And wouldn’t you know it, many of Shovel Knight’s combat mechanics are based off of those found in the NES Castlevania games, especially the acquisition of units of magic to use a separate attack or ability – nearly identical to Castlevania’s “sub-weapon” feature (and performed the same way too, by pressing Up + Attack).  Normally Shovel Knight defends himself with a relatively short ranged “slice” of his shovel, but relics can be gained that will allow other attacks and abilities such as projectiles, an anchor that moves in an arc (a nod to the axe sub-weapon of Castlevania games), and temporary invulnerability as well as many others.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

However, Shovel Knight also has an attack that the ol’ Belmonts never had at their disposal.  In fact, I suppose we can most directly trace the influence to Scrooge McDuck from DuckTales.  Our hero can use his shovel as a sort of jumping “pogo attack” nearly identical to Scrooge’s bouncing around on his cane.  Having these 3 distinct ways to dispatch foes really helps the game move along and keeps it from becoming too difficult, especially when battling bosses.  Often times I found myself making very little headway when using conventional attacks against the bosses (or either depleting my magic way before the job is done) only to find that the answer lay in using this “pogo” attack effectively.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

A scene that could be taken straight out of an installment of Castlevania for the NES.

One of the major standouts of Shovel Knight is the immaculate level design.  Not only is each level themed differently (a la the Mega Man series), but there are also different levels of emphasis placed on different abilities and strategies.  Although largely linear, there are divergent paths and secrets to discover within the game, and the exploratory element increases as the levels wear on.  Even though the game may be considered a bit short, I really love the variety between each level; it’s better than playing too many same-y levels in a row.  At times – regardless of the visual elements – it’s almost like one is playing an entirely different game from level to level, an aspect that really keeps the game fresh and from every feeling monotonous or repetitive.  The Lich Yard, home to Spectre Knight, feels just like an early Castlevania level with Spectre Knight himself resembling the Belmonts’ various encounters with Death.  Down the road a little ways another familiar Castlevania trope is used – the cogs, gears, and inner workings of a clock.  Mole Knight dwells in a firey, subterranean lair, with enough lava and flames to make the player feel like they’ve just stepped into one of Bowser’s later castles.  Propeller Knight’s home in the sky reminds me of the typically unforgiving Mega Man stage: lots of bottomless pits, moving/disappearing platforms, and outright traps.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

And doesn’t this look a lot like one of Dr. Wily’s contraptions from the NES Mega Man games?

So why play Shovel Knight?  Why not pop in a copy of Dracula’s Curse or Mega Man 5 or Mario 3?  Well, you could, but Shovel Knight ups the ante by combining many of these aspects into a single experience and by giving us a much less restrictive character.  Shovel Knight as a character has a short range/melee attack, the potential for projectiles, and a deadly jump, a package you won’t find in any of our other heroes.  And besides, you definitely won’t want to miss Shovel Knight’s gorgeous visual style.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

The overworld map: very similar to maps in games like SMB 3 and StarTropics.

I don’t know about other gamers out there, but something about the simplicity of 8-bit color and the resulting art has always been appealing to me.  Maybe it’s precisely because it doesn’t look real.  Maybe it’s because the final product is the result of some very clever artists working with a very limited range and still manages to look like what it’s supposed to look like.  I’ve always been drawn to things like the bizarre, alien landscapes of Metroidthe deserts, mountains, grasslands, and labyrinths of The Legend of  Zeldathe intricately detailed and artificial environs of Mega Man 3the earthy, subdued tones and abundance of creativity that went into creating the distant and forgotten realms of FaxanaduShovel Knight retains hints of a unique artistic style, though its real beauty comes from the multitude of settings it tackles.  Going back to the themed levels borrowed from the Mega Man series, Shovel Knight creates an entirely different world for each of its boss characters and each one is magnificent in its own right.  Highlights include the Zelda-like intro world lifted straight from high fantasy, the Castlevania inspired Lich Yard, and the stunning Castlevania-meets-Mega Man stage known as the Explodatorium where Plague Knight concocts his vibrant, almost iridescent potions and chemicals.

Shovel Knight has an appropriate 8-bit soundtrack with several pieces of music that also act as hidden collectibles.  There are some catchy tunes to be heard, but I think the composer had trouble nailing down a distinctive, recognizable theme for the game.  It sounds like what an 8-bit soundtrack ought to sound like, it just never reaches the heights of Zelda’s jaunty theme, Metroid’s minimalist and eerie arrangement, the bright and breezy island tunes in StarTropics, or the playful earworms from games like Kirby’s Adventure and SMB 3.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

This “green rain” is one of the most unique visual elements of Shovel Knight.

This lovingly made throwback will be considered a little short by some standards; it certainly doesn’t sprawl ever onward and outward like many of it’s influences.  However, I prefer to think of it as “to the point” rather than short.  The player is treated to intense bursts of certain gameplay elements from one level to the next and then moves on.  The experience may not last as long, but completing Shovel Knight is never a grueling task, and the truly difficult sections (which will vary depending on each player’s particular weaknesses when it come to platformers) can be conquered and left behind.  Is Shovel Knight a difficult game?  Well yes and no.  In most situations, I found that when things got really hard, it was because I wasn’t approaching it the “correct” way, and if I stepped a little outside of the box or took all of Shovel Knight’s abilities into account, there was an easier way surmount the game’s toughest obstacles.  Much like bosses from the Mega Man or Castlevania series, these enemies move in predictable patterns that can be anticipated and exploited with a little bit of patience.  Thankfully Shovel Knight has a robust smattering of checkpoints structured in a such a way that drives tedium to a minimum.

There’s also a healthy amount of supplemental content to get into once the game has been finished, including the “Plague of Shadows” mode, Challenge Mode, and Plus Mode.  Plague of Shadows is a whole new adventure which puts the player in the role of Plague Knight, who must search the land for ingredients to his potion.  The player moves through the same stages (with a few minor changes to account for the change in mechanics) as Plague Knight using a totally different system of jumping and attacking.  Plague Knight’s mechanics are a bit unconventional and anyone looking for a novel twist on typical 8-bit platforming should have a great time acclimating to Plague Knight’s unorthodox control scheme.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

On the other side of this doorway, we have Shovel Knight’s version of a “Boo House,” a memorable feature of Mario games originating in Super Mario World.

The Plus Mode acts as a sort of “hard” difficulty setting; after clearing the game, the player keeps any gold or equipment and starts the adventure over, only this time enemies are tougher, stronger, and the checkpoints have been cut in half!  If the first playthrough wasn’t hard enough for you, this one sure as hell will be.

Finally there’s a separate Challenge Mode unlocked once the game is completed.  These are fun little scenarios to assess one’s proficiency with certain features or abilities such as speed, combat, bouncing, etc.  Some of these are cleverly and intricately planned and nice new way to showcase ingenious level design without making ridiculously hard passages a part of the main levels.

There is also a Shovel Knight Amiibo scheduled for release on December 18th, which will unlock a co-op mode!

Shovel Knight may fall just short of being the idealized 8-bit game, but it is a refined, thoughtful piece of work that successfully recreates much of the magic of those early games while adding in a healthy pinch of modern gaming sensibility (no need to worry about a finite number of lives, ample checkpoints, a save feature, etc.).  Would it benefit from a greater number of levels?  I tend to think so, though at the same time I can appreciate the lean and restrained presentation which does an excellent job of staving off boredom and monotony.

Shovel Knight - Wii U

The game includes an endless variety of nearly every 8-bit platforming gimmick – even a “chase” as seen here.

As far as I know, Shovel Knight is available for all current platforms (and PC) aside from the Xbox 360, with version-exclusive features.  The Wii U and 3DS versions contain the ability to use the GamePad and 3DS touch screen to switch between items without pausing as well as the Amiibo compatibility.  PS3, PS4, and presumably PSV versions feature a battle against Kratos, and the Xbox One pits our hero up against the Battletoads.  No matter what system you own or which you prefer, if you’re a fan of the NES you’ll definitely want to pick this up for a cool $25 – digital versions may even be cheaper!  Had this been released back around 1989 – 1992, it would surely be hailed as an instant classic, and it’s easy to see why.  Go out and give Shovel Knight a spin and let me know what you think!

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist

Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

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One Comment

  1. Steroid Gamer
    Steroid Gamer says:

    I’m with you on this one. I knew “of” the game, but had no idea it had any sort of a physical release. I think it’s just been surfacing in my mind due to the upcoming Amiibo release.

    Either way, doesn’t seem like a bad way to spen $25. I’ll try and look for this when I do my Black Friday shopping and snag me a copy.

    A full-game manual? Man, that is beyond extinction at this point and makes that $25 price tag even more appealing.


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