The early days of video gaming, back in the late-80s/early 90s, conjures a particular sense of nostalgia that few other time periods can create.
Back in the era of chiptunes, shockingly brutal difficulties, and the allure of secrets to find and mysteries to uncover, this crucial time period in the video game industry birthed some of the form’s most iconic characters and franchises, from Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear, and beyond.
Ironically enough, Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight may be the best example of them all and shows more than ever how far games have really come, as it looks like it could have come straight out of a NES cartridge itself.
Developed by Yacht Club Games following a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that opened the gates for future success stories, Shovel Knight is very much the definition of a “love letter” as possible.
In a realm where the heralded Shovel Knight and his partner, Shield Knight, defended those against the forces of evil, an unfortunate encounter against The Evil Enchantress and her ragtag Order of No Quarter spread their unrelenting ways across the land.
In the wake of impending evil, the player takes up the helm, armor, and..well, shovel of Shovel Knight to scour through the realm, defeat each member of the Order of No Quarter, and march on to the Tower of Fate for a final duel against the evil Enchantress and reclaim the captured Shield Knight.
Though the plot contains the same do-goody essence as anything from the 80s and 90s, the game soars not because of its devotion and love to a classic era of gaming, but in using it as a base for its own unique take on the genre.
As an 8-bit influenced 2D platformer, players control Shovel Knight through roughly over a dozen stages while handily dealing with enemies in spades (sorry for the pun) across levels filled with fire, ice, water, and plenty of other obstacles that make each stage unique in its approach and constantly testing players’ abilities.
Though Shovel Knight carries with it a laundry list of classic titles and franchises it both borrows from and clearly references, Yacht Club Games instead takes those influences and uses them to make Shovel Knight a wonderful experience all its own.
Taking inspiration from classic titles like Mega Man, Zelda II: Link’s Adventure, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., and other titles, Shovel Knight, more so than anything, shows that crafting its experience around honoring classic platformers of a bygone era doesn’t have to leave it in the past.
Yacht Club Games takes the best bits and pieces of the past and merges them with influences of the modern era, making this title an ode to its past while never succumbing to nostalgia or being overly-referential: take it or leave it, the experience is always 100% Shovel Knight, in and of itself.
Controlling the hero through each of the game’s various stages, players must rely on an assortment of jumps, shovel slashes, and more to dispel enemies while traipsing across obstacles and puzzles in their wake.
Players also can call upon a variety of special “relics” providing additional powers and abilities at Shovel Knight’s disposal, including an air dash for crossing large gaps, or an amulet that can make the shovel-wielding hero invincible for a brief period.
As many of the classics lovingly referenced were some of the most notoriously-difficult games of their time, Shovel Knight proves to be just as much of a challenge in its own right, but thankfully still maintains a sense of balance and progression to make the experience fun instead of frustrating.
Boasting excellent level design, Shovel Knight‘s various puzzles and secrets always have a particular solution that enforce players learning to overcome them through learning and progress, rather than punishment.
Each level introduces new skills and new ways to use previous ones. While featuring some of the mainstays in classic platforming level design like fire/ice-based levels, underwater levels, spiked traps, and more, the responsive and challenging gameplay serves to bring out the best in players, with death coming more as a way to learn, thanks to some inspiration that fans of the Dark Souls series will surely enjoy.
This title eschews limited lives and “game overs” for unlimited tries in a level, but during death players will drop a cache of their current gold pickings at the spot of their death. In a risk-reward scenario, players can reclaim their lost gold by traveling back to where they died, though with the number of secrets and side paths available in a level, it’s not always a piece of cake to reclaim taken gold.
In the same way that Mega Man gave players a challenge with its diverse selection of bosses, each level of Shovel Knight concludes with a specialized boss fight that easily proves to be one of the highlights of the game, with a cast both hilarious in design and fun in their gameplay variety and skill-sets.
Each member of the Order of No Quarter, from the explosives-minded Plague Knight to the mechsuit-wearing Tinker Knight, requires a different set of strategy that makes figuring out how to defeat them part of the fun.
Shovel Knight’s shovel slashes and bounce attacks never wear out their welcome, but the skill and strategy comes down to figuring out each boss’s attacks, their range and timing and searching for the prime moment to attack without taking a beating of your own.
As much as it would be easy to boil its accomplishments down to distilling the best elements of classics in a modern day game, Yacht Club Games’ debut title instead creates an experience as unique as it is nostalgic.
It implements what worked best in 8-bit era platformers while injecting plenty of doses of modern gameplay ideas and plenty of humor — such as Shovel Knight’s interjection of doling out “justice…shovel justice!” that made me laugh out loud — but still manages to be a touchingly sincere and lovingly-crafted ode to the old days of gaming at its best.
Though finishing may want to make you go back and pull your NES out of the closet, Yacht Club Games crafted a game that plays just as well as any of those old and dusty cartridge treasures.
Shovel Knight is a game that looks fondly on its past but its shovel-wielding hero can easily earn a seat next to the timeless Mario or Mega Man.