Ah, the 8-bit era of games, that weird and wonderful time when neither the plot nor premise of a game had to make any kind of sense whatsoever. This was the era of plumbers doing mushrooms and throwing fireballs at turtles with abduction fetishes. This was the era of speedrunning porcupines, of bubble-spitting dinosaurs, of a game in which one boss was literally a fried shrimp. All that is to say that I have very fond memories of this era, as these were some of the first games I ever played.
Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in creating games that pay homage to that era, or to update those games for a modern audience. The past couple of years have seen remakes of games like Ducktales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as retro-themed games like Mercenary Kings and Retro City Rampage, among many, many others. We’ve even got books like Ready Player One that actively celebrates retro gaming culture in all its forms. What I’m saying is, there’s no shortage of games and other media specifically designed to ‘take you back’ to that area. So what does it take to stand out in that crowd?
What it takes, apparently, is Shovel Knight.
So….Shovel Knight, huh?: Yep.
Explain.: Shovel Knight tells the story of, well, Shovel Knight, an adventuring knight who..
…wields a shovel.
Look. You remember what I said about games of a certain era not having to make sense? This game doesn’t even try to make sense. But it also doesn’t try to call out its premise as utterly ridiculous. It’s totally invested in its own premise in the way that only a late 1980’s NES game can possibly be. Shovel Knight is on a quest to rescue his comrade, Shield Knight (guess what she wields) from the dreaded Tower of Fate, which is guarded by the Order of No Quarter. Who are similarly invested in ridiculously thematic fighting implements.
Sounds a lot like medieval Mega Man.: You would not be wrong.
Neat! So what does it play like?: It plays like the bastard child of Ducktales, Castlevania II, and Mega Man. Shovel Knight controls a whole lot like Scrooge McDuck, swinging his shovel and bouncing around on it like a pogo stick (though, unlike in Ducktales, only if you’re landing on top of an enemy and not on solid ground). He collects gems and money in order to buy upgrades and new abilities, which operate much like the sub-weapons in Castlevania. And the themed levels and enemies are obviously a callback to Mega Man.
In between levels, you can go back to town to spend your money and talk to the townsfolk. Though in true NES fashion, the townsfolk only really say one thing no matter how often you talk to them, so you’re really just there to drop off your gems and acquire new magic items and health upgrades.
But does it bring anything new to the table?: No, but it shouldn’t. This isn’t the kind of game that exists to innovate, this is the kind of game that exists to not only bring the nostalgia, but to also be really, really good. This game represents the very best in game design circa 1989, and it revels in it.
It also represents the most annoying and challenging in game design circa 1989, as well. You’ll find plenty of old favorites here, such as moving platforms with flying or projectile shooting enemies, items hidden behind destructible walls that show no signs of their destructibility, and platforms that disappear when you bounce on them.
Games back then were hard. Is this game hard?: Well, I’m really bad at platformers now. So keep that in mind. I mean, it’s not as difficult as I remember, say Mega Man 2 being, but if one hasn’t played an honest platformer in quite awhile, then it’s an adjustment to get back into that mindset. Luckily (?) the game wastes no time in giving you a couple bosses that you can’t just brute force.
What version of the game did you play?: It’s on a lot of different platforms, with even more coming this year, but I opted for the Wii U version. The style is a natural fit for a console that spends a good chunk of its time specifically catering to nostalgia, really. The only odd quirk I ran into is that when playing the game using only the Wii U Gamepad and you open up the menu screen, there isn’t really an on-screen prompt telling you how to get back to the game itself.
So what did you like?: I liked the fact that the game evokes nostalgia without pandering to it. Even if you never owned an NES and have no fond memories of that era, Shovel Knight is just a good game. It keeps old design styles when they’re good, and ditches the things that it should. Specifically, the fact that there are no ‘lives’. When you die, you lose money, but you can keep retrying a level from the last checkpoint as many times as you feel like. As long as you don’t mind losing boatloads of money, that is. Also, I should point out that the music is extremely good as well. Between this and his work on the Ducktales and Double Dragon remakes, Jake Kaufman (more familiar in some circles as Virt) is quickly becoming one of the go-to guys for great old-school-style video game music. Both the original and arranged versions of the soundtrack are available for pay-what-you-want, so if you like the music, definitely grab it and show your appreciation.
And what didn’t you like?: I know I’m going to contradict something I just said, but…it could stand to be harder. Just a little, though. Just enough to remind people of how much agony some of the more difficult parts of Mega Man 2 were.
So would you recommend it?: Absolutely. But please play it with a controller. I know it’s out for PC, but this is absolutely not a keyboard and mouse game. Not in the slightest. Even if you never owned an NES, this is a good snapshot of the kind of game that came out in that era. And on top of being a good history lesson, it’s also a really good game that completely owns its ridiculousness.