UPDATE: While our review primarily focuses on the original 3DS, Wii U and PC releases of Shovel Knight, we have added additional paragraphs toward the end to deliver impressions of the belated PS4, PS3, PS Vita and Xbox One versions of the game.

 

Shovel Knight, if you’ll excuse the pun, feels like a lost NES game that someone dug up fresh out of the 80’s. Oh sure, it’s now plenty hip for indie games to wear their love of vintage, pixelated gaming on their sleeves, but few games, indie or otherwise, have so successfully replicated an honest-to-goodness NES-style side-scroller as Shovel Knight.

Best described as a huge, wonderful blend of the NES catalogue’s Mega Man and Castlevania games, and further borrowing design elements here and there from other NES titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and DuckTales, Shovel Knight is the latest offspring of Kickstarter, being crowd-funded as the debut effort of California-based Yacht Club Games. Beyond the obligatory PC release, it’s also completely exclusive to Nintendo platforms at this point, giving the Nintendo eShop of both the 3DS and Wii U some much-needed big, retro chic indie muscle.

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Finally, the Nintendo eShop has a fantastic indie that PlayStation and Xbox gamers can envy as well, since Shovel Knight is not only delightfully nostalgic, but also an excellent game all around, even when just taken on its own merits and putting aside its obvious NES inspirations. It may have been frequently delayed before eventually seeing release, but the wait is most definitely worth it, as Shovel Knight is easily one of the most impressive indie games of all 2014 at this point!

If you’ve been gaming at least since the NES era, Shovel Knight will be 8-bit Candyland for you, and it’s definitely a must-buy for veteran players of that time period, who will adore reveling in such superb nostalgia. Even if you’re younger and born after the 1980’s, or have perhaps never experienced the NES game library properly before, Shovel Knight still presents a superb showcase of why this time in gaming history was so beloved by so many. Either way, it’s extremely worthy of your consideration if you’re looking for a fun, addictive and rewarding action game, particularly for your 3DS or Wii U!

VISUALS

Shovel Knight has been done completely in a faithful, NES-style aesthetic. Many other indie games have attempted this style, but few modern indie studios pull it off as well as Yacht Club Games has here!

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The illusion may be disturbed for especially avid NES purists, since Shovel Knight does feature parallax scrolling as you move through each area, something that the NES was never capable of, though this isn’t so bad, as it helps to keep gameplay feeling smooth, yet still authentic. Frankly, unless you still live and breathe everything to do with NES gaming, you probably won’t notice the difference as you play.

Despite its intentional 8-bit aesthetic, Shovel Knight still manages to look wonderfully detailed as well. Even stubbornly sticking to the simplistic NES palette of available colours, each environment in the game feels diverse and memorable, being bright and surprisingly detailed in equal measure. Had this truly come out during the NES era, the graphics in Shovel Knight would really have blown people away.

Animations predictably don’t have many frames in keeping with the NES style, but characters still effectively feel as lifelike as an 8-bit presentation will allow. Shovel Knight himself has plenty of charm with his simple shovel waving and bouncing, and the game’s boss enemies all feel like they have their own loveable personalities thanks to the incredible diversity and detail in how they move and fight.

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On the note of the bosses, the colourful NES-style flash of light and colour that serves as a backdrop for the slow-motion defeat poses when you beat them is equal parts cute and epic, and a very nice flourish by Yacht Club Games.

Regardless of your platform of choice, Shovel Knight is one of the most impressive uses of 8-bit limitations in the history of modern indie games, though there are a handful of differences to note.

The game’s graphics feel most at home on Wii U, where you get the best mix of sharp, hi-res visuals and dual-screened gameplay. The game loses nothing when played on the Wii U Gamepad screen as well, though it’s a shame that players have to swap between the two at the title menu, and can’t do it on the fly during gameplay. Even so, the Wii U version definitely presents the best place to enjoy Shovel Knight’s visual design, on either the television or the Wii U Gamepad.

The resolution of the graphics is naturally decreased a bit on 3DS/2DS, even if you do get some sharp 3D effects to compensate for 3DS and 3DS XL owners. With that said, Shovel Knight still looks polished and well-realized on Nintendo’s handheld. The fact that it still performs just as smoothly as its Wii U counterpart is also very impressive.

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On PC, Shovel Knight still looks very good for an intentional 8-bit game, though its visuals seem to be the least stable in this version. A slew of patches has helped to fix some of the visual problems on PC, but there’s also no way around the loss of the dual screen capability that’s awarded to you on the Nintendo platforms, and that’s before the other exclusive bonus features in the 3DS and Wii U versions of the game.

With these considerations however, it’s still impossible to ignore how finely-crafted Shovel Knight is as a throwback to NES gaming. It completely looks the part, while still managing to impress thanks to its vibrant style and infectious personality.

AUDIO

Shovel Knight packs in an exceptional NES-style chiptune soundtrack by independent composer, Jake Kaufman, and the entire score can be sampled for free on Kaufman’s website, with fans able to pay whatever price they wish to download the entire thing. It’s highly recommended that all longtime gamers with an appreciation for the 8-bit era pay what they can to download the music as well, because this is an excellent soundtrack that rivals some of the best soundtracks of the NES library!

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All of the music in Shovel Knight is wonderfully fun and catchy, again being one of the best uses of 8-bit limitations yet by a modern indie developer. The game defies the constraints of an 8-bit NES-style synthesizer, producing a soundtrack that has as much character and charm as the visuals, combining noble, knight-like melodies with the boppy chiptune fun of any great NES soundtrack. Any song on this soundtrack is an earworm that you’re bound to find yourself humming long after you turn the game off, with nary a single weak track in the entire score for those who love 8-bit soundtracks!

Sound effects are also done completely in an NES style, though they also strike a perfect chord between sounding credible, yet also intentionally primitive in a charming way. It may not sound true to life, but there’s still a weighty satisfaction that comes from bouncing atop enemies with your Shovel Blade like Scrooge McDuck, or digging through mounds of dirt and rummaging through chests to hear the satisfying gleam that comes with Shovel Knight lining his bottomless pockets with gems and other such plunder.

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Shovel Knight sounds as much the part as it looks when it comes to bringing gamers back to the golden age of NES gaming. Not only that, but it delivers an amazing set of music in particular that all proud veteran gamers will want on their music player of choice.

Quite simply, this is 8-bit sound at its best!

GAMEPLAY

Shovel Knight is a side-scroller that echoes the finest of the NES selection. If you’ve ever played a classic Capcom platformer on the NES in particular, especially one of the Mega Man games, you’ll immediately feel right at home with how Shovel Knight handles and plays.

Shovel Knight is broken into a series of areas that players can explore via a Super Mario Bros. 3-style map. Your main objective as you proceed through the game is to take on stages guarded by the enemy knights of The Order of No Quarter, who easily echo the spirits of the classic Mega Man series Robot Master bosses with their level-based themes. Also like the Mega Man series Robot Masters, you get some freedom as to which order you take on the eight knights of The Order of No Quarter, though you must clear all of the enemy knights out of some areas of the map to reach the rest.

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Each enemy knight’s stage has a predictable platformer theme, with one being in an underground, lava-filled stage, one being in an ice-layered sinking ship, one being in a pit-laden and wind-heavy flying fortress, etc.. The primary objective in each of the main stages is to leap and slash your way through any enemies and obstacles to reach the boss at the end, and then defeat him.

Fortunately, Shovel Knight’s stages are all impeccably designed, striking the perfect balance between simplicity and diversity. The early stages do a great job of getting players used to controlling Shovel Knight, and managing simpler obstacles and enemies, though once it takes the training wheels off, the challenge ramps up significantly!

Thankfully, while Shovel Knight is a rather challenging game in its later portions, it deftly avoids being frustrating as well, relying on genuine, fair challenge with devious and tricky obstacles that emphasize player skill, and only rarely rely excessively on cheap instant-kill hazards like pits and spikes.

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Another plus is that players have infinite lives, simply losing some of their accumulated Gold when they die. They have a chance to reach the spot where they died and reclaim the Gold to nullify the penalty, though if they die earlier than that point, their lost Gold is gone forever, and yet more Gold now hangs in the balance. It’s a smart system that doesn’t feel too lenient, nor too punishing, particularly for completionists who want to keep their treasures.

Amassing Gold is important as well, since you’ll need it to buy upgrades and special Relics for Shovel Knight, with the former boosting his maximum health and magic meter, and potentially giving him new passive benefits and Shovel Blade techniques, while the latter gives you new platforming skills and means to attack enemies, at the cost of some of the mana in your magic meter.

This wealth of play options, combined with smart, flexible level design throughout, allows players to adopt their own play style and experience Shovel Knight the way that they see fit. If they want to fully outfit the character, they can. If they want to forego Relics and magic in favour of old-fashioned platforming exclusively, they can. If they want to go Relic-crazy and have a diverse set of means to attack enemies, they can. If they want to bounce atop enemies, or attack them head-on, or simply navigate around them entirely, players consistently have that option. The fact that the game design is so flexible, and effectively accommodates multiple methods of approaching and conquering any given enemy or obstacle, is extremely impressive for a first indie effort by a new studio!

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The flexibility throughout Shovel Knight’s design also adds tons of replayability for hardcore gamers who seek to master the game in a variety of different ways. Yacht Club Games beautifully capitalized on this with an in-game achievement system that measures ‘Feats’, with Feats being awarded to you as you accomplish special tasks and challenges. This gives even the Nintendo builds of Shovel Knight a slew of cool challenges for players to strive for, with some being simple, goofy fun, and others being uncompromising tests of player skill that command you do things like beat the entire game without dying, beat the entire game without buying anything, beat the entire game without falling into a single pit, go the entire game without using checkpoints, and more!

Put simply, Shovel Knight is absolute 8-bit side-scrolling bliss. It’s an incredibly rewarding and addictive game that players will love mastering, even if they’ll occasionally curse out each death that naturally comes from the tougher stages and battles.

On the note of the boss battles, they’re also sublime. The various personalities that comprise The Order of No Quarter each have very diverse skill sets and open-ended strategies with which you can take them down. Each one is a huge amount of fun to battle, and many of them often manage to rival, and sometimes even exceed the equally strong classic Mega Man boss fights that they clearly take inspiration from!

Regardless of your platform of choice, Shovel Knight is a fantastic experience for those willing to appreciate 8-bit game design. PC players will have the best experience if they use a gamepad however, naturally, as trying to navigate Shovel Knight’s tense, old-school platforming and combat challenges is certainly not ideal with a keyboard. Again, the loss of dual screens that allow you to change Relics and guzzle life-saving Ichors on the fly is also a rather unfortunate drawback that drags down the PC version.

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Frankly, Shovel Knight feels chiefly designed for modern Nintendo platforms, and the PC version is really only worth seeking out if you don’t own any current Nintendo platforms. It’s certainly functional, and it presents the same great experience, but it’s also a very perfunctory version of the game that is brought down further by having a few more bugs and other such issues here and there. Regardless, you do have plenty of means to get ahold of it, as Shovel Knight’s PC build is available on Steam, GOG and Humble, with the Steam version even packing in Steam Achievements for what that’s worth.

If you have the means though, Shovel Knight definitely plays best on Nintendo devices. It even packs in exclusive bonuses on Nintendo’s platforms, featuring an exclusive StreetPass-based multiplayer arena in the 3DS version, and an exclusive ability to write and share Miiverse notes on game tips and other such commentary using an in-game diary in the Wii U version.

The 3DS version of Shovel Knight handles reasonably well and fits nicely with the button scheme of a 3DS/2DS. The StreetPass Arena is a little bizarre, having players record a few seconds of random, solitary actions with their Shovel Knight, then having their Shovel Knight automatically duel the Shovel Knight’s of other players for potential rewards of added Gold in your save file when you tag them via your handheld’s StreetPass capability. It’s certainly strange and unorthodox, but it’s actually better than it sounds, and should provide a decent distraction with a surprising amount of depth and strategy for 3DS/2DS owners that enjoy social gaming.

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As with the technical elements, the gameplay of Shovel Knight feels most at home on Wii U however, even with the loss of the pseudo-multiplayer elements and portability in this version. The charm of exchanging game tips with other players via Miiverse is a nice throwback to the pre-internet playground days however, and the addition of off-TV play is still something that gives this version a bit of added incentive for console gamers that are forced to share the television, especially with Shovel Knight suffering nary a single compromise when played on the Wii U Gamepad screen.

The myriad controller options available in Shovel Knight’s Wii U version also add plenty more flexibility to how you prefer to play as well. Playing with the Wii U Gamepad works quite well, even if it’s best suited to adults with larger hands for ideal comfort, though if you’d rather not do that, a recent update allows you to use any other Wii U-compatible controller. Playing with a Wii U Pro Controller gives you additional battery life and even more comfort, and is definitely one of the best possible options for playing Shovel Knight on your Wii U. Likewise, a sideways-held Wii Remote does a good job of replicating that NES style of play, even if it does sacrifice a few buttons.

The rest of the controller options range from decent to not recommended. Playing with a Wii Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro is allowed, though this doesn’t present quite as much comfort and precision as using the superior Wii U Pro Controller. Likewise, you do have the ability to play Shovel Knight with a Wii Remote/Nunchuk combo on Wii U, but this is the least appealing option, since Shovel Knight is really not designed for a control stick, nor the rather erratic placement of the buttons on a vertically-held Wii Remote.

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In either case though, Shovel Knight is mainly built for and at its best on Nintendo platforms, so the 3DS and Wii U versions are the ones to seek out. Even on PC however, Shovel Knight still stands as one of the best 8-bit side-scrollers that you never played during the NES era!

STORYLINE

Even though it’s firmly rooted in the simple, innocent days of NES convention, Shovel Knight nonetheless packs in a straightforward, but surprisingly decent storyline.

The premise of the game involves Shovel Knight and his companion/lover, Shield Knight adventuring across the world for glory and plunder. One day however, the two stumble into the Tower of Fate, where Shield Knight is claimed by evil magic, with Shovel Knight unable to save her. Disgraced, Shovel Knight disappears, that is until the land is ravaged by the evil knights of The Order of No Quarter, led by The Enchantress, who desires to oppress the world with darkness and monsters. Forced to take up his ancient Shovel Blade once again, Shovel Knight must thus liberate the land from The Order of No Quarter, and find the means to return to the Tower of Fate so he may have a chance at reclaiming his lost love, Shield Knight.

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It’s a simple, charming NES-style tale of love and courage, even if it’s mainly told in rudimentary dialogue boxes. Still, the game’s characters are great, and the personality leaps off of the screen, even with the intentionally dated 8-bit presentation. Shovel Knight himself is a particularly superb character, being instantly memorable, and balancing being equal parts chivalrous and adorable. He’s one of the best original indie developer creations to come along in quite a while!

While the game is packed with goofy, upbeat dialogue, making it fun to interact with townsfolk and other such docile characters simply to see what random silliness they have to say, some of the best sequences are also devoid of dialogue altogether. A really cool set of sequences plays out during certain dreams that Shovel Knight has between stages, where he is tormented by the memory of losing Shield Knight. These act as ingenious bonus stages, where players can fight monsters to amass additional supplies of gems and wealth, having to ‘catch’ Shield Knight by touching her during a timed slow-motion period to maintain their spoils. These are exceptional moments that equally serve both story and gameplay, while helping to add even more charm and bravery to Shovel Knight’s core character.

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Without giving away the ending, the game also ends on a nicely satisfying note. Even with the NES-style design, it’s nice to see that Shovel Knight at least uses some of the modern frills of current gaming platforms to tell a better story than most video games would have allowed back during the 80’s and early 90’s.

There may not be much to the story in Shovel Knight, but it’s still told well and with plenty of heart.

THE PS4, PS3 AND PS VITA VERSIONS

Shovel Knight ended up seeing a belated PlayStation release to cap off Sony’s Spring Fever indie spotlight selection in 2015. Fortunately, the game is as fantastic as it ever was on Sony’s platforms!

The main advantage of Shovel Knight on PlayStation devices is cross-buy and cross-save capability. You net the PS4, PS3 and PS Vita versions together with a single purchase of any of them, and can freely transfer your play data between platforms, allowing you to enjoy the game at home on your PS3 or PS4, then resume the action on the go with your PS Vita. Trophies have naturally been added to the PlayStation builds as well, complete with a Platinum Trophy, which completionists should certainly appreciate!

All three versions handle well and boast the same great 8-bit presentation, though pressing the Touch Pad to pull up your inventory in the PS4 version does take some getting used to, since it substitutes as a crude Select Button, an issue that isn’t present on PS3. The inevitable lack of the StreetPass Arena in the PS Vita version is also a bummer, making the 3DS version feel like a slightly more polished and rewarding portable rendition of the game, though the game is still great to take on the go on a PS Vita. The PlayStation versions of Shovel Knight also contain an exclusive hidden boss fight against God of War protagonist, Kratos, but it doesn’t add much, and doesn’t compare to the Xbox One version’s bonus fight, even if you can net some cool PlayStation-exclusive armour for Shovel Knight if you win.

Still, these are ultimately nitpicks in what are still very highly recommended versions of Shovel Knight. Honestly, it’s not worth double-dipping if you already own the game on your personal computer or a Nintendo platform, but if you have yet to enjoy Shovel Knight, its PlayStation builds are just as recommendable, especially with the advantage of cross-buy and trophies!

THE XBOX ONE VERSION

Latest to the party of Shovel Knight is its Xbox One version, which doesn’t contain the exclusive bonus features of the Nintendo builds, nor the cross-buy and cross-save capabilities of the PlayStation builds. The Xbox One version has another huge draw however, and that’s the Battletoads!

Yes, exclusively in the Xbox One version, players can locate a hidden battle against three forgotten gaming bruisers of yesteryear. This great boss fight wipes the floor with the bonus Kratos fight in the PlayStation editions of Shovel Knight, and fits perfectly with the nostalgic presentation. It still doesn’t merit the double-dip if you already own Shovel Knight on another platform, but it’s a worthy incentive for Xbox gamers who can’t exploit the Nintendo and PlayStation bonuses in this version.

Shovel Knight runs and handles as well as it does on any other platform on Xbox One, and the addition of achievements should provide extra play incentive for completionists. If you’re an Xbox gamer with a taste for indies, this is a must-download if you have yet to experience it, even for the Battletoads alone!

THE VERDICT

Shovel Knight is the ultimate love letter to the NES era, equally appealing to both the nostalgic and the curious. It’s impeccably designed, packed with charming graphics and catchy tunes, and it harkens back to a time of gaming when games were simpler and more innocent, but no less fun when they were really done well.

As much as Kickstarter occasionally gets a dubious reputation for some of its unfortunate failures in getting crowdfunded projects off the ground, and rare swindles of backers’ money, there’s no denying that Shovel Knight is one of the best games to come out of the controversial site. Its existence proves better than anything before it that Kickstarter can indeed be a legitimate avenue to realize great games in the right hands, and it’s great to see that the immense success of Shovel Knight has immediately put the clearly talented folks at Yacht Club Games on the map.

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If you’re looking for an overall excellent game for your 3DS or Wii U, where Shovel Knight shines brightest, this is a must-download, even if its $14.99 price tag may initially seem steep to some for an 8-bit throwback game. If you’re limited to playing on PC, Shovel Knight is still a wonderful retro chic side-scroller that demands to be experienced, though bear in mind that the PC version is slightly inferior, and you won’t quite be getting the full effect there.

Regardless, Shovel Knight is one of those games that beautifully demonstrates why the NES captivated so many, and laid the foundations for the gaming industry that we enjoy today. If any love of vintage gaming be in you, then steel thy shovel! Shovel Knight is a quest that can’t be missed!

Shovel Knight Review
Shovel Knight is one of the best indie games to ever come out of Kickstarter, being an excellent throwback to the NES era with tight design and loveable production value.
VISUALS90%
AUDIO95%
GAMEPLAY95%
STORYLINE85%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Excellent level design
  • Amazing music
  • Charming 8-bit presentation
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • Slightly rougher on PC
92%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)
0%

About The Author

Senior Editor

Brent Botsford has reviewed video games, movies and television for over a decade. He is also a Twitch Affiliate at twitch.tv/venuszen , presenting new, retro and independent games as the, "Sixth-Handsomest Gamer on the Internet', VenusZen, flexing his personality with comedy, heart and just that right dose of sex appeal.

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