In almost every review I write, there is inevitably a point at which it will be tempting to fill a paragraph with pointless comparisons. “It’s a GTA-style open-world game,” or “a fast-paced Call of Duty-type shooter.” I do my best to avoid these comparisons, because I think they’re a little cheap, and more than a little easy. Every now and then a game comes along, however, that is practically begging to be compared. Enter Shovel Knight.
Yes, this is one of those games. Built from the ground-up to look, sound, and feel like some long-forgotten NES action game. If you have any familiarity with the indie scene explosion over the last seven or eight years, then you probably know exactly what kind of game I’m talking about.
Where most titles falter is in weighing aesthetic over gameplay — many, many games have nailed the pixel art vibe, but few have captured the right mix of inspired, challenging, and broken that was ingrained in most gems of the late eighties. To its credit, Shovel Knight comes pretty close. It’s a mish-mash of disparate gameplay hooks and styles (almost all borrowed from NES titles) that sinks its claws in early and never lets go for its modest 4-hour duration.
Now, for the comparisons, of which there are many. Shovel Knight is, at its core, a Mega Man-style action platformer. The jumping physics are similar, the enemy placement is similar, the boss designs are similar — even the way the screen occasionally scrolls from one to the next is similar. There are a couple towns to visit, reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, or Faxanadu, or Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Speaking of Castlevania, there’s a very familiar sub-weapon system, with new weapons purchasable from the aforementioned towns. There’s a world map like Super Mario Bros. 3, and a modest story that reminded me of Ninja Gaiden. Oh, and one of the main villains laughs an awful lot like Kefka from Final Fantasy VI.
If you’re familiar with this era of gaming, playing Shovel Knight can sometimes feel like wandering through the dream game of a Mario-obsessed adolescent, and that’s not a bad thing. On paper, the wealth of borrowed elements sound like they’d make for a game with some sharp edges, but Shovel Knight is smooth, through and through. I was more amused by identifying the wealth of homages than distracted, and in totality, it feels distinct from its inspirations.
A throwback like this, so very reliant on nostalgia, lives or dies by its design strength. Each level of Shovel Knight is distinct, in that Mega Man kind of way; the fire boss has a fire level, the wind boss has a wind level, and etc. The key difference is how each game handles failure. Mega Man had level checkpoints, but was incredibly punitive, and driven by expendable lives that could kick you to a game over screen. Shovel Knight has level checkpoints, but is generally more forgiving, and has no expendable lives or continue system. It helps set the game apart, but it makes for a much, much less challenging time.
That’s not to say it’s easy. I’d describe it as… comfortably challenging. If it wanted to stay true to the games it mimicked, this softer touch might be a bigger detriment, but Shovel Knight is perfectly fine with bending the rules here and there. While it uses the NES’ color palette, the animations and pixel density feel far beyond that console’s capabilities, complete with fancy visual tricks like parallax scrolling. That goes for the excellent soundtrack as well — I’d be surprised if that was actually produced to the limitations of a near three-decade old sound chip. Even the story, pretty light and barely significant, manages to wring some genuine pathos out of its two-dimensional characters.
All told, Shovel Knight is bigger and better than a game that could’ve come out back when its designers started playing video games. It runs better, looks better, sounds better, plays better — so much so that it threatens to damage the game’s precise imitations. It doesn’t just attempt to invoke nostalgia; it understands exactly why nostalgia can be so intoxicating. We remember the games we played in our childhood through a warped lens, slicing out the bad and elevating the good. Shovel Knight is every good part with very little bad. It makes for a great game, but it doesn’t make for a great impression.
Shovel Knight isn’t the game you played on the NES, but it’s the game you remember.