I would like to start this off by declaring 'Game of the Year', and finish it off with 'what a year that was'.
In all seriousness though, this is going to be a contender for my Game of the Year. It might not be new to you, but this is the first time that I’ve played Shovel Knight. Having been released on just about all the consoles and the PC, it feels as though the best was saved for last. the Xbox One provides Battletoads. Sorry Kratos, but these guys were one of the best parts of my childhood.
Shovel Knight is a retro tribute to the 8-bit days of gaming with nods to various titles such as Mega Man, Legend of Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. and Duck Tails with the naming of boss enemies, world maps, town explorations, and specific combat maneuvers. Sporting an enhanced 8-bit graphical style, our titular Shovel Knight will find himself in various unique locations throughout his quest through the valley to save his partner and stop the Enchantress from her vile rule.
Utilizing an overworld, our knight travels from location to location battling the minions of darkness and the Knights of the Order of no Quarter. Between each stages there are other locations to be explored that are not currently under the rule of a knight but instead exist to aid in gaining an influx of treasure in order to buy upgrades. Each of these locations is clearly labeled with an icon to denote the style of stage or what is required to unlock the path further east towards the Enchantress.
Entering a stage is a treat to itself with changing designs not only in terms of textures and backgrounds, but also in regards to platforming design. Not unlike Mega Man in regards to naming reference for bosses, each stage fits the Knight that is in charge of it rather well. The King Knight is in a an elaborately designed castle, the Plague Knight is inside of a creepy laboratory, the Specter Knight is in the cemetery, and each of the others all have their proper locations that suits their styles and their personalities. Not making it easy, each new stage introduces new concepts that must be conquered along with older ones while still managing to make everything feel new (won’t say fresh with the look of the cemetery and laboratory).
Stage design is incredibly well thought out and even frustrating at times in that older school mentality which does not hold your hand and makes you perfect yourself. It is within these moments that make Shovel Knight’s adventure an amazing one. Everything is given to the player right from the start. There are no upgrades to jumping capabilities, there are no pure armor upgrades or shovel enhancements that are required or change the game fundamentally forever more once they are acquired. Already being what amounts to a certifiable badass that does not need to prove himself, Shovel Knight is already fully loaded on experience and has a license to kick ass and take names leaving the bubblegum behind.
Gameplay was extremely smooth and while having access to everything from the start, that doesn’t mean that you’ll know exactly what you are in for. Between the varying layout designs and different enemy types, players will need to stay on their toes if they do not want to be sent back to a prior checkpoint. A checkpoint system is used instead of lives so that when a player falls either due to loss of health, falling in a hole, hitting spikes, or just plain old bad luck and falling into lava, they don’t need to restart an entire level but simply respawn at the last checkpoint that was passed. Boss checkpoints are included and not sold separately in this case.
Now it should be noted that respawning at the checkpoints was not a free pass. There’s a catch and it was a good one. Every death ends up costing a certain amount of that fortune that our Knight has been amassing upon his travels. This amount is split into three separate sub amounts that can be found in loot bags floating on feathers wings in the location where you had previous fallen. If you can manage to get back to these bags and reclaim what is lost then all is well, if you cannot reach these it means that you were unworthy of this loot and it reinforces the need to perfect your skills. Also dying once again not only removes more of your precious loot, but also erases the previous amounts that were lost forever more.
While upgrades are not required, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t wanted. These upgrades are available between the two possible towns and the crazy man who could essentially be a chestburster as he scares the crap out of you when opening a chest up and he’s inside. These are mainly abilities that fall into three categories and are not exactly enhancements in terms of offense or defense. Powering up the shovel are abilities to reduce the dig time, launch a shockwave across the ground at full health (I personally dubbed it the Master Shovel) or charge it up for a more powerful swing. Armors come in different colors each with their own bonuses and sometimes drawbacks such as not moving when hit but it’s harder to stop once you’ve begun moving. Add in a variety of tools such as fireball wands, damaging anchors, and potions and the world becomes even easier at your fingertips.
The towns themselves are interesting as they are designed in the format of the Legend of Zelda II with peoples walking both left and right on their ways to take care of their own personal affairs. Each person can be talked to which enhances the lore of the world one conversation at a time or just to add a good one-liner. Between these people, the Knights of the Order of no Quarter, and the other random encounters that our Knight has, each conversation was worth having especially those that put our Knight off of his game as he had no idea how to answer.
Now, for a saying that my father absolutely loved to use, here comes the “piece de resistance” which can be done anytime after about the midway point of our Knight’s adventure. With a bit of going out of the way it is possible to meet Rash, Zitz, and Pimple who were out for nothing more than a good burger and flies. Having vanquished the threat of their own “Dark Queen” they offer Shovel Knight the opportunity to train with them to further his skills that he will need on his adventure. If there is one and one thing only that I can say about Yacht Club Games, it is that they should themselves grab the license for Battletoads from Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare. Honestly as much as everything else impressed me, this added stage was simply amazing and blew nostalgia out of the water.
Starting off with the downwards rope level our Knight faces off against the first of the three toads while trying to not have his rope cut which would send him falling downwards to his death. Hugging the walls allowed for the same method of turning into a wrecking ball to slam into everything between you and the next wall as I so fondly remember doing almost… twenty plus years ago. This is followed up with a race against the next brother with the crazy / insane / psychotic speed bike levels that still haunts me even up to this day and age. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t take me many attempts just to get this right.
After this crazy train there comes to the final battle against the last of the three toads who uses his two brothers as forms of attacks on top of being a force to be reckoned with all on his own. Once defeating the three toads comes what had to be the best possible form of awesome that our Knight gets access to. The Toad Armour. This green glorious piece of metal allows for Shovel Knight to run and bash into his enemies without a second thought. Through these three stages the only thing that I could think of is that I wish my NES and Battletoads had not been given away otherwise that is exactly what I would have been doing. Thank you so much for that epic nostalgia trip.
I honestly should have played this last year upon its release but I ever had held out for the next version that kept coming. I am more than happy to have been given the opportunity to experience and sit down to enjoy the adventure from start to finish. Shovel Knight is as perfect as a tribute could ever be to the 8-bit days of platforming that my age group originally grew up with. Everything from the smooth controls, the well placed dialogue and personalities, and the well designed stages with their unique and challenging layouts felt perfect. Sprinkle on the multiple secrets in each stage for added bonuses and Shovel Knight was, honestly, perfect in every way for me.
Review by Pierre-Yves