Ode to childhood. Ode to a time of simple optimism, flecked with imaginative wonder. Ode to fanciful castle-raiding and heroic princess-saving; infuriated hoverbiking through hidden passageways whose chiptune calls never truly fade away. And finally, ode to Shovel Knight, whose cyanic triumphs allow it all to come flooding back.
After last year’s release, developer Yacht Club Games have enjoyed critical acclaim, and delight us in their confirmation of expanding on their first entry. Still, perhaps more than ever, Shovel Knight remains stout in the hearts of many. Intended as a homage to the original Nintendo systems, this indie title juggles the classic and the fresh; the familiar and the unexpected with style and mobility.
The story is unashamedly formulaic, honing in on legendary adventurers, “of whom none shine brighter than Shovel Knight and Shield Knight”. However, when his partner in shovelry is taken from him, our titular blue hero must venture across ten distinct worlds, vanquishing the evil Enchantress in order to reunite with his beloved, encountering nostaglic throwbacks and formidable adversaries along the way.
In the form of a 2D sidescroller, the player guides the mettlesome Shovel Knight against Nintendic backdrops, many of which look sprung from Adventure of Link. The graphical capabilities of the PS4 here causes the ostentatious palette to shine impressively, although Shovel Knight seems to acknowledge, almost automatically, that ‘good graphics’ is not what really makes the gameplay.
The game’s control scheme boasts a receptivity enviable amongst many of its influencers, including mild hints that allow you to find your feet for yourself. The strong sense of coordination derived from these components results in a consistence that enables comfortable reactions once the game’s challenge level increases.
And oh how it does. As you might expect from a game with NES roots, the introduction to Shovel Knight seems ever-evolving, constantly comprising new challenges that may be tough in places, but are never unforgiving. Indeed, there were many sections in the game that proved frustrating (precariously pogo-ing betwixt floating enemies to cross bottomless ravines, for one), but the game’s checkpoint system reassures those who enjoy a little security that death will not bring about the uproot of all their progress.
Levels are traversed according to Super Mario Bros. 3’s world map, Castlevania’s throwing axes make a reprise during combat and the kookily thematic bosses of The Order of No Quarter strike a deferance to the robot masters of Mega Man 8. What makes Shovel Knight admirably unique, however, is Yacht Club’s assured capability to produce alongside an imaginative sidescroller as well. Bosses take on the form of corrupt knights, each with comedic, yet highly specialised quirks (such as Mole Knight’s tendency to burrow into the earth) that require changes in strategy, consequently enduring in the memory long after playing with a cartoonishly grandiose sense of achievement.
However, stages themselves err on the edge of predictability. After the first few steps of the game, we have learned all the skills we need to learn. With a limited inventory of moves and a signature strike that owes itself to DuckTales, bosses appear the most original (and indeed, most exciting) aspect of the worlds, which slightly undermines the sense of wonder I’d expect from entering a new domain. Whilst each new world was great fun to cover, I was always aware that I was experiencing the same kind of fun that I had been when I first started playing, and as such I can understand why some may neglect a second playthrough. This being said, the game presents an impressive armoury of ‘feats’ (including a ‘complete the game without dying’ accomplishment) that both heightens arcadeish challenge and encourages deeper excavation into the lesser known paths laid down by Yacht Club.
Despite its repetitive tendencies, moreover, the game elicits a childlike seriousness that ironically never ages. During play, we become intent, adamant that we will overcome our obstacles in order to reach our goal, and our enemies do the same, no matter how amusing their or our efforts might be. And so, Shovel Knight reminds us that this view is what makes games special, and cannot be sidelined by a contemporary focus on graphical realism. Its responsive control system and florid palette compliment its fantastical homage to classical heroism, whilst still balancing elements of uniquity with an undying sense of humour.
Those feeling a little hackneyed might find themselves reinvested in the world of this plucky azure cavalier, with the prospect of free DLC, in which the story of zany quack Plague Knight is uncovered, and for those in need of a bit more shovelry, Plague of Shadows marks the next grand adventure. Strike the Earth, Yacht Club, we’re ready.