What a difference a year can make! This time last year, Shovel Knight was just a promising platformer that was still two months away from release. A lot of people backed its Kickstarter campaign and still more got their hands on it at PAX East and PAX Prime, but most people were probably unaware of its existence. While we liked what we saw at those preview events, we had no idea just how good the game would actually turn out to be.
So here we are in 2015. Shovel Knight made its debut last June and instantly won the hearts of gamers everywhere. Perfect review scores (like this one from us) piled up like the sacks of gold collected by the title character. Six months later, a gaggle of “Game of the Year” awards rained down from outlets across the Internet (including a selection to Warp Zoned’s “Apocalypse List”).
So what does Yacht Club Games do for an encore? They put the exact same game on the PS3/PS4/PS Vita and the Xbox One and add a pair of platform-exclusive bosses. If you bought it last year, there’s no need to buy it again, but everyone else needs to fill the Shovel Knight-sized hole in their tool shed right now.
Platforms: PS3, PS4 (Version Played), Vita, Xbox One (Version Played)
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Genre: Side-Scrolling Shovel Action
Release Date: April 21, 2015 (PS3/PS4/Vita), April 29, 2015 (Xbox One)
ESRB Rating: Everyone
As I said, Shovel Knight on the PS3/PS4/PS Vita and the Xbox One is identical to the game that was released last year for the PC, Wii U, and 3DS. Built from the ground up as an homage to 8-bit platformers like Mega Man II and DuckTales, Shovel Knight is a masterpiece of the form. Players will follow Shovel Knight in his quest to rid a formerly peaceful valley of The Enchantress and her knightly mob, The Order of No Quarter. Besides striking fear into 2D sprites everywhere, Shovel Knight’s name is also quite descriptive of his weapon of choice: the Shovel Blade. The Shovel Blade is handy for digging and breaking up rocks, but it can also be swung like a sword and used like a pogo stick to bounce from enemy to enemy. It’s a good thing too, as Shovel Knight is a tough platformer that’ll only get tougher once you unlock the thumb-torturing New Game+ mode.
In between, Shovel Knight will challenge The Order of No Quarter in a 2D platformer that mixes in new ideas with just the right amount of nostalgic homage. Taking bits and bobs from many of their favorite games, the developers have created a literary pastiche that will have players saying, “Hey, I recognize that from…” The genesis of the pogo bounce/downward thrust is obvious (hint: it ain’t the Genesis). The eight bosses/evil overlord structure is a direct reference to Mega Man, but the overworld map (borrowed from Super Mario Bros. 3) allows the game to progress at its own pace instead of forcing players along a prescribed path. This, in turn, allows Yacht Club to gradually scale up the difficulty in the perfect manner. There’s no sudden difficulty spike (a problem that plagued dozens of NES games), but the end of the game feels considerably tougher than the beginning.
Besides battling The Order of No Quarter, Shovel Knight can visit towns and outposts populated by a very diverse citizenry. Horsewomen, Bird-nobles, and Frogmen all populate the village, and none of them seem out of place. And off in a far corner of the map is the Troupple King, a giant trout-apple hybrid that sings songs and provides magical potions with a haughty tone. Which is all just a roundabout way of saying the dialogue in the game is ridiculously funny. Shovel Knight speaks his mind with just the right mix of gravitas and blowhard-ery. Another character speaks solely in puns, while others deliver monologues that are equal parts Shakespeare and Seinfeld.
Shovel Knight’s other extracurricular activity is dueling Wandering Knights that pop up on the overworld map. It’s here where Yacht Club added something unique for PlayStation and Xbox One owners. On PlayStation platforms, Shovel Knight will be able to do battle with an 8-bit version of Kratos from the God of War franchise. Naturally, this won’t work for the Xbox One edition, so Microsoft let Yacht Club borrow the Battletoads for an entire training level designed in the style of their NES classic. Rope-swinging down a vertical corridor, zipping through a Turbo Tunnel, and punching a Battletoad in his smug face are amazing additions to the game. I’ve wanted to play a new Battletoads game for 20 years, and now I want that more than ever. The Kratos fight is fun, but it doesn’t compare to the dose of bodacious awesomeness that Yacht Club added to the Xbox One version. If you own both current-generation systems and have a choice, purchasing Shovel Knight on Microsoft’s console is definitely the way to go.
For everyone who loves retro gaming, Shovel Knight is the game for you. It looks, and plays, like all of those 8-bit classics you know and love. Side-scrolling hasn’t been this fun in a long time, and if you didn’t pick it up last year, you honestly have no excuse not to now.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Shovel Knight was provided by Yacht Club Games for the purposes of this review.