Game design from the NES era is a lost art. Mega Man, Castlevania, Ducktales, Zelda II, games such as these are considered masterpieces due to their clever approach at level design, controls, tutorials, music, and more. Nearly all of these innovations came from technical limitations, making reproduction today scarce. Many games have adopted the retro look, such as Gunpoint or FTL: Faster Than Light, but little else. Shovel Knight is a true gem, taking all the elements that made these early Nintendo games incredible while standing on its own as something completely unique.
If you’ve spent a bit of time playing the classic franchises mentioned, you’ll be at home the instantly. “Get Digging” flashes on the screen in typical Mega Man fashion before the first level starts. Nary a prompt is presented to indicat the controls. The game plays like Capcom’s greatest hits without ever outright stealing from them. Many of the stages are reminiscent of Castlevania, with hidden sections while outside stages pays homage to Zelda II.
One thing those games had in common was an inherit difficulty, something Shovel Knight thankful doesn’t ape. Checkpoints are plentiful and smartly placed throughout. The the placement was predictable, usually appearing after a difficult section, letting me breath a sigh of relief when I finally reached them. For those who think the checkpoints make the game too easy, the option to destroy them, netting you extra money, is always available. This adds an interesting dynamic, pushing forward without a net.
Though much of the design was inspired by games from 30 years past, this could not have existed then. The graphics employ a rich color palette, utilizing parallax scrolling to wonderful effect. While some modern remakes add in slow down and screen tearing, à la Mega Man 9, nary a hitch is be seen here. Not even the slightest bit of slowdown can be spotted. The score is delightfully chiptune based, having some of the best bleeps and bloops this side of Super Mario. Difficulty was balanced perfectly, thanks again to the checkpoint system. Though I died frequently, not one was a cheap death, each stemming from short coming of my own.
For years developers have been chasing golden era game design, using a handful of retro elements in hopes to achieve this. Shovel Knight not only reaches that goal, where others have failed, but stands on its own rather than being derivative. As someone who laments the loss of creative game design from that time, this is a welcome return. Gamers old and new can find something to enjoy. This is a must play, regardless of age or skill.
Editors note: I Kickstarted this game, contributing to the $15 (free copy) tier. I had no involvement with any stage of development beyond funding.
What was your favorite stage (mine’s Clockwork Tower)? How many times did you die (a lot)? Comment below!
Easily in the top 5 for the year.