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Shovel Knight (PC) artwork

Shovel Knight (PC) review


"Plenty of charm, but runs out of steam before the end."



Shovel Knight on the surface is mish-mash of elements from a selection of classic NES platformers. The titular character's weapon of choice is a shovel, used for stabbing, digging up treasure, and most interestingly, performing a satisfying downward thrust that damages enemies or breaks blocks beneath him while bouncing off them like a pogo stick. Or, like DuckTales.

The shovel is also handy for unearthing secrets behind walls, which often hide collectible music sheets, food to recover health, or treasure. Navigating a Super Mario Bros. 3-esque world map, Shovel Knight can visit villages reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to purchase relics with his money. When wielded, these magic items grant Shovel Knight a secondary ability – think Castlevania – that range from combat-focused attacks, like shooting fire, to platforming aids, like a mid-air boost to help cross over large gaps. And each of the dozen or so stages concludes with a unique themed boss, hearkening back to the days of Mega Man.


At times, the action-platformer is a delight to play, with level design that is inspired – rather than ripped off and copied – by some of the best 2D side-scrollers on the NES. While stages undoubtedly evoke a strong degree of nostalgia, there’s something to be said that these old-school ideas still hold up well in 2014.

Though much of the inspiration comes from the NES era of video games, the visuals represent an idealised version of that generation (and thus are more in line with 16-bit releases). The title looks fantastic, especially if you grew up playing games in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but developer Yacht Club Games clearly didn’t want to be bound by strict restrictions when working on the graphical side. Scrolling backgrounds, additional sprites on screen, and increased colour palettes – features which would have been tricky on NES hardware – are employed here in a relatively low-key manner, improving the look of the game while still retaining the essence of the bygone era.

The same ethos applies to the mechanics. There is no lives system, for instance, and checkpoints are frequent enough that it softens the difficulty to the point where anyone with just the slightest bit of determination should be able to finish the game without much trouble. It’s certainly easier to complete than your average Mega Man of yesteryear. That said, death does result in a percentage of your gold being dropped that must be picked up in your next life or else it disappears for good, encouraging caution as you navigate back to where you fell last.


More innovative is the fact that checkpoints are open to be destroyed with the lure of extra gems to spend. The risk/reward element at play is clever; you can change the difficulty on the fly for more money, and particularly in the first half of the game, where money appears to be tight, the temptation is always there to bank a little extra cash to help with paying for additional upgrades. The problem is, money is never honestly a problem. By the time I was a little beyond halfway through the game, I had bought every relic on sale and every available health and magic boost as well as successfully upgrading my shovel and armour. All of a sudden, there was no incentive at all to destroy the checkpoints. In addition, the option is there to go back and replay old levels. Blitzing through the tutorial stage and collecting the treasures all over again actually nets you significantly more money than you get from demolishing checkpoints.

The game eventually and sadly drags, with the first half much more enjoyable than the second. Discovering secrets – and opening treasure chests – is a rewarding highlight early on, but it doesn’t sustain itself when you get to the point where money no longer matters. (And with money rendered worthless, the punishment for dying becomes practically non-existent.)

Also, early on you will be able to purchase the Phase Locket, a low-priced and versatile relic which makes you invincible for a couple of seconds as every object and enemy passes through you. It pretty much breaks the relic system. The Phase Locket is incredibly useful in most situations, from fighting bosses to avoiding projectiles and standing on spikes, and I found that when paired with the fire-spouting Flare Rod as my projectile attack, it removed any incentive to seriously experiment with whatever relics I acquired afterwards, especially since most of them only have use in specific scenarios.


Elsewhere, the platforming is competent but doesn’t necessarily feel precise. Most obstacles allow for some leeway in execution, so it’s rarely frustrating, but there is a level very late on with single-tile platforms hovering over a bottomless abyss and it’s clear that the controls are not the game’s strongest point. There are also a couple of mild quirks that seem counter-intuitive, like the fact that you can’t jump off ladders and instead must ‘fall’ off them. Sure, it’s a callback but one that doesn't play well in the present day and maybe should have been scrapped in favour of more fluid platforming.

Perhaps this is slightly surprising given the developer has shown elsewhere – with the checkpointing, for example – that it isn’t afraid to modernise in places for the benefit of the game. It’s this approach that makes Shovel Knight more than just several hours of nostalgia and enables it to stand with its own identity. It may pale when compared to the games it's paying homage to, but has plenty of charm and is entertaining enough to put a smile on your face for a while. Shovel Knight runs out of steam before the endgame, though, and could have been a tighter and more fulfilling experience had it not outstayed its welcome.

Rating: 6/10

Ben's avatar
Community review by Ben (July 18, 2014)

Ben used to freelance for HonestGamers. Now he spends his spare time dying repeatedly on Spelunky.

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