Retro fans will dig ‘Shovel Knight’

Jon Mercer
Published on July 2, 2014

Shovel Knight
Wii U, 3DS, PC

After more than a year since it was successfully funded on Kickstarter, Yacht Club Games’ heavily hyped “Shovel Knight” has finally broken through and landed on Nintendo’s Wii U and 3DS, as well as on Steam for PC players. It’s been a torturous wait, especially with that three-month delay from its planned launch in March.

Does this shovel dig up anything precious, or is it better used for burying something?

In all the land, there are no adventurers nor protectors quite as mighty as the duo of Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. However, whilst investigating the treacherous Tower of Fate, a powerful magical amulet is unleashed, separating the lovers and sealing Shield Knight inside. Some time later, a wicked enchantress and the knights of her vile Order of No Quarter begin to sweep out from the tower and conquer. It’s up to Shovel Knight to reclaim the lairs of the Enchantress’ eight followers, storm the Tower of Fate, drive away the evil, and just maybe discover the truth about what happened to his beloved Shield Knight.

Yes, the storyline is simple, and the setting is admittedly silly (though played entirely and refreshingly straight within the game world), but hot damn if “Shovel Knight” isn’t a perfect distraction for those of us that can remember foolishly blowing into a cartridge before it would work.

Players make their way across themed stages that boldly scream out their inspirations, slashing at enemies with a shovel, pogo jumping atop their heads to cross pits, and digging through walls and piles of dirt in search of treasure. At the end of each 10– to 15-minute-long stage (which is pretty lengthy by retro-platformer standards), Shovel Knight does battle with one of the fearsome members of the aforementioned Order of No Quarter.

These lively, superbly animated foes are both fiendishly challenging, yet approachable in their difficulty. It’s all about recognizing the tells of their larger attacks, and knowing when getting greedy for an extra hit is going to spell disaster for our stalwart hero.

Dealing with Specter Knight’s extreme range is one thing, but dealing with it when he kills the lights and forces players to try to figure out what he is up to in between flashes of lightning is another. Taking a heavy blow from Polar Knight when he turns the pogo jumping on a large target for multiple hits strategy against you. Dodging the explosive volleys of Plague Knight is hard enough, but wait until he starts summoning vats of flammable chemicals that detonate with fury when hit by his wide-spreading attacks. As a gamer, I love that stuff. I live for boss fights like that.

The world building in “Shovel Knight” speaks volumes of the pedigree of the developer, Yacht Club Games.

Many of its staff have roots in Way Forward, which is well-renowned for its prowess with retro game design. Every inch of this title is bursting with colour and character. In between action stages are visits to towns and outposts populated with crazy sprite characters that spout off clever one-liners, or burst into elaborate dances when you speak with them.

It is here that treasure is bartered for health and magic upgrades, armour and weapon modifications, and relics that give Shovel Knight extra attacks and abilities (but which can be gained at a lower cost in secret rooms in each of the stages).

Yacht Club has created a believable world in a game that can be finished in 90 minutes (it took me six-seven hours) if a player is skilled enough. I really loved the wandering warriors on the world map that function as extra boss battles. Despite only having a few lines of dialogue, they are fleshed out additions to the world that add some more meat within Shovel Knight’s armour.

A big part of a proper retro title is capturing the look and feel of a game from an earlier era, while adding just enough new game magic to make it fresh. This is “Shovel Knight’s” greatest success.

While the sprites look like they would’ve been at home on the NES, the animation is far too smooth, and the contrasting colours far too bold. But that’s kind of the point. There’s no way a standard NES cart could have handled the rain effects in the final stage, or have had the positively buff soundtrack that Jake Kaufman (“Shantae,” “Double Dragon Neon”) and Manami Matsumae (“Mega Man 2”) have provided here.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Shovel Knight” plays like the sort of video game I constructed in my head and on perforated lengths of printer paper when I was a little boy.  It respects the medium it is aiming at, but pays little heed to the more needless limitations.

“Shovel Knight” digs deep to wrench up nostalgic warm and fuzzies of the best years of the Nintendo Entertainment System, but its willingness to embrace and apply slivers of modern game design helps to plough through unnecessary frustration. It’s a titillating little adventure, and one of the grooviest Indie games I’ve had the pleasure of playing all year.

It’s bursting with life, filled to the brim with fast-paced action, and tells a genuinely sweet little story of friendship, love, and loyalty. If you’re at all a fan of retro games, you’re sure to dig “Shovel Knight.”

Platform: Wii U, 3DS, PC

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: Yacht Club Games

Release Date: June 26, 2014

Rated: E for Everyone.

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