Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight is a game whose Kickstarter campaign‘s success may be attributable to, above other merits, nostalgia for the NES era of games whose aesthetics and gameplay Shovel Knight promised to deliver. It’s a winning formula, and one on which many other projects have been happy to capitalize: sell the gaming population its own childhood.
Such projects, often full of wry nods toward and inside jokes from NES titles, wear the clothes of classics. They have pixel art as a matter of convention, and scrolling text as a matter of principle. But Shovel Knight is a special game, because it does not merely wear the clothes of the classics; it is a classic, every bit as deserving of acclaim and status as are the titles whose trappings got it funded.
Last week I wrote about Spelunky as the modern version of the greatness that was the original Super Mario Bros. Whereas Spelunky is necessarily contemporary, and never could have existed thirty years ago, Shovel Knight‘s decades-old forebears could have comfortably coexisted with Yacht Club Games’ production.
While Shovel Knight is by no means just a game that’s dressed like a NES action platformer, it nevertheless is a game that’s dressed like a NES title, and done so more thoroughly and convincingly than slews of indie games in the intervening years.
Shovel Knight has scrolling screen transitions, pixel art, a chiptune soundtrack, a minimal title card, a damsel-in-distress plot, an overlaid-grid world map, secrets in the level tiles, and a screen-top information bar with static elements. As clear as it is that this game was influenced by Mega Man, Mario, Castlevania, and even DuckTales, Shovel Knight embodies the style as well as the substance of its parts.
The player-character’s (i.e. Shovel Knight’s) abilities and collectibles are logical offshoots from his tools and design (i.e. his shovel and his medieval aesthetic), rather than being cribbed from older games. The personalities and utilities of the game’s NPCs (including the enigmatic Troupple King), towns, and bosses are also wholely original and coherent inhabitants of their world.
But most importantly, Shovel Knight stands on its gameplay (especially its exceptional level design) without any of the nostalgic force coming into play. Why do I declare so brazenly that nostalgia is not coloring my review? Quite simply because, having never owned a NES or a SNES, and not having played any of the early Mega Man or Castlevania titles in their time (I came to them much later), I find Shovel Knight to be tremendous fun.
And if you still don’t believe me, seeing as I am a long-standing fan of the Mario series, then don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to the account of Jay from Pre-Rec, whose well-post-NES young son—despite having trouble with the game’s difficulty—is totally enamored of Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight is a game that delivers on its promises beyond all expectations, not merely evoking the action platformers of the past but invigorating that style as a genre unto itself. Where it strays from the older systems’ constraints (such as in technical details, resolutions, extensive save systems, load times, sheer quantity of content by memory, and elsewhere) is invisible to the player during a session, silently providing a better experience than those consoles ever could. What is readily apparent to the player, then, is Shovel Knight‘s fidelity to an era and a way of creating and playing which it does not only recall, but gloriously embodies.
As From a Time Machine: