Shovel Knight is one of the finest video game success stories of modern times. When a few employees left WayForward to start their very own indie studio, they took to Kickstarter to pitch their first project to the masses and round up the proper funding. That project, of course, was Shovel Knight. The campaign was a massive success and development for Nintendo Wii U, 3DS and Steam continued forward. When the game released in June of 2014, it was met with unanimous critical acclaim and impressive sales numbers. Now, nearly a year since then, the eponymous Shovel Knight has thrust his digging tool into the Xbox One Games Store – and he's even brought the long-dormant Battletoads with him. If word of mouth hasn't reached you by now, you should know that his journey is an amazing one.
Clearly inspired by classic 8-bit side-scrollers like Mega Man, Castlevania and DuckTales, Shovel Knight presents a gigantic dose of nostalgia to those of us that vividly recall when the Nintendo Entertainment System ruled the living room. But there's a big difference between subtly paying tribute to your childhood favorites and practically plagiarizing them, and developer Yacht Club Games has done just about everything right to ensure that its first game stands out as a creation of its own. For starters, instead of limiting the game's potential by strictly working within an entirely authentic 8-bit frame, liberties have been taken to allow a bit more visual detail, higher audio quality, and better control fluidity than you'd get from an NES experience. This is all done in tasteful and justifiable ways, and we don't even suspect that retro purists would draw issue with these decisions considering this still feels like an honest, soulful throwback.
While it's entirely nonessential for a retro game of this kind to have a rich story, Shovel Knight mixes a simple premise with emotional weight and invests players in the plight of its hero. As Shovel Knight, you're on a quest to rescue his beloved Shield Knight and stop the evil Enchantress and her loyal Order of No Quarter from ruling the land. Never does the story get in the way of the gameplay, as most of the dialog occurs before boss battles or when visiting the towns full of chatty and humorous NPCs. It's a medieval world driven by fantasy, one that's clearly been carefully thought out, and it doesn't come anywhere near overstaying its welcome by the end of the six hour runtime.
Traveling across an overworld map that's similar to the one in Super Mario Bros. 3, it's not just about venturing from level to level; there are also wandering bosses to fight, cities to visit, and mini challenge stages to survive. There's a sense of adventure here that's not always at the center of modern platformers, and it goes a long way to make the game feel layered and deep. The main levels are linear, but each is ripe with secret areas and rewards for taking the most dangerous and tricky routes. If you want even more jewels and riches, checkpoints can be sacrificed in lieu of them, but it means that dying will set you back further than it normally would have. Considering Shovel Knight is no easy game, this seriously ups the ante and embraces the “what the heck is a checkpoint?" nature of games from the '80s and '90s.
The level design itself is brilliant, with the stages based around memorable themes and coordinating gameplay elements that remain diverse and surprising from screen to screen. Certain environments employ tactics that can be a little bit annoying – like a ghostly graveyard that fades to darkness, making it tough to see platforms and enemies for brief periods of time – but this is more of a matter of preference than it is poor design. Other than that, this is a smooth journey where everything feels calculated and obsessed over. Each level introduces you to new weapons and items and demonstrates their use through intelligent stage design as opposed to on-screen text or annoying, immersion-breaking tutorials. The first level in particular is one of the finest introductions to a game's mechanics we've ever seen, and every one after it effectively continues the trend up the final battle against the Enchantress.
The smorgasbord of secondary weapons that can be acquired and used in any scenario enrich the gameplay massively, and they leave plenty of room for speed-runners to experiment and find ways to cut minutes or seconds off their best times. Because you can only equip one of these at a time, there's a lot of jumping in and out of a menu to make changes, sometimes just seconds after you've already done so. This can kind of be a pain in the butt at first, but you'll likely be doing it at a blistering pace after a few levels, so it's only a minor inconvenience, really. From scepters that shoot projectiles, to gloves that allow you to punch through dirt and rock, there's a lot of variety on the table, all of which has a meaningful use at some point. Did we mention that Shovel Knight can thrust his mighty shovel downward, bouncing off his enemies and other things in the environment, just like Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales? He can, and it makes for some pretty tricky – and thrilling – platforming during the later levels.
Earning your way to the end of each stage will present you with a boss battle against a member of The Order of No Quarter, and even though each of these duels is pattern-based, they're still dynamic, testing both your mettle and the skills you've learned up to that point. Whether Mole Knight is burrowing in and out of the ground, or King Knight is showering the screen with razor-sharp confetti, Yacht Club has done a fantastic job ensuring each boss possesses a distinct presence in the way they act and look. This was clearly inspired by the Mega Man series, and many of the encounters even stand up to those between the Blue Bomber and his most unforgettable foes, which have had over 20 years to build a reputation. That's impressive.
Speaking of history, a lot of you are probably wondering about the Xbox-exclusive appearance of the Battletoads. We don't want to spoil anything, but we will say that it's authentic to the source material, "warts" and all. This is no thoughtless fluff shoehorned in simply for attention and sales; it's a loving homage to a series that's been dormant for far too long. We played through the Battletoads level with a smile on our face and painful feelings from the early '90s rushing back to us (checkpoints… thank god for checkpoints). We were slightly concerned that these two franchises would clash in an awkward way, but we were impressed by how well Yacht Club has blended them together.
From the gorgeous sprite visuals that feature parallax-scrolling backgrounds worthy of space on a postcard, to the pumping chiptune soundtrack that houses at least a handful of songs infectious enough to stick with you for days (maybe weeks), Shovel Knight truly has it all; it's a powerhouse of excellent game design, nostalgia, and, most importantly, fun. If you have any interest in adventure platformers, even if you have no connection to the 8-bit era, this is one game you must play. Yacht Club Games haven't just crafted a shining example of what indie studios are capable of, they've birthed something that has the potential to become a respected series or franchise, living and growing for a long time to come. So with that said, bring on Super Shovel Knight!
Shovel Knight is magnificent, and even though it's technically less than a year old, it already feels like a classic. Those of us that fondly recall the days of the NES will appreciate it the most, but the truth is, this is a game that should appeal to anyone looking for an adventurous side-scroller with loads of charm. The return of the Battletoads is just icing on an already immensely rich and satisfying cake. Simply put, you need to play this game.