Shovel Knight began life as a Kickstarter project by a group of developers who wanted to create a game that hearkened back to the glory days of the NES. It went on to release on PC, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS to great critical acclaim and recently saw a release on Sony’s PlayStation platforms. Now is the time of the Xbox One release, and it certainly does not disappoint.
The first thing you will notice when you load up the game is that it is a very faithful take on games from the 8-bit era. The visuals use pretty much the same color palette and keep the style of NES games. The music and sound effects are also both in keeping with what you would expect. Both have been given some upgrades though, in the form of widescreen resolution, HD graphics and polished audio that wouldn’t be possible 25 years ago. Shovel Knight also manages to look great despite the old school style, with beautiful scenery and a great diversity in the areas you will explore.
Shovel Knight is well named thanks to his affinity with the digging device that he carries with him throughout the adventure. It acts as both a weapon to defeat enemies, a tool to get around the levels and a way to unlock secrets. It’s a unique take on a platformer and the mechanic provides plenty of opportunity to engage the player by providing a new and interesting way to tackle challenges. Bosses and minions can be killed through swinging your shovel like a sword or by jumping on them using a digging action while also using it to dig up buried treasure and break down walls to secret locations. It’s ultimately fun and engaging, setting apart Shovel Knight from other platformers currently available.
The game also combines elements from a wide range of retro games, including the aforementioned DuckTales as well as Super Mario World, Mega Man, Metroid and Castlevania. You have the hub world that reminds you of Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 as well as other aspects such as the line of bosses and the backtracking to find new areas and unlockable areas paying homage to the likes of Castlevania.
Perhaps the best thing about Shovel Knight is the assortment of enemies. You will come across a large variety of different foes to fight while traversing through each section and each provides different challenges and fights. Some can be easily killed with any hit and others will need to be fought with careful planning due to their ability to block and fight back.
The bosses in particular are well designed and are all entirely distinct. They roughly follow the same kind of pattern but every member of The Order of No Quarter has their own unique look and fighting style that makes battling them feel like you are taking on unique personalities.
The wide range of additional weapons and power-ups also mean that there is plenty of variety to be had in exactly how to fight the enemies you’ll come across. The shovel will remain your min weapon throughout, but things such as fireballs, magic balls and heavy anchors can also be used to despatch your foes. Special abilities also mix up the action, with some allowing you to become invulnerable for a very short time or get extra gold from defeating enemies.
Many of these special abilities and tools will become essential later on in the game when there are some exceptionally tricky platforming sections to overcome. Although the vast majority of sections can be completed with just the base equipment, having the power-ups can make things that much easier. Your shovel bouncing ability also rises in prominence as you approach the conclusion, meaning you need to employ careful timing and precision controls to overcome obstacles.
All of this adds to an incredibly unforgiving game that will definitely provide you with more of a challenge than most platformers. Travelling across the excellently designed levels can be very hard on its own but the enemies and bosses in particular will provide a challenge that few modern games can. Shovel Knight offers a good balance though by treading the fine line between being difficult and being frustrating. Like Super Meat Boy, you will only very occasionally blame the game itself for your failure rather than you.
The standout feature for Shovel Knight on the Xbox One is the encounter with the Battletoads. The PlayStation version got exclusive access to Kratos from the God of War series as an added extra while Microsoft allowed the developer to include the characters from Rare’s classic game series. The battle itself is far more involved than the Kratos fight and lasts for around 10 minutes, while it also gives access to new armor and abilities. We won’t spoil the battle with them here, though if you want to see how to unlock them and what the encounter involves check out our guide.
Even though platforming adventures from the days of the NES rarely bothered with including a gripping story, instead focusing on the gameplay elements, Shovel Knight does a good job of investing you in the world and your quest. The person you are trying to rescue interest is not some token princess that acts simply as a love interest but is rather an equal to you. Near the end of the game if becomes clear just how vital the Shield Knight is to the protagonist.
One of the main gripes with the game is that you are generally punished very heavily for dying even though you don’t ever lose a life. Instead, a portion of your collected gold is left to hover over where you drew your last breath waiting for you to collect it on your next go in the same style as Dark Souls does with souls. This wouldn’t be a problem if the hovering gold moved to the nearest safe piece of land like in Dark Souls but it tends to stay exactly in the location you died, often making it impossible to gather without dying again.
Other areas of complaint include the sometimes slow and clumsy controls, especially evident when you try to jump from a ladder, that can occasionally hinder gameplay. Platformers require precise movement and control but Shovel Knight seems to fall down in this department a few times. Spikes being instant deaths, when enemies can hammer you with giant weapons and do minimal damage, also seems weird and causes many of the problems with collecting gold as outlined above.
If you own the game on other platforms then there is very little that would compel you to buy this version other than the Battletoads encounter. It is also difficult to recommend the Xbox One version in the face of the cross-play functionality that comes with the PlayStation edition. But if you only have access to an Xbox One then that shouldn’t deter you from picking up Shovel Knight.
Ultimately, Shovel Knight is one of the best platforming games to come out in recent times. It terms of 2D versions of the genre, it is rivalled only by the likes of Cave Story, Super Meat Boy and some of Nintendo’s recent efforts. A devilishly challenging experience, it manages to bring the best of the NES era onto the latest consoles while also embracing some elements of recent gaming to allow it to compete effectively in the market. If you love platformers or were in love with the likes of Mega Man and Super Mario then this is a title you will have to add to your library.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided by Yacht Club Games using a code on the Xbox One.