Mega Man and Castlevania are arguably two of the best gaming franchises of all time. Shovel Knight from Yacht Club Games takes everything you love about these two famous universes, adds some original flair, and digs a special place into your heart.
Shovel Knight was officially announced alongside its kickstarter campaign way back in March of 2013. It quickly blew past the original goal of $75,000 and ended up bringing in over $300,000 from eager fans. Many people, myself included, were immediately sold on the concept and couldn’t wait to get playing. The studio originally scheduled the game’s release for September of 2013, but unfortunately several delays ended up pushing the launch date back to June 26th, 2014. Delays are always disappointing, but in the case of this remarkable retro platformer, the anticipation only made my time with the game that much sweeter.
In a time long ago, brave warriors wandered the land and vanquished the forces of evil. One dynamic duo wielding rather unconventional weapons conquered unspeakable foes together, but a great dark power tragically split the pair and corrupted many once heroic knights. Our hero, Shovel Knight, must use his ShovelBlade of justice to fight through hordes of terrible minions and defeat the wicked enchantress to save his love, Shield Knight.
The charming story does a fantastic job of carrying the game along without forcing any heavy-handed narrative. The fairy tale-esque adventure provides a few solid plot twists to keep things interesting and even manages to tug on the ol’ heart strings a little bit. You’re the brave hero doing everything in your power to save the woman you love. While this may be familiar territory when it comes to retro plot lines, it’s incredibly relatable and remarkably effective.
The stages in Shovel Knight borrow heavily from classic Mega Man in an incredibly satisfying way. Each stage serves as the lair for the various boss knights who’ve been compromised by the Enchantress’ dark magic. Every stage and every enemy knight delivers a unique and exciting challenge. The dark and mysterious Spectre Knight resides in a spooky palace far beyond a terrifying graveyard and wields an enormous scythe, while the seemingly small and weak Tinker Knight finds his home in a mechanical factory and uses enormous machinery to battle his foes. The variety in enemies and platforming challenges remains fresh and exciting in each new area.
Conquering the various boss knights unfortunately doesn’t automatically unlock new powers or upgrades for our shovel toting hero in blue. Instead, special vendors are hidden throughout these stages and sell Castlevania style sub-weapons that can be equipped in a very Legend of Zelda sort of way using the Wii U GamePad. If you miss the opportunity to purchase the item in the stage, the same vendor will make all unlocked items available in town at a higher price, but typically these items make uncovering the secrets of the stage and defeating the boss knight drastically easier. Some of my favorite sub-weapons included a rapier with the ability to send me flying across the screen like an arrow, and a pair of golden fists that turned me into a block-bashing Mike Tyson.
Acquiring and, more importantly, retaining your gold plays a huge role in character progression. Stages basically have a set amount of treasure available to discover from uncovering secret rooms, destroying enemies, and unlocking treasure chests. If you defeat an enemy and it drops a gem, it will never do so again. Every time you die or enter a new room, enemies will respawn, but they only drop treasure once. There is also no option to replay stages you’ve already completed in attempts to find treasure or secrets you may have missed. This makes grinding for loot basically impossible. Your skill and precision will ultimately determine how upgraded your character will be before the final boss stage. There is a New Game+ mode available after completing the main story that will give you the option to replay these stages and carry over your existing gear and upgrades, however.
Accepting death will quickly become a natural part of playing Shovel Knight. In a very retro fashion, knockbacks will be your greatest enemy. The smallest nudge from a skeleton or propeller rat will send you falling into the deadly abyss if you’re not careful. Instead of losing a traditional life upon falling in battle, the game punishes you in a much more sinister way. After dying, a rather large percentage of your collected gold is sacrificed. You have the opportunity to return to the spot where you died and reclaim your bounty, but if you meet a tragic end before your treasure is reclaimed, it’s gone forever. Fans of Dark Souls or Demons’ Souls will be all too familiar with this style of high risk gameplay.
The threat of imminent death may be a constant stress, but this is greatly alleviated by razor-sharp controls and impressive combat. Navigating the intimidating platforming sections always felt natural and not once did I find myself falling from a ledge due to inadequacies in the way the game controls. Tight movement, beautifully paired with precise combat, made defeating seemingly impossible bosses almost easy. I was always able to get the upper hand in one way or another.
The air-tight controls, beautiful environments, and rewarding gameplay are accompanied by one of the best retro soundtracks of all time. Just like Mega Man, each and every stage includes its very own theme song. Every track in the game can also be discovered as a collectable and then played at any time by an in-game bard. I was thoroughly impressed by the consistent quality of music throughout the game. The music perfectly captures the spirit of the stages and delivers some of the most memorable tracks I’ve heard in a very long time.
Shovel Knight is an absolute triumph. It succeeds on basically every level. This is the first game I’ve played on my Wii U until the GamePad died in my hands, and that happened twice. This is a must-have title for any fan of retro platformers and easily one of the best games released this year. The overwhelming amount of care and charm crammed into this 5 to 7 hour experience is nothing short of incredible. Yacht Club Games accomplished a rare feat and delivered a title that genuinely lives up to the hype.
Recommended for fans of: Mega Man, Castlevania, Retro Platformers, and Challenging Gameplay.
This review is based on the Wii U version of the game. Shovel Knight is also available for the 3DS and is scheduled to release on PC as well. If we notice any significant differences between the versions, we will update our review accordingly, but for now consider this our official review.
Miles Dompier is the chief editor and founder of What’s Your Tag?. He is a Seattle native who recently moved to the sweltering heat of Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a composer/voice actor. When he’s not up writing until his eyes bleed, he likes to play a Prince level of instruments and listen to terrible death metal. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter and be sure to join our gaming community; TEAM XBRO.