Giant Bomb Review


Shovel Knight Review

  • PC
  • WIIU

Many games try to use nostalgia to lure you in, but few of them are as well-made as Shovel Knight.

How I feel about today's shooters is probably how others feel about the deluge of nostalgia-influenced platformers. There are always exceptions to the rule, though. Shovel Knight is one of them, a game that feels as though a historian unearthed a long lost cartridge from the late '80s, as game developers were making the NES perform tricks never thought possible. The debut game from Yacht Club Games feels like an unearthed relic, one I'm happy has been found. Shovel Knight feels both old and new, mining our collective memories for the right reason: making a good video game. And Shovel Knight is a very good video game.

Shovel Knight feels like a game that fell out of a worm hole. In a good way.

Shovel Knight has a story insofar as any of these games have a surface-level justification for what's happening. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight have long protected the realm, but the world is soon corrupted by The Order of No Quarter (which just might be the best name for a group of enemies since...well, forever), lead by The Enchantress. Shovel Knight is separated from Shield Knight, and it's up to Shovel Knight to start digging to victory. In practical terms, this means players are running around as Shovel Knight, and occasionally navigating an overworld map that gives limited agency over which major enemy you'll tackle next.

The problem with many of these kinds of games is they're often unsure which master to serve, and get caught up praying at the altar of the past. Shovel Knight could not exist without the 8-bit classics, sure, but it's not explicitly beholden to its conventions, either. It's a decidedly modern game leveraging gaming's history as a starting point. It's a means to an end, not the end itself. That's where so many of these games get it wrong.

DuckTales and Mega Man fans will feel right at home with Shovel Knight. The character's weapon--yes, a shovel--is used to attack enemies, destroy objects, and bounce on stuff. Most of Shovel Knight's attacks, even when he begins acquiring magical relics in each stage, require him to get very close to obstacles in his path. With rare exceptions, Shovel Knight is incapable of standing on the other side of the screen and slowly clearing a path forward. Being able to pogo stick on top of enemies gives players flexibility in their tactics, allowing them to play a cautious form of offense that provides room to breathe. Understanding the physics of one's shovel-assisted jumps is crucial to finding the game's myriad secrets, as well. Most are hidden behind both marked and unmarked walls that must be destroyed, and others require deviously timed jumps that let you cover great distances, both horizontally and vertically, that would be impossible otherwise.

The secrets are half the fun in Shovel Knight, too. They're everywhere, making every screen more than just a set of hazards to navigate. The secrets often contain plentiful treasure, the currency used to purchase upgrades for Shovel Knight. Both health and mana upgrades are available in limited quantities, in addition to armor with certain bonuses (i.e. dropping less treasure after dying) and new shovel attacks (i.e. shooting a ground-level fireball while at full health). Shovel Knight can acquire a host of magical abilities, as well, which can be purchased by finding a vendor within a level or completing the stage and finding that same vendor back in town. Unlike Mega Man, weapons aren't explicitly linked to bosses, even though stages are themed around the last encounter.

Part of what makes Shovel Knight stand out is what doesn't stand out. The controls feel right. While playing, the character always landed where I wanted him to. The controls are tight, responsive, and do exactly what you want. That may sound simple, but without this, Shovel Knight wouldn't work. We often focus on games that get this wrong, not games that get it right. When it feels right, you don't notice it. That means the developer nailed it. When it doesn't feel right, it's terribly obvious. Super Meat Boy is a fantastic game for many reasons, but Super Meat Boy works because the player feels in control. It's why I've never enjoyed LittleBigPlanet beyond the charming aesthetic and wonderfully curated soundtrack. A sequence of tricky jumps is an entirely worthy task to ask of a player when they can reliably know the coming deaths will be entirely their fault.

Some enemies are small, some enemies are big, and some enemies will take up the whole screen.

It's the little things in this game, too. The delightful idle animations for the world's many characters, an elaborate dance sequence by a giant fish for no reason, the discovery of a hidden boss in a room full of hats, using a fishing rod to find off-screen treasure. These touches extend beyond the caretakers of the game's visuals, too. For example, you can jump higher than what the game is currently showing on the screen at any time. If you're at the top of the screen during a forced scrolling sequence, your head doesn't butt up against an invisible barrier. You can actually leap into the blackness of the UI. It's a small touch, but one that actually proves useful.

That said, there was a cocktail of emotions when the credits rolled on Shovel Knight. I was upset the game had come to an end, since I'm now left waiting for the hopefully inevitable sequel. But I wondered if Shovel Knight played it too safe. One cannot speak of games gone by without acknowledging how brutally difficult they were. If you, like me, were a kid granted one, precious game every few months, you milked those games for all they were worth. One reason that worked was because the games were so god damned hard. (My mom actually called a customer support line to complain after my brother and I finished Turtles in Time in two hours.) The challenge wasn't always earned, and often it was cheap, but you had to legitimately cross the finish line.

That's not the case in Shovel Knight, an especially easy game by classic standards. I died a handful of times, a few spots gave me some real trouble, but I wouldn't call Shovel Knight hard. It's a very accessible platformer for its type, which might come as a disappointment to some. Rather than embrace this facet of its influences, Shovel Knight asks players to accomplish other forms of herculean tasks, such as finishing the game without dying or health upgrades. For some, that will prove a worthy goal to chase, a reason to spend potentially hundreds of hours with Shovel Knight. But not for me. I wanted the game to ask more of me upfront, as I'm far less interested in masochistic challenges (the game's achievements are called "feats") layered on top of the game. Instead, I breezed right through Shovel Knight, and was left wishing the game had pushed me much, much harder.

My questions about the game's difficulty wouldn't matter if were talking about a lesser game, though. I simply wanted to love Shovel Knight even more than I already do. Shovel Knight is an exceptionally well-made action platformer, one worthy of being celebrated far beyond the nostalgic foundation it's built upon. Shovel Knight won't be the last old school game made in the modern age, but it's unlikely many others will be as much fun.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
89 Comments Refresh
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Posted by Snail

This is perhaps more tempting to me than I initially thought it would be.

Posted by arustysumo

I find the difficulty of shovel knight in that sweet spot where you never get too frustrated. I haven't beat it yet so I don't know if there's a new game+ that gets a little bit more difficult but that would definitely be a nice addition.

Edited by Graham_Nix

Thanks for the review Pat! I have no nostalgia for the era of games Shovel Knight calls back to (I started gaming late, with the retro classic known in the west as 'Halo 3'), so this'll help me decide wether or not I want to purchase this game.

Posted by MooseyMcMan

This game does look pretty cool! But as someone without a Wii U, 3DS, or a PC that can handle video games, I can't play it.

Posted by Dalai

I'll be trying it out tonight. This looks like my kind of game.

Edited by Hassun

You can see a lot went into making this game. Good fun for a sweet price.

Maybe an update or an expansion could provide some extra challenge.

@patrickklepek Not sure I understand this part:

With rare exceptions, Shovel Knight is incapable of standing on the other side of the screen and slowly clearing a path forward

Posted by digitaldiatribe

@patrickklepek I feel the excellent music was not represented in this review. Otherwise all good writing!

Edited by Fobwashed

I got the achievement that told me I'm halfway thru and so far, I'm really enjoying this one. Patrick's review seems pretty dead on. Also, the art in this game is goddamn phenomenal. I couldn't help myself and I drew a quick doodle in sorta its style =P

Klip Klop

Posted by Zeeman155

Glad to know this game is so much more than it promised, which honestly would have been enough. As long as it controls tightly and its aesthetic compliments its designed, then who cares if it's another pixel-art side-scrolling action game. Let's celebrate that one so masterfully made has graced us.

Edited by Mr_Creeper
Posted by garbagewrappedinskin

Arguing about review scores is pretty much the dumbest thing around, but this gushing review sure reads a lot more positive than other 4-star reviews on the site.

So hey Patrick! Does a game have to be total garbage like Shank 1 for you to give it 5 stars :P

Edited by mlarrabee

Shovel Knight, more like Shovel-WARE! Awwww!

(I know nothing of this game.)

Posted by Brackynews
Posted by Video_Game_King

Klip Klop

You do know what that means in the furry community, right?

Posted by UnoGenius

Wasn't planning on getting this, but after the QL, (and this review) I really need this in my life.

Posted by ErinIsADrunk

Fucking Klepek. Once again pushing the SJW (Shovel Justice Warrior for the uninitiated) movement's agenda. When will it end?

I've been enjoying the heck out of Shovel Knight. I had the day off work and I sat down in front of the TV for hours and just started plowing through the game and trying to find every secret I could. Shouts of agony may have been involved too.

Shovel Knight does a great job of capturing nostalgia as I remember not how it actually was, which is really impressive and makes for just an excellent game. The feel of a game from 20 years ago with a lot of the sensibilities of today.

Cannot wait to finish it on the weekend.

Posted by Anwar

A review once a month? Okay then.

Posted by Veektarius

As someone who was never very good at Mario and never owned a Megaman game or a Castlevania game before Symphony of the Night, I just don't have the fondness for this style of art/gameplay that makes this seem like a tempting proposition. Doesn't look bad, just looks like it's trying to be something to my memory that it can't be.

Posted by Seeric

@patrickklepek This review is very accurate for Shovel Knight, but I feel there might be a bit too much nostalgia for the 'difficulty' of older games here. Namely, while I love older games (I certainly would not have purchased Shovel Knight if I didn't), I have to wonder how 'difficult' many of them would actually be with Shovel Knight's more modern checkpointing. Games like the original Mega Man games aren't particularly difficult, but there is a larger sense of risk from the fact that they only tend to have two checkpoints per level and your lives are limited per continue; shorter games like Contra likewise up the ante a bit more by adding limited continues on top of limited lives. While there is, of course, Battle Toads and Ninja Gaiden, there is also Kirby's Adventure and Mega Man 6.

I do admit that I would have loved it if there had been some brutally hard optional stages tossed into the mix, but the many secret areas scattered throughout the stages at least tend to be tricky and I think Shovel Knight's difficulty, while certainly not even close to that of Super Meat Boy, would actually be about on-par with many classic action platformers if its checkpoint frequency was adjusted to be about the same (something which the player can, in fact, do by choosing to destroy checkpoints for rewards - a concept which is a very modern take on giving the player flexible control over game difficulty).

On another note, I found some grammatical errors in the review which I'll mention here: "The problem with many these kinds of games" needs an 'of' after 'many', in "Rather this embrace this facet" the first 'this' should be a 'than', and in "Shovel Knight can acquire a host of magical abilities, as well, which" that first comma seems odd (i.e. I think it should read as '...magical abilities as well, which...') though I could be wrong on this last one.

Edited by ripelivejam
Posted by csl316

Interesting, this seemed like a 5 star review based on this site's reaction. Nevertheless, just downloaded it and I'm very ready to go.

(If you want a difficult but still amazing action-platformer, play Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures!)

Posted by Slag

so 4 stars instead of 5, because too easy?

Posted by RuthLoose

@anwar said:

A review once a month? Okay then.

Alex is a tad bit busy these days.

Posted by rcath


Posted by Deusx

I'm really not sure which platform to buy this one. PC or 3DS? What do you guys say?

Posted by jaks

So you're scoring your essays now?

Edited by Shaanyboi

I am really not interested in a game with Patrick's definition of 'classic difficulty'. In my opinion, the game was as hard as it needed to be without being an obnoxious pain in the ass.

Posted by kindnivore

I really hope this comes out for Xbox One/PS4 at some point. Don't own a WiiU, and I'm rarely around my computer long enough to play a game.

Edited by Efesell

I find that 'classic difficulty' is the part where this would have all hit a brick wall with the nostalgia, since to me all of that was based more about bad game design, and I don't want any more games intentionally repeating those mistakes to try and capture that.

Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

I might have to check this out.

Posted by ViciousBearMauling

This is the best game I've played this year. It's fucking radical.

Posted by Hailinel

I wouldn't say that the game played it too safe with the difficulty. Games were as they were back then because of short length overall and poor design. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soaked up hours and hours of my time, but not because it was actually a good game. It's terrible, with challenges that were unfairly designed and could not be considered reasonable.

Shovel Knight has all of the good feelings of the old NES days in terms of its presentation and a number of its design aspects, but it's modern where it counts.

Posted by Counterclockwork87

This game does look pretty cool! But as someone without a Wii U, 3DS, or a PC that can handle video games, I can't play it.

What kind of PC do you have?? I feel like this game could run on almost anything.

Posted by Yummylee

Sounds to me that all of Patrick's time playing Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, and 1001 Spikes has spoiled him a little ;P He needs to get himself that masocore fix, and Shovel Knight evidently didn't deliver on that front, ha.

Posted by Kain55

I'm liking the game quite a bit so far, but I have to say that the controls feel a bit floaty to me. Jumping doesn't feel quite as precise as I'd like, and the weird momentum and weight of the character tend to throw me off a bit. However, beyond that the game is super fun. I'm interested to see what the rest of the game looks like.

Posted by byterunner

Okay I'm not one to get up and make a big deal about a score, but I predicted a 5 Star Review from the reactions of both Jeff, Alex, and Patrick during the early morning show and Quick Look. And from reading the review the only criticism I can find is that the game didn't have as much up front difficulty that you (Patrick) wish for.

If that is the reason for the 4 Star Review, than personally I think that it is a weak point to harp over. But your opinion is still all valid and I understand. I just want clarity that was what the reason for it was.

Posted by Ravelle

If only it would unlock on the Wii U, it's still not listed on the EU eShop.

Posted by Skrams

Unless I missed it, the only gripe I have with the game so far is it's use of losing money upon death. It's trying to be Dark Souls where you can reacquire your money, but Dark Souls puts your souls a few seconds back before death. Here it's just your money springs up from where you died. So if you fall into a bottomless pit sometimes your money will decide to just hover near the bottom. Sometimes it'll get caught under blocks and not raise all the way back up. I might be dumb, but I don't see any way to acquire it back without giving up my life for it again. It would of been neat if I could use my secondary abilities to hit the bags and reacquire it, but it seems like you can't. You can use your shovels attack to reacquire, but not secondary stuff so it's a bit of a bummer. It's not a big deal overall, but it feels like they just went for the Dark Souls idea without really perfecting it.

Posted by Fobwashed

@fobwashed said:

Klip Klop

You do know what that means in the furry community, right?

I'm not gonna google it...

Posted by MooseyMcMan

@mooseymcman said:

This game does look pretty cool! But as someone without a Wii U, 3DS, or a PC that can handle video games, I can't play it.

What kind of PC do you have?? I feel like this game could run on almost anything.

It can't run Hotline Miami at anything resembling a smooth framerate, so I'm going to say probably not.

Posted by AMyggen

This game looks really great. Shame about the difficulty though, I would've liked it to have some more challenge. Still, love the look of the game and it's good to hear that it plays well. Need to grab this on Steam ASAP.

Posted by Lausebub

@counterclockwork87 said:

@mooseymcman said:

This game does look pretty cool! But as someone without a Wii U, 3DS, or a PC that can handle video games, I can't play it.

What kind of PC do you have?? I feel like this game could run on almost anything.

It can't run Hotline Miami at anything resembling a smooth framerate, so I'm going to say probably not.

I feel like Shovel Knight will be big enough of a success that we may see a PS4/Xbox One/Vita version by the end of the year or early next year.

Posted by probablytuna

Definitely keen on buying it on the 3DS.

Posted by pinner458

Damn, I just bought Shovel Knight a couple of hours ago and played the first stage and walked through the town. The first level was easy, of course, but to hear that the whole game isn't that challenging is disappointing. Wish I had seen Patricks review beforehand.

Posted by Wolf3

Thanks for the review Patrick! I always love when you guys take the time to review more obscure games.

I had stuck it on my "wishlist" on GOG since $15 seemed a little pricy when I knew nothing about it, but after reading your review I just bought it. I, and the developers thank you :)

Posted by softshoes

I got the achievement that told me I'm halfway thru and so far, I'm really enjoying this one. Patrick's review seems pretty dead on. Also, the art in this game is goddamn phenomenal. I couldn't help myself and I drew a quick doodle in sorta its style =P

Klip Klop

Bob Ross was a centaur?

Posted by Sammann31415

Go buy this game. Don't worry about the difficulty - play it just so you can experience the soundtrack in its natural habitat. For the love of god, the bosses all have their own themes! Virt knocked it out of the park, as did Matsumae.

I do get the need for difficulty, believe me - but I have that in spades with 1001 Spikes and Nuclear Throne at the moment. I'm just playing through this and marveling at the sight and sound of it all.

Posted by Brendan

Too bad this game is a little too easy, that tends produce boredom in me after a few hours. Still looks neat!

Posted by mrsmiley

@ravelle said:

If only it would unlock on the Wii U, it's still not listed on the EU eShop.

I bought it on my WiiU late yesterday afternoon... maybe it's regional? I'm in the US.

Anyways, this game is absolutely fantastic. The "secret hat boss" Patrick mentioned was just one surprise in a game that's chock-full of them. Some of them are funny, some are challenging, some are simply bizarre, but they're all welcome. As for the difficulty level, I think Patrick may have played too much 1001 spikes before playing Shovel Knight. Sure, it's not as difficult as that game or Super Meat Boy, but I think that's a good thing. I ended up never beating SMB after dying hundreds (maybe even thousands?) of times on one of the last couple levels. This game is absolutely challenging, but it's a game where you can figure out what you're doing wrong, and do something different. In SMB, due to the looseness of the controls, it was easy to die without necessarily doing anything "wrong". In this game, the controls are so tight that, when you die, you know it's your fault. There is very little "WTF GAME!!" coming from me when I play Shovel Knight, and that is greatly appreciated. This is compared to my time playing DKC: Tropical Freeze, which is filled with "WTF" moments where the game simply breaks.

So yeah, I think it's plenty difficult, it's just not difficult in a cheap or glitchy way. If you are a skilled player that is great at games like this (Mega Man, Castlevania, etc), then you'll get through this easier than someone who is more of a casual platform game player. It's not because the game isn't difficult, it's because you're good enough to the point where a game isn't super difficult until it's REALLY difficult. :) Either way great review! Anyone considering this game should absolutely pick it up!

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