Introducing Shovel Knight, a retro platformer with character in spades.

I bet I surprised you with my super original title. I bet nobody talking about Shovel Knight has ever made that joke before /s

Now that the obligatory shovel puns are out of the way, let’s get serious for a second.

Shovel Knight is an action-platformer that takes us back to a simpler time when summers were warm, it snowed at Christmas and heroes always triumphed over villains; a time when videogames were all about rotting away your brain, not making socio-political statements and, urgh, improving oneself *shudder*

That’s right, we’re going retro, baby.

Simple, timeless gameplay inspired by the golden oldies...

A little bit of Mega Man, a dash of Kirby, a generous glug of Duck Tales and a sprinkle of Ninja Gaiden for maximum flavour. What do you get? A scrumptiously simplistic side-scroller that never pretends to be something it’s not. Shovel Knight is a good ol’ fashioned platforming game about beating fools over the head with your oversized shovel.

You play as a brave and shovelrous knight on a quest to save his partner, Shield Knight, from the clutches of the wicked Enchantress – a very basic (or timeless, depending on your outlook) story. Although the game is mostly linear, with 8 stages to complete not including the Tower of Fate, it does offer you some choice as to which order to approach these stages in.

As you move through the stages, there are all kinds of hidden chests and secret rooms to discover; they contain treasure that you can use to buy health or mana upgrades, or magical relics which can be ridiculously useful in some of the more difficult stages.

Each time you die, you’ll drop some gold, but similarly to the Dark Souls franchise, you can recover your lost gold if you can make it back to the place you died without also dying along the way. Once you die a second time without collecting your dropped gold, you’ll drop even more gold and the original lost gold will be gone forever. A piece of advice: sometimes, it’s better to cut your loses and move on if your dropped gold is in a difficult to reach location.

…but maybe some game mechanics should have stayed in the past.

“Look then upon the countless faces of your demise” – Grommash Hellscream.

“You know what I love? Knockback” said no person, ever.

Shovel Knight is not a difficult game – in fact, I can think of only a couple of stages that I wasn’t able to complete in a one sitting – but there are some spawny enemies that take advantage of cheap mechanics and make certain areas far more annoying than they needed to be. The knockback mechanic gives me flashbacks to the NES Castlevania games – if you know, you know – and the Hover Meanie (fitting name) enemies in the Flying Machine area can absolutely do one.

These shenanigans were common in retro games, but the decision to port these over into the modern day is a questionable one. In my opinion, platformers should be about the timing and accuracy of your jumps, not avoiding enemies that deliberately knock you off your platform. Thankfully, magical relics can make everything much, much easier, so buy them as soon as they become available.

Music and sound slaps you across the face like a nostalgic knuckle sandwich.

Just looking at Shovel Knight is like stepping into a time machine – the graphics and sound design capture the optimism and naivety of the retro style perfectly.

Sure, it might be a bit rough around the edges; I’m sure to younger audiences, the low-res 8-bit graphical style might seem quite jarring and disorganised especially when compared to the smooth, buttery finish of modern day pixel graphics. In the modern day, “8-bit” has become synonymous with “pixelated” but I can assure you that they’re not the same thing. Proper “8-bit” graphics have a uniquely abstract quality, with minimalistic textures and bright, high-contrast colours.

The same can be said for the soundtrack, which is composed entirely of synths and pitched white-noise, which was just how chiptune was made way back in the day. Before the 90s, the technology simply wasn’t there to make the elegant orchestral or acoustic soundtracks we’re used to today – developers had to make the best of the synthesisers and white noise machines they had. That didn’t stop them from mixing some sick, thick beats though. Shovel Knight’s music is jazzy, dynamic and mixed to perfection.

4 games for the price of 1

Shovel Knight Treasure Trove for the Switch comes with the original campaign, Shovel of Hope, and 3 expansions. Each is a self-contained single-player campaign of a roughly equal length to the main game. Really, they are all games in their own right, and each takes the series in a slightly different direction.

Spectre of Torment reminds me of the Ninja Gaiden games on NES (though thankfully nowhere near as difficult). The gameplay emphasises manoeuvrability and parkour instead of pure platforming – you’ll be wall jumping, jump slashing and somersaulting your way through the same 8 stages, but this time you play as the bad guy, Spectre Knight. Spectre of Torment is a prequel to Shovel of Hope with a moodier, more adult story – it’s also a bit easier than Shovel of Hope due to your greatly increased agility and opportunities to avoid one-hit deaths.

Straight edge.
I feel him mocking me behind that mask.

I wish I could say the same about the alternative campaign, Plague of Shadows, which was so difficult I couldn’t even finish the starting stage. Plague Knight has even less manoeuvrability than Shovel Knight, seemingly being unable to jump more than a few inches in the air, which is a bit of a problem in a platformer. Plague Knight relies on launching himself through the air with bombs, but I couldn’t for the life of me get my head around the controls. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

King of Cards doubles as both a platformer and a card-game called Joustus, which is Shovel Knight’s equivalent of Gwent from the Witcher III. Don’t worry if card games aren’t your thing – Joustus games are completely optional and King of Cards is still a platformer first and foremost.

Retro games are timeless, so why did we stop making them?

It seems like the world today is full of people trying to go back to the past – from the rise of the popular music genre ‘synthwave’ to the prevalence of modern-retro videogames all trying to recapture that cozy, nostalgic feeling of going back to a simpler time.

Even though I wasn’t alive in the 80s (or even the 90s) there’s still something absolutely timeless about the retro style. I think, in some ways, game developers today have a tendency to over complicate videogames, which has caused them to lose the simplicity and sincerity that make retro games so charming. Perhaps this is because, as a medium, we’ve had to fight really hard to be accepted as a legitimate art form; perhaps, we’ve convinced ourselves that videogames MUST have an overarching theme or moral lesson in order to be considered “proper art” and fit in with Hollywood philanthropists. Something to think about.

And while we think about it, we can look forward to Shovel Knight Dig which should be released sometime this year.

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