The technique is a time old tradition in gaming. Multiple background images are layered behind one another and scroll at different speeds to give the illusion of depth. In the 8 and 16-bit era of games, this was almost ubiquitous for what was arguably the most popular genre around: platforming. You don’t see this technique used much these days, at least in the truest sense. 3D graphics and gaming engines allow more detailed and interactive backgrounds to be put behind modern platformers and look great most of the time.
When I first booted up Shovel Knight, from Yacht Club Games, the parallax backgrounds were the first thing to really register with me. They are perfect. Exactly what any 8/16-bit console from decades ago would have shown. The first level of the game uses the background as a set-piece, showcasing a far off castle that your are journeying toward. It was a great opening view for what is one of the most faithful attempts at recreating that 8/16 bit game experiences I’ve come across.
But it was more than just the artwork that accomplishes this. Shovel Knight successfully takes game play elements from a number of classic side-scrollers and melds them into a package that really does well at showcasing what I’d consider modern gaming conventions. Combat is simple: you have two main attacks with your weapon of choice, a sturdy spade shovel. Horizontal swipes are accomplished with the press of a face button, and when jumping you can execute a bounce attack downward. Simple at first, but as you play the game you’ll collect loot that can be spent on upgrades, some of which are put directly into the combat system. Others allow you to upgrade health, armor, and even extra equipment that you use in conjunction with a magic meter. Some of these include magical weapons, fishing poles, and even status restoration items.
When you finish a stage, you’re presented with a Mushroom-Kingdom inspired map that allows you to revisit past conquests, enter safe-area villages for stocking up on goods, and even random encounters between stages. The inspiration is so apparent that I almost thought I was actually playing a Mario game when I first appeared on the map screen. The platforming itself, however, is not exactly on the level of our favorite plumber. It takes quite a bit of skill to navigate some of these stages while still attacking and avoiding being killed. It was very reminiscent of a Mega Man game, with some hints of Duck Tales thrown in for good measure.
I don’t bring up all these other genre staples to imply that Shovel Knight suffering from not being an original idea. Quite the contrary. It takes what is great about these games and refines them to a point where it has successfully raised the bar on how well put together a platformer should be in 2015. Each game play element feels essential. I never allowed myself to miss a loot pickup. I felt the need to destroy everything, be it an enemy or rock that may contain some reward. Boss fights were tough until I fought each one long enough to master a technique for victory. I went back to replay levels for more loot and even was given the opportunity to disable checkpoints for a greater challenge.
In fact, the challenge aspect of the game may be the one thing I’m not entirely sure of yet. It is plenty hard, make no mistake. Newcomers to this sort of experience may find the lack of tutorials or hand holding a bit off-putting, although I’d consider that reality one of the most faithful aspects of the game. Sonic the Hedgehog never gave me a tutorial when i played it 20+ years ago. Neither did Mario, Duck Tails, or Metroid. I was on my own from the start. As you progress through the game you’ll find yourself more skilled and suddenly the challenge takes a backseat to the pursuit of more victories. I didn’t start a run-through of the game’s “new game plus” mode yet, but I hope it really dials up the challenge to Mega Man levels.
As far as presentation goes, the game is humorous almost to a fault. The story revolves around a shovel-wielding knight who seems to be a cross between a character from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Zelda’s Link. The era-appropriate lingo spoken by the characters has a comical feel to it, and each level starts out with what has to be a Die Hard quote amended with puns about gardening. As you move further through the game, you encounter enemies related to the stage’s environment. There are castles, sure, but it then expands to haunted mansions, submarines, and other areas not exactly pulled from Arthurian legends, per-se.
And to really come full circle on a retro-inspired title, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sound design of the game. The noises coming out of my television had me believing that Yacht Club created the sounds and music using the same sort of sound restrictions classic consoles forced on developers. The chip-music was insanely catchy, and the beeps, bloops, and chirps from my battles were right in line with what you’d expect from the era. They emulated the experience perfectly. Some digging after the fact allowed me to discover that a portion of the music composition was done by Manami Matsumae, famed for his work with Mega Man.
While the game did release on Nintendo platforms and PC in June 2014, the PlayStation release in 2015 has some additions worth noting. It is, fantastically, a cross-buy title. Buying it on one Sony platform grants you access on the others, and cross-play is enabled so you can play on one and pick up your progress on another. Additionally, God of War’s Kratos pops up as a special boss battle, which is an awesome bonus crossover.
In a gaming world filled with yearly releases of shooters, sports games, and endless AAA blockbuster repeats, Shovel Knight was a welcome addition to my gaming experience. The traditional side-scrolling platformer, especially one built as if we never left the 8/16-bit era, was a terrifically refreshing break in what seems to be monotony in the AAA gaming space. This is a must play for gamers old and new alike, and a worthy choice for a game that needs to represent the classic style game in a modern space.
Shovel Knight was provided to LevelSave for review purposes and was played on the PlayStation Vita.