One of the latest Kickstarter success stories to see the light of day is Yacht Club Games‘ Shovel Knight. What Kickstarter does best is show us what the market can look like. The runaway success stories have been the projects that reflect what fans want, which often seem at odds with what publishing houses would be willing to risk money on. Asking a meager $75,000, the project reeled in an impressive $311,502 at the end of the funding period in April 2013. Although Shovel Knight would have likely seen the light of day regardless of funding, it stands as an example of Kickstarter projects providing experiences to a market less catered to by triple-A titles.
The best recent examples would be the Mega Man sequels (9 and 10 specifically) which offered a true return to the 8-bit era, perfectly emulating the controls and palette of their predecessors. Although Shovel Knight uses modern techniques behind the scenes, it stays true to the 8-bit colours and simple sprite animations. The controls are tight and the enemies follow patterns requiring some memorisation to land a hit. Our hero, the titular Shovel Knight, even recoils with the same flickering jolt of the NES era (often into dastardly pits) but thankfully only has to pay a small tax to wake up again at the nearest lamp-shaped checkpoint. Using a Super Mario World style map system, the levels can be revisited once each boss has been cleared to claim any secrets or items missed on the first run through.
The Knight’s main weapon remains the same throughout the game. His shovel can be used to whack baddies, dig for treasure, jump on enemies pogo-style, or to deflect projectiles. As you progress, shops in villages as well as magical inhabitants hiding in levels will offer upgrades to health, magic, spells, armour effects, as well as selling single-use items to be carried in chalices, such as momentary invulnerability. Each upgrade gives a much-needed confidence boost as the difficulty can ramp up fairly quickly. It never reaches the learning curve of those NES games it holds as inspiration (thankfully) but will certainly offer a challenge to all but the most hardened Mega Man pro. The light RPG elements offer enough variety to elevate it above some of the other (still excellent) NES-style titles of late (Oniken, for example) if twitch platforming alone won’t hold your interest.
The story is told in classic “cut scene” style, but much like the Mario games, is just flavour to surround some excellent platforming. Instead of a princess, our hero has lost his buddy, Shield Knight. To contrast with the pint-sized Shovel Knight, she stands at nearly twice his height, carrying a giant (you guessed it) shield. Lamenting the loss of his companion, he spirals into depression, allowing The Enchantress to mess around with the kingdom. It’s up to Shovel Knight to come out of retirement to save the people (and fish, frog, horse, peacock and deer-people). The developers have included plenty of gags and funny visuals (troupples are trout shaped like apples, in case you were wondering) to keep the player chuckling in between levels. The levels play out like extended Mega Man stages, with the usual staple of sub-bosses, auto-scrolling section and secret passages, ending in a boss fight with one of the Knights (Plague Knight, anyone? No? How about Propeller Knight?).
The main differences between the versions relate to the extra screens on the Wii U and the 3DS, which are used for swapping magic items on the fly. In the PC version the same can be accessed from the inventory menu. The 3D in the 3DS version is apparently adequate (I’m assured) but I’m having a great time with the PC version and a wireless controller. For added authenticity, the developers have included extensive controller support so you can play the way you want, whether that’s with a mouse and keyboard or an original NES controller (with adapter of course).
With Shovel Knight you know what you’re getting. Everything runs as it should. It’s responsive. It’s challenging. It looks the part. If you loved Battletoads or the NES Ninja Gaiden games, I highly recommend you pick it up. If those games were always too tough for you, perhaps Shovel Knight will be a more approachable alternative. If you never saw the appeal, then look elsewhere.
Shovel Knight was released on the 26th of June, 2014 and is available on PC, Wii U and 3DS, with OSX and Linux to follow shortly.