[EDIT: Shovel Knight is being transformed into a collection of three games and now includes multiplayer on multiple platforms with no amiibo requirement! Anyone who buys the base game before the shift will get all the new content AND avoid a price markup so it might be in a Mega Man fan’s best interest to jump on the yacht RIGHT NOW! For more info, visit the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove Q&A.]
Shovel Knight is a retro-styled action platformer by Yacht Club Games for nearly all modern systems. It was released for sale in late June of 2014 and immediately made a name for itself. At a time when game development has been repeatedly pushed into the most marketable and profitable forms, such as pay-to-win mobile games and $60 AAA titles with less depth than a budget kiddie pool, Shovel Knight glistened like a diamond in the rough. Launching development from a Kickstarter fund, the game promised to hearken back to the simpler times of classic design structures and audiovisual restriction. From my experiences, it more than delivered on those promises. Shovel Knight gives fans of Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, DuckTales, Castlevania, and many more classic titles a new take on cherished formulas and an entertaining experience in its own right.
To detail my experiences with Shovel Knight, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and the numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.
Technical Proficiency: 83/100
Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.
Overall Visuals Score: 73.75/100
- Style Score: 80/100
- Animation Score: 65/100
- Purpose Score: 75/100
Shovel Knight uses a wide color palette with plenty of room for experimentation. Its pixel art may hearken back to a bygone era, but the degree of detail and care that went into crafting that art does not go unnoticed. Level upon level of scrolling background art gives depth to any environment and creates a sense of scale to the world Shovel Knight inhabits. Each area adheres to a unique and fun theme whose shape and color evokes memories and emotions fondly associated with times lost long ago. Along with absolutely stunning character design that will ensure you can recognize each boss (also known as the members of the Order of No Quarter), Shovel Knight’s careful theming, fun color play, and depth defying parallax raise its style score far above the average to an 80/100.
Beautiful animation was clearly not an important goal of this project. After all, if you seek to imitate the decades old classics of the NES and SNES era, you carry part of their graphical limitations with you. That being said, every animation in Shovel Knight functions to telegraph information to the player about a given enemy or attack and those specifically given to the bosses of the game add welcome characterization to their design. Beyond that small addition to characterization, Shovel Knight’s animations are only passable giving them an animation score of 65/100.
Visuals also serve the mechanical purpose of telling the player what is solid or immaterial, background or foreground, and enemy or friend. This is the meaning of design clarity and also what is rated as the purpose score. While Shovel Knight uses many tools in its series of levels to inform the player of their surroundings, there are moments in which it fails. Backgrounds and foregrounds that blend together, enemies and characters with variable solidity, and seemingly grounded areas in which Shovel Knight immediately dies are failures in visual purpose and clarity. That being said, there are moments of brilliance in how Shovel Knight relates obstacles to the player and outstanding level design props up poor visual decisions more often than not. That’s why Yacht Club Games’ debut receives a 75/100 in the visual purpose category.
Overall Sound Score: 78.11/100
- Music Score: 85/100
- Sound Effects Score: 74/100
- Variety Score: 67/100
The soundtrack of Shovel Knight is a beautiful contribution from the well known and talented composer Jake Kaufman, with guest additions by Manami Matsumae of Mega Man fame. Both are experienced in working under the limitations of the Famicon’s sound card and additional VRC6 chip which lends authenticity to the chiptune tracks in the game. Despite its aged quality, the music is intricate, exhilarating, and perfectly matches the required tone of each level of the game. Just as visual style was heightened by adherence to theming, music is lifted to a rating of 85/100.
Anytime a game crafted in a retro style uses audio cues and little sound effects in an attempt to communicate to the player, it can only go one of two ways. The effects can flounder, beating at your ears like a professional pastry chef whisking in an empty bowl; or the effects can soar, enhancing the aural experience beyond just musical fancy. Shovel Knight’s sound effects fall about halfway in between those two experiences. While they cue many happenings effectively and are often a welcome addition to the sound design, there are moments during which you’d almost wish they didn’t exist at all. Shovel Knight’s sound effects are above average in their tact and usefulness to gameplay, but leave something to be desired. For that reason they receive a sound effects score of 74/100.
Variety is the spice of life, and it can help liven up a game’s sound design, too. Sadly, most of Shovel Knight’s tunes suffer under the restrictions of an ancestral age and far too often sound eerily familiar to tunes the player’s already heard in the game. That’s not to say the music is bad, just that its exploration of styles leaves something to be desired for anyone with wide music tastes. Despite that, the fact that each level’s song fits its theme effectively raises the variety score of Shovel Knight to a 67/100.
Overall Controls Score: 96.11/100
- Controller Score: 90/100
- Responsiveness Score: 100/100
- Functionality Score: 95/100
The Wii U version of Shovel Knight has a few version exclusive luxuries such as the inclusion of a multiplayer mode that’s activated by the Shovel Knight amiibo, cooperative challenge levels, and the second screen functionality of the Wii U Gamepad. Using the Wii U Gamepad to play Shovel Knight feels great and works well to swap between relics (special abilities) or to use as the primary screen for a more comfortably portable experience. Of course, the Wii U Gamepad isn’t the only controller supported by the game and because of the game’s retro sensibilities, it doesn’t require analog control sticks, motion sensors, or other nonsense to function. The heft of the Wii U Gamepad, and the awkwardness of a few other control schemes on Nintendo’s platform bring this score a short ways down to 90/100.
Overall, the controls were responsive and held the weight of an older game. Issues with lagging inputs, disconnections, incorrect responses, etc. were never felt in the game. Because the game’s programming put very little strain on the Wii U’s hardware, issues like those were practically nonexistent as far as this playthrough was concerned, so Shovel Knight scores 100/100 in the responsiveness category.
While Shovel Knight controlled like a dream and most gameplay was as fluid and perfect as any action platformer could hope to be, there was one minor gripe to be had with the system Shovel Knight uses to swap out relics. The player should not have to pause in the middle of a difficult level or boss battle to switch to the power they were given to complete the task at hand. A simple trigger cycling could have eliminated this issue but, because the menu pauses the game, it caused little difficulty earning Shovel Knight a 95/100 in functionality of controls.
Artistic Proficiency: 83/100
Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.
Overall Gameplay Score: 83.33/100
- Agency Score: 75/100
- Core Gameplay Loop Score: 92/100
- Variety Score: 65/100
Shovel Knight gives the player a variety of relics to use in the conquering of each level and that’s where most of the player’s choice and agency lies. Level design is so perfectly formulated that each relic’s use is specifically taught and clued to in every aspect of a level. Effective and steady difficulty curves encourage the player to experiment with lateral solutions to normally linear problems. Even the order of certain levels’ completion can be changed by the player if they so desired. Despite all the freedom and rewarding mechanical choices Shovel Knight gives the player, it holds with its predecessors’ failings of restricting meaningful narrative impact. The inability of the player to affect the story is a large enough failure to drop Shovel Knight’s agency score to a 75/100.
The core gameplay loop of Shovel Knight is as follows: Select a stage, analyze the screen of the stage selected, experiment, learn, conquer, return to the analyze step, and then continue following the previous steps until the stage is completed. There are larger gameplay loops surrounding that core, level-based one, such as the loop of completing levels to unlock more, and there are also small loops of upgrading items, buying relics, and improving Shovel Knight’s health or magic. The secret weapon of Shovel Knight is the feedback of progression given in each step of its core gameplay loop. As the player improves their health bar, circles are added. As the player improves their magic reserve, their numbers go up. As the player hits further checkpoints, they see their progress making it difficult to be discouraged by death. Even the map fills with Shovel Knight’s glorious helm as he frees the land. The experimentation and visible progress that defines Shovel Knight sets it among giants in terms of classical game design which is why it receives a 92/100 in that category.
Shovel Knight hits a perfect stride when it comes to the amount of content in each level, but leaves the player wondering if stages were left out. Not every relic is utilized to its full potential, and some seem to have no real use at all. That, of course, is really no fault of the relics, but a failure in design. There wasn’t enough variety in level structure to merit the use of those relics and some relics seem ridiculously useful and overpowered because of it (I’m looking at you, Phase Locket). For those reasons, Shovel Knight receives a 65/100 for its variety score.
Overall Story Score: 82.67/100
A collection of villians not even you could pay to see… The Order of No Quarter!
- Characters Score: 80/100
- Plot Score: 68/100
- Coherency Score: 100/100
Where Shovel Knight truly shines as a story is in its development and display of characters. Cheesy, cute, odd, and caricatured villains display their varied attitudes in both their design, animation, and mechanics. Plague Knight’s frenetic fear and deadly haphazard assault shine light on the excitable nature of the character underneath. Tinker Knight’s wailing and flailing incompetence tells the story of motivation for his mechanical monstrosities. Memorability and likability are incredibly high for the cast of Shovel Knight, so much so that the silly epilogue that plays after the completion of Shovel Knight’s campaign seems absolutely necessary to the final product. Shield Knight herself is sadly made little more than a reward, which is particularly frustrating given the usefulness and character she possesses when she is allowed an active role in the plot. If only the cast had more screen time so that the player could interact with and learn about them even more, Shovel Knight would receive a perfect score. Sadly, that is not the case so its character score holds steady at 80/100.
Very little of artistic significance happens in Shovel Knight’s plot. There is a companion that needs saving, there is a darkness spread across the land, and only you can stop it and save that companion. Every element of Shovel Knight’s plot has not only been done before, but done to more interesting effect. That is not to say that the story of Shovel Knight doesn’t serve its purpose, it does that phenomenally well, it just doesn’t have much new to say about the world or the way we approach it. To confound things even more, the game rushes past characters and threads that could have been beautiful if truly fleshed out. A few redeeming shifts in narrative, moments of fine interplay between the story and gameplay, and emotionally charged payoffs require me to lift Shovel Knight’s plot score slightly, but only to a 68/100.
As a finished product, Shovel Knight fulfills its complete vision and pulls the whole thing off with aplomb. It looks like a retro game, it plays like a retro game, but most importantly it doesn’t feel like a retro game. Shovel Knight is a new experience crafted on the backs of giants but they hardly feel its weight on their shoulders. If anything, Shovel Knight elevates the notoriety of games like Mega Man and Castlevania to a new, and younger, audience. Showing developers that there has always been a beautiful way to meld stories, characters, and mechanics is something desperately required in the modern gaming industry, and something Shovel Knight does in spades. Shovel Knight always seems to be the game it wants to be and not a speck is out of place, even it there aren’t enough specks to go around. Coherency and tonal continuity is far and away a huge asset to Shovel Knight, giving it a 100/100 in the coherency category.
Shovel Knight is a brilliant throwback to the classic games of the past, an accomplishment in game design that should be looked to in the future as an example, and a genuinely charming and enjoyable game. There isn’t much artistic power and meaning to Shovel Knight, but the way it weaves what power it has into its gameplay and design showcases just how powerful video games can be when their potential is reached. As video gaming grows as an artistic medium, my sincere hope is that more important stories are told in this fashion and renowned as the accomplishments they are. At the price of $15, Shovel Knight is well worth the money for 2D platformer fans looking to find challenge and design intrigue worthy of your time in the modern age. In fact, it’s full value hasn’t even been realized yet, as three free additional campaigns of content are due to release in the coming years. The first new campaign, Plague of Shadows, is available now as a free update to Shovel Knight and could resolve some of the issues I had with the base game. Regardless, Shovel Knight is still a wonderful experience full of quirky humor, inspired design, and engrossing gameplay.