Indie games' long and complicated relationship with the past culminates in the triumph that is Shovel Knight. Years of retro-remakes, tributes, love letters, and pixel-art masterpieces all now seem to point to one brave warrior and his mighty digging tool. Shovel Knight fully realizes independent development's obsession with the retro by perfectly executing the goal which so many of its predecessors did not dare to even aim for: become a game that would have felt at home on the NES itself.
In all my time playing games, I cannot think of a single title that belongs on the NES more than Shovel Knight. Cave Story and its children lean on Metroid and Castlevania, and other classics like Super Meat Boy aim for aesthetic consonance, but virtually all retro-influenced titles tend towards emulating the gameplay or tone of 8 or 16-bit consoles. Shovel Knight manages to take the next logical step, designed as an NES game in all but fact. If someone had given me an NES cartridge with Shovel Knight on it, I wouldn't have thought twice about its authenticity save for a few modern graphical considerations like parallax and expanded color palletes.
Every element of Shovel Knight flawlessly meshes with every other in its cascade of retro goodness, but Jake Kaufman's gorgeous score steals the show in every level. I had to stop myself dozens of times throughout my playthrough from making Mega Man comparisons; the tracks are just as impressive as those in that venerable platformer, each one catchier and more powerful than the last.
From the thundering hoofbeats of the Plains of Passage's "Strike the Earth!" to The Flying Machine's soaring harmony lines in "High Above the Land", each song feels perfectly attuned to the level it stars in. Shovel Knight couldn't hope to realize a fragment of its potential without these songs to carry each course along. To say the least, don't play on mute.
#2 Tight Controls
While I hesitate to keep mentioning Mega Man, I continuously found myself thinking about the Blue Bomber as I dug through Shovel Knight levels. Soundtrack and aesthetics aside, Shovel Knight's game feel exudes a very rarely seen perfection. Every move feels solid and responsive, each jump accurate; even the dreaded (but inevitable) water level "Iron Whale" makes dodging underwater spikes feel clean and fair.
Controls this tight give a lot of power to Shovel Knight not only for their immediate gameplay value but to reduce the amount of frustration felt at each of the many deaths players are likely to incur. Without the precision present in the game, the tiny platforms and giant abysses that dot the stages would come off as irksome rather than challenging. As it stands, though, every death feels like a resonable consequence of bad play rather than a vendetta from the stage.
#3 Boss Fights
What would be a game modeled after NES classics like Mega Man be without spectacular boss fights to punctuate each stage? The wonderful people at Yacht Club Games certainly know the value of a strong set of villians, and the Order of No Quarter does not dissapoint.
Not only does Shovel Knight nail the tone of Mega Man boss themes with baddies like "Propeller Knight" and "Mole Knight" rounding out the roster, but each battle mechanically compliments its respective stage. Challenging yet rewarding to master, resplendent in their own brilliant boss theme music, the Enchantress' finest warriors provide the game's most memorable and exciting moments.
Top Shovel Knight Feature
#4 Humor and Tone
Any game seeking to enter the pantheon of legendary 8-bit titles needs a secret weapon to round out its gameplay and audiovisual offerings: strong writing. Unsurprisingly, Shovel Knight has it in spades. From the somehow hilarious and awe-inspiring Troupple King to the fight against Tinker Knight, each moment feels in place while adding something truly special to the game as a whole.
Secret optional boss fights and a band of roaming mystery characters fill out Shovel Knight's surprisingly fleshed-out world, and NPCs add a sense of liveliness and uniqueness to villages. Most importantly, Yacht Club has realized the importnace of levity, and refuses to take itself too seriously, preferring whimsy and joy to unneccessary darkness.
Splitting up these waves of fun with occasional glimpses into the pain and loss in our titular character's relationship with Shield Knight gives Shovel Knight a feeling of completion and roundedness that most 40-hour RPGs can only dream at.
Not a single piece of this game feels misplaced. Every design choice and every narrative beat resonates with every other component, building up a game with some serious staying power.
Best of all? This gorgeous game is going to be recieving massive free updates over the next year thanks to Kickstarter stretch goals. Shovel Knight has already, and certainly will continue to, burrow its way into our hearts forever.