Shovel in hand, Yacht Club Games have become a poster child indie success story for the Nintendo eShop. From its humble beginnings on Kickstarter, Shovel Knight went on to smash their modest funding goal to secure $311,502 from backers and achieve all stretch goals. Development continued, spurred by their success, slowly carving a path toward the game’s eventual launch in North American last July. And a strong launch it had, selling 180,000 copies within the space of a month which, more surprisingly, saw Wii U and Nintendo 3DS attributed to 60 percent of sales. With such fervorous excitement behind Yacht Club’s creation, it was a shame that Europe, Australia and New Zealand were kept waiting. But, lo and behold, it was certainly worth it.
Shovel Knight is inherently brilliant through and through. Recalling the golden era of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Yacht Club Games have drawn on their effusive adoration for Super Mario Bros. 3, DuckTales and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, concocting their own potent platformer that can easily hold its own against such illustrious classics.
The tale begins in untamed lands where legendary adventurers once roamed, of whom we’re introduced to treasure-hunting duo Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. Their money-making adventures came to an end when exploring the Tower of Fate, where a cursed amulet cast ominously dark magic that, once Shovel Knight awoke, had sealed the doors with Shield Knight nowhere to be seen. Brokenhearted, he wandered alone but a new threat emerged when The Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter seized the lands and unsealed the Tower. And so, with your trusty shovel in tow, you will journey toward the Tower in the hopes of rescuing Shield Knight, defeating the knights of The Order along the way who have been sent to stall your progress.
Shovel Knight is a straight up platformer, styled around a bygone era dominated by 8-bit visuals and glorious chiptune soundtracks. It’s a card that Yacht Club Games play well, not only playing on nostalgia but demonstrating that a back to basics approach can result in something remarkably refreshing. It’s been a clear labour of love, paying homage to their inspiration not only through gameplay mechanics but also the particularly witty script.
Cast on your adventure, you will slowly trudge across an overworld where much of your time will be spent tackling increasingly challenging stages themed around whichever Boss Knight is awaiting you at their conclusion. Such design allows them all to feel particularly unique – whether that be Polar Knight’s icy haunt or Plague Knight’s wacky laboratory – regularly throwing in new ideas to shake up the experience so that it’s never in danger of becoming tiresome. Boss battles themselves feel particularly epic, players skills put to the test against deadly foes that will each challenge you in their own unique way.
From the start, Shovel Knight’s abilities are basic whether that be slashing foes, digging dirt or using the Shovel Drop – a move not dissimilar to Scrooge McDuck’s cane that lets you attack from above and bounce off enemies. While on your quest you will recover relics and gear that broadly expand on this – such as a wand that let you fling fireballs, or a war horn that blasts all enemies in a certain radius – which will continually allow you to adapt your approach.
Precision is key to any platformer, and Shovel Knight is no different. Thankfully, responsive controls mean that if you meet an untimely death it will always be down to player error, which saves you ever feeling cheated by the game itself. Already designed to be increasingly punishing, there’s no lives system in place – the location of your demise instead being marked by three bags of loot that can be recovered if you make it back there in one piece. With frequent checkpoints (which can alternatively be broken for greater risk but more reward) this never becomes a frustration, ensuring that players never have to retread lengthy sections of any stage.
The world in Shovel Knight is brimming with personality, and your first visit to the Village will be the strongest early indication of that. Quirky characters leading their own lives present the opportunity for many humorous conversations, while weapon, health and armour upgrades will ease the difficulty of your quest. Jake Kaufman’s riotously enjoyable soundtrack is the final piece of the puzzle, delivering some of the most boisterously memorable (chip)tunes that I’ve heard accompanying a game in recent years.
Wii U GamePad integration is simple but effective, letting you switch your relics and gear on the fly or access the Miiverse Digger’s Diary – encouraging you to leave messages and hints within levels for other players to discover, à la Dark Souls. Whereas longevity will come in completing in-game challenges referred to as Feats, while the Kickstarter stretch goal content will be apparently delivered as free updates later on – promising Challenge Mode, a four-player Battle Mode, playable Boss Knights and more.
Take a step back, and it is easy to appreciate what a remarkable accomplishment Shovel Knight amounts to. Meticulously crafted and gloriously beaming retro-inspiration from every pixel, Yacht Club Games have delivered a landmark platformer and one of the very best games that you’ll play this year.