Shovel Knight

Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein

Often gamers lament how games have moved past their old school roots. Games used to feature chip-tunes and chunky, pixelated graphics, and game companies had to try to make something epic out of the limited capabilities the NES, SNES, Game Boy, Genesis, and all the other discarded systems of yesteryear were capable of. Even we at the Inverted Dungeon have fallen prey to this argument, lamenting that "new Castlevania isn't like old Castlevania." Whether we're right or not (and ignoring that fact that new games can't be old games because they're each different games), there's a certain "nostalgia" button that can be tickled by the right game every once in a while.

Well, in 2014, gamers got a little bit of nostalgia with the release of Shovel Knight, a goofy platformer epic that recalled many games of yesteryear, including Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Castlevania III, and we're not just listing random games -- those are titles the creators specifically list as influences. It's a game meant to appeal to old gamers as well as new, with all the old trappings of long-gone games like 8-bit graphics and chip-tune music.

Does Shovel Knight live up to the legacy of those games? Arguably those are some pretty big shoes to fill, a collection of titles beloved by gamers (and, well, Zelda II, which is politely tolerated by most). Thankfully, Shovel Knight stands up to scrutiny against those famous forebears.

As a platforming game aping old-school style, Shovel Knight certainly stands tall with the classics of the past. The titular hero (shaded blue to mimic Mega Man, obviously) explores left to right (and sometimes up and down) in (at times tough-as-nails) platforming sections, killing enemies with his shovel all to get to one of eight themed bosses all so he can eventually reveal the final tower and take on the end boss, the evil Enchantress. So, yes, this game is definitely a Mega Man-style game, although you don't get to earn the boss powers when you defeat them. Instead, special weapons and items are hidden, one to a level, throughout the game and these give you a collection of powers and attacks you can use to your advantage.

Thankfully, the controls are largely tight and responsive. We played the game on the WiiU and, aside from a few rare instances when we told Shovel Knight to jump and he didn't (which, admittedly, could have been user error), the little blue knight was a joy to control. Along with his shovel and special attacks, the knight can also pogo off enemies with his shovel, giving him a style of play reminiscent of Uncle Scrooge from Duck Tales. With so many ways to move around and so many items at your disposal, then, getting Shovel Knight through the platforms is down to your own skill -- the tools are available to you, so if you can't do it, it's not the fault of the game.

Meanwhile, let's once again emphasize the graphics and music which were lovingly made. This game may look and sound old school, but it does so in the best possible way. We especially love the soundtrack which features many tracks that have ended up in our play lists.

Similarities to Castlevania Games

Well, the developers did say Shovel Knight was influenced by Castlevania III, and beyond both games being platformers there are some similarities. For starters, as we noted above Shovel Knight can gain special weapons and attacks to use in combat. Unlike in a Mega Man game, though, each of these weapons do not have their own ammo meters -- all ammo (magic is shared), not unlike hearts in a traditional Castlevania game, so it's best to conserve your ammo until you need it.

The attacks do come in handy, though. Shovel Knight can gain a fire rod which attacks straight in front of him quickly, like Castlevania daggers. He'll also find an anchor later one which he can throw in an overhead arc (like axes). All of his special attacks, even, are done with the attack+up combo, just like in Castlevania, so fans of that series will feel right at home with all Shovel Knight can do.

And then there are the stylistic touches that feel right out of our favorite game series. One of the first bosses in the game in Specter Knight, a floating, undead-looking knight who seems like this game's version of the Grim Reaper -- he attacks with a giant scythe and summons undead minions. His whole stage, really, would feel perfectly in place featured in any Castlevania game, with a Gothic art-style and soundtrack running in the background.

And then, of course, there's the final levels at the Tower of Eternity. Throughout the game you catch glimpses of that tower as you play through stages, a la Dracula's Castle showing up in the background of Castlevania stages. The tower even crumbles once you beat the game and vanquish the final foe, a nice touch that strike that nostalgia nerve for use fans of the classic series.

What's amazing, though, is that with all the elements that Shovel Knight borrows, the game still feels fresh. Sure, there's a bit of Mega Man, a dash of Castlevania, and overworld map like Super Mario Bros. 3, but it all come together in a game that feels like none of the above and totally like Shovel Knight.

Fans of old school games should give Shovel Knight a try (especially since it's available as a relatively cheap download for just about every system). Even those without nostalgia for games gone by will still find a lot to love in Shovel Knight.

Related Media

It's worth noting that the main mode of Shovel Knight, the first quest featuring the titular blue hero, is only the first part of the game at this point. Additional modes unlock after completing the first run-through, including playable modes featuring some of the bosses you fought.

Right now, Specter Knight and Plague Knight has playable characters (both included in the Treasure Trove collection). Plague Knight controls very differently from Shovel Knight. Using bombs to not only attack but also gain elevation, Plague Knight is a character for experienced players. In some ways he reminiscent of Bomb Man from the first Mega Man just in playable form with a bit of a bird motif thrown on.

Meanwhile, Specter Knight is about as close as anyone has come to making the Grim Reaper of Castlevania into a playable character. He can travel quickly via upward and downward slashes, and can gain the ability to throw sub-weapons such as mini-sickles. He's a fun yet difficult character to play (in an entirely fair way).

Other characters are reported to become playable down the road and, as we gain more information, we'll update this section.