Shovel Knight is a tribute, a homage, a loving paean to an age long past: the golden era of the 8 bit platformer.
Mario, Zelda, Megaman, Ducktales, Battletoads. They all have echoes throughout in Shovel Knight (and in the case of Battletoads, they’re actually in the game). But, most crucially, the creators of Shovel Knight deeply understood what made those games charming, delightful, and fun and utilizes those learnings to create a new game, not a shallow nostalgia trip. There’s a reason we moved on from punishing 8 bit platformers and Yacht Club Games comprehends this even while celebrating it.
Shovel Knight plays out in an overworld map with separate levels thematically tied to The Order of No Quarter (goons with names like King Knight and Propeller Knight and Plague Knight). The honorable Shovel Knight himself has set out to find the villainous Enchantress at whose hand his beloved Shield Knight has disappeared. There’s towns and shops filled with charming individuals/horse people and pun-spitting frogs. The game proves you can communicate quite a bit with nothing but 2d sprites, good level design, catchy music, smart excerpts of texts, and singing fish. The world of Shovel Knight is chock full of character.
Shovel Knight can swing his shovel, use it like a pogo stick (ala Scrooge McDuck in Nintendo’s Ducktales), and collect relics that do things like shoot fireballs and make him invulnerable. The controls are tight and your hero reacts like he ought to. The level design is similarly fine tuned. Concepts are introduced to you smartly before you have to use them in life or death situations (stuff like a platform that fires you into the ceiling appearing in an innocuous place before the next screen puts the same platform under 1-hit kill spikes). Even things like how far one platform is placed from another is designed thoughtfully. It’s the minutia and level flow that make this game so enjoyable — I can’t point out any specific level and think they missed the mark on that one. The art of 2d platformer design stopped progressing 20 years ago and Shovel Knight gobbled up everything we had learned until then and improved on it.
I conquered Shovel Knight. I beat it at least 4 times. Taking double damage with no checkpoints. In under 90 minutes. Using nothing but a shovel. Without dying. I did everything; I’m usually sick to death of a game by the time I reach that point, but I want more. Mastery of a simple concept can be greatly rewarding. Great platformers push that button for me.