Exactly halfway between the Iron Whale and Clockwork Tower stages on Shovel Knight’s world map, there’s an area called the Hall of Champions. It’s completely optional, and players who take the detour are greeted by a stiff-beaked, anthropomorphic peacock demanding an entrance fee of 5,000 gold coins. That’s no small chunk of change, and given the effort to raise it, you’d think the Hall of Champions held some sort of optional boss rush mode, or maybe a secret relic or armor type. Instead, what players find inside is an art gallery absolutely brimming with portraits of unsightly neckbeards, horn-rimmed hipsters, and other stereotypes befitting gaming culture. Of course, it’s all a good-natured joke — the 123 portraits on display actually depict the patrons who contributed financial backing at one of the highest tiers of Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight Kickstarter campaign — but most players will probably be disappointed by what’s inside, given how phenomenal the rest of the game is. But the truth is, these hipsters and neckbeards are the reason the game was funded to begin with. And thank goodness for that, because Shovel Knight is one of the absolute best NES games I’ve had the pleasure to play over the past three decades.
Not that there’s an actual NES game tucked away in Yacht Club’s code; there’s no way the system could handle the game’s fancy particle effects, expanded color palette, and complex animation routines. But in spirit, Shovel Knight is as authentic as it gets, and that’s because it’s positively dripping with small details inspired by the greats of yesteryear. Its gameplay is a medley of time-honored traditions: the precision platforming and pattern-based boss fights of the 8-bit Mega Man games; the nonlinear world map of Super Mario Bros 3 and the villages and NPCs of Zelda II. The shovel drop move and treasure hunt are clear references to DuckTales, while the relic subweapon system feels like it takes equal inspiration from Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and again, Mega Man. And speaking of: if the game’s stellar soundtrack sound just a little too much like your childhood, that’s because a couple of its tracks were actually written by legendary Capcom composer Manami Matsumae as NES Sound Format files. Awesome.
It’s easy to be jaded by the glut of “me too” retro style video games that have become ever more prevalent over the past half decade, but Shovel Knight goes beyond simply riffing on the classics; it takes those games as a starting point and imagines how 8-bit game design might have evolved if the console wars of the 1990s had never pushed gaming toward what we know it as now. Boss stages offer familiar challenges for veterans and liberal checkpoints for inexperienced players, but there’s an unexpected element of risk-reward at play, as well: checkpoints can actually be destroyed for extra loot, giving skilled players faster access to the many relics and upgrades available throughout the game. Just remember: when your overconfidence and greed gets you killed at the end of a stage and you have to go all the way back to the beginning with a quarter of your loot gone and no checkpoints left, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
There’s also a New Game+ mode that puts the difficulty on par with anything we played back in the day, bonus stages featuring relic-based challenges and optional bosses, and a host of additional content coming as free updates in the near future thanks to Kickstarter stretch goals. One area of the game I haven’t been able to test yet but am eager to try out is the 3DS-specific StreetPass Battle feature, which has players recording themselves alone, collecting treasures and swiping madly into thin air with their shovels, then watching with amusement as their recordings are magically combined with those from other Shovel Knight StreetPassers into unpredictable five-second battles. Asynchronous real-time fighting? I’m pretty sure that’s a first, but feel free to correct me.
Complementing the gameplay is a spectacular visual and audio coherence. Mole Knight’s Lost City keeps players hopping — over lava, flaming slime monsters, and the elastic abdomen of a giant subterranean beetle — while composer Jake Kaufman’s upbeat melodies, staccato percussion and bouncing bass notes perfectly match the on-screen action. One of two Manami Matsumae tracks, “Flowers of Antimony,” underscores the disease of Plague Knight’s Explodatorium stage, with its broken windows, pale green rats, and neon glowing beakers. My personal favorite sonic section is the one-two punch of “High Above the Land” and “The Fateful Return,” which accompany two of the final stages in the game with a pair of driving, determined beats that seem to be simultaneously cheering players on and presaging the dangers ahead. Players that collect the hidden music sheets scattered throughout the game can listen to any of these tracks on demand, too: simply take them to the Village Bard, put on some headphones, and revel in the beat while the Bard quips about their creation.
Tying the whole thing together is a fictional universe that’s as much a throwback to the cartoon drama of the NES era as it is a celebration of everything that’s unique about video games and the people that play them. From its ridiculous premise — a shovel-equipped hero fights to avenge his lost love and restore “shovelry” across the land — to the hilarious, often endearing characters that populate its world, Shovel Knight had my heart from the start. The local villagers are an assortment of normal humans and anthropomorphic animals: one frog named Croaker tells bad jokes (“I wondered why the Black Knight’s shovel was getting bigger. Then it hit me!”), while another named Toader is constantly in a foul mood, his jaw dropping in disgust at Shovel Knight’s own attempts at levity. There’s a goat man that offers to sell you a meal ticket just so he won’t eat it (he’s out of tin cans). And then there’s the Hall of Champions peacock, who gently ribs Shovel Knight’s Kickstarter patrons for throwing large sums of money around. Some characters offer helpful tips. Some speak in rhyme. All are delightful. Bosses, too, are memorable, thanks to the simple, effective characterization that plays against the expectations players might draw from their visual design. Polar Knight is a viking that’s bitter as the winter chill… but only because his biggest weapon is a snow shovel. Mole Knight is an overgrown bully who makes fun of Shovel Knight’s tiny tool, but upon defeat, he’s carried away by the only true friends he’ll ever have — the moles he’ll never truly be. And there’s more to Tinker Knight than the adorable little waif that totters around his workshop and trips over his own feet, but I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
Shovel Knight is a tremendous success story for Yacht Club Games — one that validates not only the power of a unified vision, but also the determination to dive into the great unknown when that vision isn’t being supported by publishers. It’s challenging in a way that few games are anymore, yet accessible enough for players enticed by its quirky take on swords, sorcery and medieval times. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears that hearkens back to yesteryear while not being slavishly dedicated to preserving pointless design limitations for the sake of nostalgia. Most important of all, it’s just a damn good game — the best one I’ve played all year. Bravo, Yacht Club Games — may your Troupple Chalice overfloweth.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Shovel Knight is based on final Wii U review code provided to us by Yacht Club Games. This writer contributed to the Shovel Knight Kickstarter and received a 3DS copy of the game in return. While you might rightly consider him a hipster, his face is not represented in the Hall of Champions.