Shovel Knight Review (PS Vita)
It’s impossible to see Shovel Knight in action and not think of the classic NES platformers that shaped our hobby. There’s an authenticity in the game that’s absent in the pixelated 2D platformers you see flooding the digital marketplaces of the PC and consoles. While most of those games only evoke those classic games, Shovel Knight feels like it is one of them. Standing alongside Megaman, Kid Icarus and Super Mario Brothers, it would blend in seamlessly.
I remember the NES as a magical machine. I couldn’t afford one when I was 6 (my cash flow wasn’t that well managed), but my friend had one. I don’t even remember all the games he had, but I remember them all blowing my tiny mind. There was something about the design of those games that intrigued me. Maybe it was because they actually were designed, whereas most of the games I played on the ZX SPectrum felt thrown together. If they were good games, it was because of mad genius or a lucky accident. The NES meanwhile felt like it had a huge stable of games that were meticulously made, with well judged difficulty curves and an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the hardware. The great thing about Shovel Knight is that because failing memory has removed all the little flaws in those games (sprite flicker, low frame rate etc), it feels more like your memory of those games than the games themselves. Shovel Knight is a classic NES platformer with all the flaws airbrushed out.
While Shovel Knight starts easy enough, the difficulty amps up as you go, but so too do the power ups and new weapons. The first stage is a pretty straightforward trek from left to right, clearing each area of enemies and digging through obstacles while navigating some basic platforming. Facing the first boss, you learn his patterns pretty quickly and the flow of the game is established: choose a destination from the overworld (Super Mario Brothers 3 style) map, work your way through a stage and defeat a boss knight at the end.
From the second stage onwards though, you’ll start to notice all the little clever mechanics at work. Rather than having lives, you lose some of your money each time you die. If you make it back to your money, you can collect it again. The corpse run – a modern trope more often seen in Souls games – actually works really well in a 2D platformer like this. There are also a series of checkpoints in each level that you respawn at when you die, but you can choose to smash them for additional money if you’re confident that you won’t need them. It’s a neat risk/reward system that might have you cursing your own overconfidence.
Between stages you can buy a broad range of powerups that substantially change how you tackle levels. Many of these will allow you to go back to earlier stages which will now seem much easier, and you may even find your way into secret areas that were previously inaccessible. There’s no real necessity to do so though as these areas are optional, meaning that progress isn’t gated by the items you have. Indeed, there’s a number of perks and trophies associated with completing the game without finding or using secret items, which retains the purity of the base gameplay and which I enjoyed a lot. Tackling the whole game with the simple shovel was challenging and – for me at least – the most enjoyable way to play.
For all my fun with Shovel Knight, I often found myself drifting away from it for long periods of time. There’s certainly a glut of 2D platformers now, so if any of them can hold my attention then they’re doing pretty well. But although the level design and the feel of the platforming is pretty good, there were just too many niggles to get me completely enthralled like I was with, say, Spelunky. Too often my lost money would appear at the bottom of a pit (because that’s where I died) meaning I could never reclaim it. I know that I should write off my losses and keep going, but I would often get discouraged, powering off the Vita with the intention to come back to it later.
In this way, Shovel Knight was a bitty experience for me. Clever, well designed and engaging in short bursts, there was never really anything to anchor me to the game. The boss fights were generally the high point, but once there patterns were memorized and they were defeated, starting a new level would feel like a chore as often as it would feel like a delight.
Perhaps I’m just burned out on 2D platformers. Leaving my genre fatigue to one side though, Shovel Knight remains one of the best games of its type. I can easily recommend it to anyone who loved the NES in their youth, or grew to love it through the rose tinted glasses of time.
4 flicker-free sprites out of 5