Shovel Knight feels the way you remember the classics on NES.
It has slick pixel-art visuals and a soundtrack ripped straight out of a Mega Man game, with 2D gameplay reminiscent of Capcom's DuckTales. It's a combination of platforming, combat, and devilishly tricky level design that will make you want to throw your controller against a wall — but in a good way. It's the kind of experience that influenced an entire generation of gamers, and despite being released a few decades after the heyday of side-scrolling games, Shovel Knight plays like one of the genre’s defining experiences. It’s not exactly like a retro 8-bit game — but that's precisely why it works so well.
"Instead of emulating the NES exactly," says programmer David D'Angelo, "we would create a rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game."
Shovel Knight looks and plays a lot like other side-scrolling 2D action games, at least initially. You control a tiny armored knight carrying a shovel — hence the name — which serves as a weapon and doubles as a pogo stick for bouncing around certain levels. You have a large overhead map to explore, which features a series of dungeons housing powerful bosses, and there are towns where you can buy new gear and talk to townsfolk. The experience is rounded out with mini-game stages that let you stock up on treasure or battle would-be knights in one-on-one battles reminiscent of a simplified Street Fighter brawl.
You'll die a lot
The real meat of the experience is the dungeons, sprawling buildings that are filled with plentiful dangers. You can only really perform two main actions in the game — jumping and attacking — but Shovel Knight makes the most of this limited move-set. The platforming in particular can be extremely difficult at times, thanks to a combination of moving enemies and a constantly shifting landscape. Sometimes moving across a fraction of the screen proves a powerful test of your reflexes and timing. You'll have to deal with genre mainstays like moving platforms, as well as everything from floating bubbles that you can bounce on to boiling barrels of potion that shoot you straight up into the air.
You'll die a lot on your way to reach each boss, and it's in death that you’ll start to notice some of the modern design changes that make Shovel Knight feel much less frustrating than it should. For one thing, there are no lives to worry about. When you die, you can restart an unlimited number of times, and each dungeon features numerous checkpoints that ensure you don't have to replay too much of the level when you get stuck at a particularly challenging bit.
But there is a penalty to dying, one ripped straight out of the Dark Souls series — when you're killed, you temporarily lose a chunk of your gold, and the only way to get it back is to trek back to the place you died on your next run-through. It's an addictive structure that provides just enough of a penalty to make dying a bad thing, but not so much to make it incredibly annoying when you fall in a pit of spikes.
It's like finding a dusty old NES cartridge
There are plenty other changes, both design-wise and technical, that make Shovel Knight a bit more advanced than the games you played in 1989. The graphics are brighter and more colorful than games on the NES, as the developers at Yacht Club Games decided not to worry about the NES' 54-color limit when designing the world. The result is beautifully detailed backgrounds, larger sprites with wonderful animation, and some advanced visual techniques like parallax scrolling that add some depth to the levels. Instead of restricting themselves to building a game that would work on the NES, the team looked at the limitations of the platform and used them as a guideline. "It was fascinating to try and problem-solve the technical issues of yesteryear while avoiding any pitfalls that would belie real modernity," D'Angelo explains.
These changes don't make the game feel any less authentic. In fact, while there are plenty of modern indie titles that ape retro visuals or design concepts, Shovel Knight might just be the first that truly feels like a long-lost 8-bit classic. With the exception of perhaps 2008’s Mega Man 9, most modern retro-style games look like older games, but don't actually come close to matching their quality. Playing Shovel Knight, on the other hand, feels like you found a dusty old NES cartridge that somehow went undiscovered until today. It takes the best of the classics and adds enough subtle tweaks to make the formula feel alive again. Shovel Knight is just so weird and full of life that you can't help but be charmed — over the course of the game you'll venture across haunted castles and steampunk submarines, battling bubble-breathing dragons and invisible catfish. When the knight comes across a treasure chest, he hops in and digs around in an adorably animated sequel that put a smile on my face every time I saw it.
Perhaps the best example of Shovel Knight's dedication to its retro idea is the game's soundtrack. It features new songs from composers Jake Kaufman, who has worked on modern games like DuckTales: Remastered, and Manami Matsumae, who scored the very first Mega Man game. It's chiptune music that's as hummable as anything that's been in a video game before. "In a lot of ways Jake Kaufmann followed the same philosophy with Shovel Knight's music as the game's designers and pixel artists," says Mohammed Taher, creative director at video game music label Brave Wave. "It's a modern take on the 8-bit aesthetic, using an expanded tool set and adapting a wide range of timeless ideas in a modern context."
Pixel art has become so prevalent in indie games that it's easy to dismiss the aesthetic as just another fad. But while most games use pixels because of how they look, Shovel Knight uses them as its driving purpose — this isn't a game that tries to be like the classics you remember, it is one of them. It just happens to have been released in 2014.
Shovel Knight is available today on the Wii U, 3DS, and Windows.