Ready thy shovel! What is the best 2D side scrolling action/platforming video game? Did you think of Mega Man? Or Mario? Or maybe you thought of Castlevania? Metroid? Zelda II? I got it, Duck Tales! Going back to the NES, SNES, and Genesis, you find some of the best side scrolling games of all time. As graphics improved, the gaming culture moved away from this genre. Indie developers, armed with crowdfunding, have brought a revival to the once thriving genre.
In a previous review, I harped on Sega from not learning from Nintendo’s example in previous games. Yacht Club Games, founded by Sean Velasco, seemed to do just that. They took all the best side-scrolling titles listed above and studied them. They noted what worked and why. Yacht Club Games then built a game, via Kickstarter funds, that harnessed the greatness in each predecessor. The result was Shovel Knight in 2014.
In early 2017, Shovel Knight expanded to have co-op on all platforms. Crosstix and I readied our shovels and set off to rescue Shield Knight. Did the co-op campaign retain the praiseworthy game play?
Hero saves a maiden in distress. The cliché story Mario uses is recycled here. Utilizing the story telling style of retro games, Shovel Knight leans into the silliness of this cliché. The twist on the old formula is having the maiden be your old partner from early hero days, and having a shovel instead of a sword. The writing does a great job of embracing the outlandishness of retro video game stories and tropes while including some seriousness to the drama. The tone fits both the style and medium.
The controls work well with an SNES or newer controller. The basic jump, run and attack moves all fit on the simple NES controller. However, when the abilities increase to include magic and items the multiple inputs aid immensely during intense battle situations. The biggest challenge in the controls is the down attack combo. This does a shovel bounce on an enemy. It is super powerful and is also used for jump over pits. When I first started playing this game with Crosstix, I used an Xbox controller and its analog joysticks and d-pad. The problem here is the d-pad quality was seriously lacking from the controller. I died endlessly when trying to use my down attack to bounce across pits and other obstacles. The sticks were not precise enough and the d-pad often got the wrong direction. When playing make sure you have a great d-pad!
The one component that did not feel on point to me, having just played Mega Man X, was the attack. When I pressed the attack button, I was expecting to have an instant response. Instead, there is a split second delay in the attack. This delay was the death of me again and again. Consequently, I missed hitting vulnerable bosses. The Black Knight fight is a perfect demonstration. During his four down attacks, I would get right next to where he was coming down, swing the shovel, only to strike out miserably. I guess baseball is not in Shovel Knight’s future.
The game play feels like a retro Mega Man. I instantly recognized the level design and one screen at a time aspect. Mega Man would confine the action to a single screen and then scroll when you reached the edge. This mechanic expertly implemented in Shovel Knight. The levels were diverse and interesting. One level uses dark sections to test a player’s memory. Another uses the classic ice mechanic. All of them have options to utilize weapon upgrades that you find throughout levels to get new bonuses and power ups. Finding the hidden power up in each level was a throwback to Mega Man X and finding the suit upgrades. The variety and design of the levels were superb.
While the levels feel like Mega Man games, RPG elements are also sprinkled in. Multiple stops on the Mario like map provide additional challenges and story elements. When I first stepped foot in the towns I instantly thought of Zelda II. Towns are filled with people to talk to, shops, and items to upgrade. You can upgrade your health meter, improve your magic, get special items, buy armor or complete fetch quests by turning in music sheets. Players can even find hidden mini games in the towns.
Other stops include mini levels to practice new magic/skills. These are essentially challenge courses that teach you how to use new abilities. Course design in these levels is fantastic and laid out perfectly to help players master the new tricks before needing them in upcoming fights. Doing each course helped me recognize opportunities to use my new abilities in levels to discover secrets.
Boss fights in retro games are crucial. Each Shovel Knight boss presents new patterns, challenges, and themes for the player. In one beautifully tongue n’ cheek fight, Shovel Knight takes on the tiny and pathetic Tinker Knight. Defeat the little pipsqueak and he hops into a giant menacing robot for the second half of the fight. The Black Knight is your equal and rival, matching your moves. Polar Knight is a huge snow boss that is able to block your attack with his snow shovel all while removing snow covering the spikes. The best fight though was the Ghost fight. If you have not experienced it, go search it out and enjoy! In the end, no two fights were the same and each was a challenging blast.
In watching Awesome Games Done Quick and developer comments on Shovel Knight, there is one aspect that often goes unnoticed, speedruns. The level of design goes beyond just normal play, but placed items and enemies in specific orders and locations to aid gamers in optimizing runs. Instead of speedrunners working to break the game to glitch through areas, the developer has embraced this community to provide shortcuts that reward skill. The developer did not just want a good game, but perfection. This amount of care moves from great game design to work of art.
Shovel Knight feels like many other games. Its RPG elements feel like Zelda II. The map brings back memories of Mario games. Each level plays as if it were lifted right out of a Mega Man game. Golden Axe inspired the post level campfire scenes. Obvious inspiration from many games might be a negative for some series, playing the role of copycat, but for Shovel Knight these feel like subtle nods of love to classic retro games. Shovel Knight does not just copy them, but understands what makes these game elements fun. Shovel Knight then becomes a work of art, built off previous masterworks. In doing so, Shovel Knight becomes a masterpiece itself that needs to be played by every retro gamer. So stop reading and go steel thy shovel already!