Wii U review: Shovel Knight

ShovelKnightPixes

Dig it or shovel off

To miss Shovel Knight’s NES-throwback ambitions would be next to impossible. Styled after any number of classic Capcom platformers, Shovel Knight features colorful sprites, chirpy tunes, a wide array of weapons and powers, and eight wild bosses to bury.

Shovel Knight dispenses enemies with sideswipes and pogo jumps of shovel justice, unearths gems by digging up rocky mounds, and hops from platform to platform seeking justice. Not to mention he’s seeking his partner and love interest Shield Knight — she’s been taken by a shadowy enchantress, and it’s up to Shovel Knight to save her. I promise their relationship isn’t as banal as it sounds.

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Neither are the different platforming setpieces that make up stage design. Rarely in modern platformers do we find such diversity among the platforms themselves: Shovel Knight jumps on bubbling cauldrons, bouncy gelatin beetles, spellbook activated magical runes, and rainbow-barfing floating statues. They’re cool, they’re original, and they add platforming variety and challenge. They’re something I’ve been missing since the formative days of Mario and Mega Man.

But there’s more going on here than retro reverence. Shovel Knight isn’t mere mimicry; it’s a tightly designed game with a fun-first ethos, foregoing NES-era design where it doesn’t work for a modern audience. They game’s scope and color palette are expanded, bosses are bigger and more fluid, and built-in achievements add a modern sheen for objective-chasing tryhards. It’s also presented in widescreen. Hooray!

The difficulty especially feels modern — Shovel Knight is difficult without being punishing. Players have infinite lives, losing a portion of their acquired gems with each death, retrieving them if they can make it back to that screen. Checkpoints are sparse but smartly placed, minimizing player frustration. And there’s actually a proper difficulty curve, rather than being Nintendo hard from stage one.

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But what really makes Shovel Knight shine isn’t the (excellent) mechanics, but the game’s post-Adventure Time sensibilities. The townsfolk are a haphazard assortment of quirky fantasy anti-tropes, all characters in their own right, all willing to crack wise or taunt Shovel Knight. Grandma Swamp recites “Double, trouble, soil and shovel,” then admonishes Shovel Knight when he calls her a witch. The Troupple Acolyte announces his unfailing reverence for the Troupple King, a trout-apple whale that lives in a nearby pond. Long may his stem grow!

Shovel Knight himself possesses the sort of stupidly honest gallantry that’s been lost to our morally grey millennium. He hops into levels with a flourish, raising his shovel in the air as “FOR SHOVELRY!” flashes onscreen. He burns end-bosses for their evil deeds and they respond in kind, a back and forth banter that’s endlessly refreshing after years of super-serious moral fables.

The bottom line is this: Shovel Knight may be a retro throwback, but it isn’t just a retro throwback. There’s enough heart here, and enough original design, to elevate Shovel Knight far above me-too imitation. It’s a truly great game — whether or not you were there the first time around.

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