Recently, it seems there's been a huge spark of interest in old games (or, in gaming parlance, "retro"). With many wishing to relive the flames of their youth with old-school NES, SNES, or arcade games, the rose tinted spectacles have been out in force, as all of a sudden, retro is chic again.
Of because back in the day, games were a lot different to the smooth, polished, and accessible fare we have now. With 2D, blocky-looking graphics, awkward controls, terrible collision detection, and looped music that sometimes could make your ears bleed (in a metaphorical sense - you should probably go to a doctor if your ears start to bleed for real), games were tougher, less polished, and an altogether more raw, more challenging proposition - a challenge that many still enjoy, and some feel is missing in the massively post-produced games of today. So with a little help from a Kickstarter campaign, Shovel Knight was born.
Taking on the role of the Shovel Knight himself, on a quest to save his beloved partner Shield Knight and defeat the evil Enchantress, Shovel Knight is a blast from the past (only one that's been made in the present), even down to the plot itself. Once upon a time, heroes roamed the blocky land - but one day, at the Tower of Fate, misfortune struck, and when Shovel Knight awoke, Shield Knight was gone! With the knights out of her way, the evil Enchantress saw her chance to take over the land along with a group of villainous knights known as 'The Order of No Quarter', and the world was plunged into disarray.
A platforming action-adventure game, even the menu in Shovel Knight's old school. You navigate the 'Super Mario Bros 3' style overworld using the D-pad to choose a level, with only a few available from the start. With your mighty shovel as your only weapon, it's up to you to leap your way through the stages, whacking rats over the head and overcoming any obstacles in your way. As the game progresses, you'll head through a variety of themed levels, with some set underwater, and some on ice, making things a bit more tricky. Move too fast on that ice and you'll slide straight off the platform into spikes or a flying rat (naturally) - or worse still, miss one of the hidden areas. With several secret areas hidden in each stage, eagle eyed players will see cracks on the wall or things 'that don't look quite right', which is a sure-fire cue to give it a smack with your shovel and see what happens. With 48 collectable pieces of sheet music to find, which can be sold in the village, it'll take some time to find 'em all.
Happily, unlike most games from back in the day, Shovel Knight has a generous checkpoint system. Throughout the levels you'll find lanterns, which light up when you walk past, becoming a handy checkpoint for you to start from the next time you come a cropper. Which, in a game like this, is probably going to be quite a lot.
Because of the type of game Shovel Knight's trying to recreate, it brings with it a difficulty level ranks somewhere between "Incredibly Hard" and "No" on the frustration scale. Timing is key for most things on Shovel Knight, as hitting an enemy at the wrong time, or jumping too soon can leave you in loads of trouble. It even goes as far to re-load enemies back into a level when you revisit a past section, just to give you another chance to die. Should the worst happen, you'll drop a chunk of your gold, which can usually be picked back up again on your next attempt - although if you fell down a hole or landed on spikes, it's probably not worth the risk trying to get your lost fortune back. Continuously dying and losing gold can get annoying in any game, but losing money in Shovel Knight can stop you from getting that much needed weapon or armour upgrade that would make your life so much easier. Instead, you're left having to play through levels, trying your best to die as little as possible, so you at least have some gold left at the end of it for shiny upgrades. Shovel Knight definitely blurs the lines of 'Am I bad? Or is the game just too hard?', which you cant really fault it for, as it is trying to recreate the feel of old school NES games - but God, does it get hard.
However, steps have been taken to make life in Shovel Knight a little more friendly. As mentioned above, as you progress through the levels in the game you collect gold, which can be used to buy a selection of upgrades, like health and magic, or new armour and powers for your shovel. The armour upgrades have various effects - for example, the red armour will halve the amount of gold you drop when you die in a level, making things slightly more forgiving. But that's not all. There's also a selection of handy items you can buy to aid your progress, like the Chaos Sphere, which you can throw at opponents to attack from a distance, or the Dust Knuckles that can punch through blocks continuously. The use of items however does require magic, so you'll have to use them sparingly. Just like gold, you can find magic pots that will replenish your magic limit throughout the level - not forgetting the adorable dancing Troupple King, who tops up your empty vials with health and magic potions. So there are plenty of helping hands.
Shovel Knight is available on a variety of platforms, but the 3DS version really stands out from the rest, thanks to its StreetPass Arena feature, which is unlocked roughly halfway through the game. Here, you have a set amount of time to record yourself collecting gems and attacking... thin air. The idea is that when you StreetPass someone else, your two random fits will be merged, and replayed in the context of a level. The knight who collects the most gems, or manages to land a successful hit wins the round - you just don't know where the treasure, or your opponent will be when you record your moves.
If there wasn't already enough 'old meets new' in Shovel Knight, there's also a Feats system in place, which documents your most prized achievements. For example 'Music Lover' is awarded for obtaining and returning all song scrolls, while 'No Damage!' can be had for, funnily enough, finishing any stage without taking damage. However, a bit disappointingly, these achievements are purely for show and don't offer any reward for completing them.
While the story mode itself is rather short, the Feats do help add some replay value to the game, while the New Game+ mode gives you an incentive to go through a second time. Due to a hugely successful backing on Kickstarter, enough money has been raised to add more features in the future such as Battle mode, Challenge mode, Gender Swap mode, and Three playable boss campaigns featuring King knight, Plague Knight, and Specter Knight. So, there's a fair few things on the horizon to justify the price.
Shovel Knight sets out to be a perfect mix of the old and the new, and it gets the balance just about right. The upgrades, items, and generous checkpoint system in the levels make it more accessible to those who may get stuck quite easily, while the atmosphere is as retro as anyone could hope. Shovel Knight may have its challenging moments, but that just makes the reward all the sweeter.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U