Shovel Knight: Yacht Club’s debut looks retro, feels new

June 26, 2014


Influences from the NES era are nothing new. This has been an ongoing trend in indie games, often to draw on the nostalgia factor and also cut the costs of developing in HD. Some might even say the trend is getting a bit overdone, and I might have agreed with them until now. Shovel Knight has proven that combining old art styles and mechanics, and mashing together old genres, can still be done well.

Unlike many games that have come before, Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight isn’t forcing you to deal with twenty-year-old flaws in the name of nostalgia. It certainly has its specific influences; Mega Man and the earlier Castlevania games are closest to the mark. Still, Shovel Knight has really shown that it can stand on its own as an original 2D action game, instead of simply playing the nostalgia card.

Shovel Knight is tasked with defeating the Enchantress and learning the fate of a long lost comrade in arms, Shield Knight. Shovel Knight must fight through a crew of bosses called the Order of No Quarter, with themes much like bosses a Mega Man game  right down to the naming conventions. Each boss has a name that ends in Knight, and is at the end of a level with a theme that matches the name. After defeating a boss, further areas of the world map are unlocked. Most areas give you two or three choices, though all of them must be defeated before the next part of the map is unlocked. This gives a bit of choice, and allows bosses to ramp up in difficulty as you play and earn upgrades.


Shovel Knight collects money from enemies and finds more around each level, and uses this to upgrade health and magic, as well as gain spells and abilities. The wrinkle here is Shovel Knight’s death penalty: when you fall in battle, you lose a little money, which can be reclaimed if you return to the place you died. Though you can only get back what was lost after your most recent death, leaving this money unclaimed will eventually hold the player back when it comes to upgrades. This penalty may seem a bit lenient, but in practice it’s much better than going back to the old “lives and continues” model, as losing money encourages players to replay only the challenging areas, instead of padding game length by forced repetition of whole levels.

Many of the mechanics in the game might feel old-fashioned, but the game offers a full array of new innovations. As an example, the game’s checkpoints can be destroyed for a bonus reward  at the cost of losing the checkpoint as a place to restart if you fall. Each level has a few of these, and I found myself destroying a few but leaving the one just before the boss. It all depends how confident you are as you go through a level, and how much you want to risk replaying if you should fail. Just as repeated deaths might leave you behind when it comes to upgrades, returning to old areas to gather more funds, gamble with checkpoints and find secret areas can put you ahead of the curve.


Upgrades and spells help determine your play style. Putting most of your money into mana and spells is one option, which often allows you to damage enemies at range. However, following this path means not upgrading health. One welcome departure from many games that have you making these kind of choices: you aren’t punished for not specializing in one path. You can always go and get more money, and the game doesn’t become super-hard if you dabble in both areas equally.

One highly enjoyable thing about Shovel Knight is that, though it may draw its influences from the late ’80s and early ’90s, it doesn’t fall into the trap of inundating players with memes and references. There are a few, such as the nod to Mega Man I noted above, but they are far less obvious than other games attempting the same thing. The game does throw in a lot of comedy, though much of it is in the way it presents the NPCs in the village area. For example, the guard at the gate allows you inside with your trusty shovel, as it is simply a tool and not a weapon, despite your fame for your heroics while wielding it.

The game’s soundtrack is, in a word, amazing, and by far one of the best chiptune soundtracks I have heard in a very long time. It’s both reminiscent of its retro influences and fresh enough not to sound like it’s 20 years old. It adds a wonderful backdrop as you go through the levels, as well as functioning as a collectible: grabbing music pages from inside levels and delivering them to the bard in town earns you money and the ability to listen to the music from that level.


Shovel Knight is a wonderful experience that offers old-school nostalgia and all of the polish you might expect from a modern game. The time put into polishing this game was well worth it, making it one game nobody should let pass them by.

Pros: Aesthetics are wonderful, gameplay’s not just nostalgia
Cons: Penalty for death may be too lenient for some

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.