Disclosure: a downloadable copy of the game was supplied by Yacht Club Games for the purpose of this review.
Shovel Knight. Let's talk about Shovel Knight.
I was aware that its development was funded through Kickstarter and that Yacht Club Games had run into trouble with our baffling classification system, but there were plenty of other games for me to worry about. Games that were getting released; on current gen systems no less, with all the bells, whistles and million dollar budgets that such platforms demand. I didn't think that yet another retro-themed 2D platformer was anything to get excited about.
Now I know what Australians were missing out on. Now I know I should've been outraged that bureaucracy slowed the release of legitimate classic.
Shovel Knight's inspirations are many, but are not confined to hardware of decades past. The magic system is reminiscent of the Castlevania games. The themed levels, boss knights and colour palettes are reminiscent of older Mega Man titles. Death is handled in a way that is arguably similar to, though far less frustratingly than the (Demon, Dark) Souls series. The overworld map and encounters are strikingly similar to Super Mario Bros 3.
That's how I see it at least. The developers may have been hoping for comparisons to Ghouls 'n Ghosts, or some other hallowed eight to sixteen bit franchise? Either way, this is one of those rare games that manages to hang with the legends it seeks to emulate.
The first level provides subtle hints that there's more to Shovel Knight than straight platforming and enemy smashing. Before long, jumping puzzles requiring near perfect execution become standard. It won't take long to discern exactly what's required to get to your destination, but identifying the solution is, sometimes, not even half the battle. Relics can help you avoid or mitigate some hazards, but there's no surviving lava or bottomless pits.
Thankfully, checkpoints are mercifully well placed in all but some of the later levels. Dying at the hands of flying foes and mistimed jumps is usually only cause for minor frustration.
Boss fights are varied and death never comes cheaply. Purchasing upgrades to health and magic make these battles more manageable, but that's not to say that they become walk-overs either. You're also able to challenge wanderers and bandits that roam throughout the overworld map. One of the more difficult encounters doesn't even need to be attempted for you to complete the main story, but I strongly recommend that you wander off the beaten path.
Fiends and friends are all beautifully-rendered and whimsically written. There's one character in the first village that I always stopped to impress every time I came for supplies. Even though his response to my action was almost completely identical each time, I chuckled at this townsperson's genuine awe at my shovelling abilities. Everyone from the most evil of nights, to the most obsessive of hat salesmen has a killer line that had me laughing out loud, or smiling at the very least.
The in-game economy is fascinating, if slightly forgiving, and provides ample reason to go searching for hidden treasure. Throughout most levels you can find travelling salesman offering powerful relics for a modest price. The villages offer various opportunities for commerce, allowing players to purchase new armour, attacks and other upgrades. There's even games of skill hidden throughout the more friendly areas of the map. I bought all that I needed to to survive, but Indare say I'll need to save up for some better armour for that New Game Plus run.
Looking over the list of feats (achievement, trophies, what have you), it became apparent to me that I hadn't even scratched the surface. There were relics that I hadn't used at all, or whose proper application I was yet to discover. That may be an indication that certain items are overpowered or overly useful, or that I clung to the familiar.
I only have a few complaints, and my are they minor ones. The StreetPass Arena is the definition of 'unnecessary': you record three, five second ghosts that collect treasure and race against any rivals you happen to pass. My first and only race ended in farce (it's never explained that you can attack in your recording), and as a result, I'll soon be deactivating this function. Next on the list is the kitchen sink design to one of the final fights which washes as supremely lazy and potentially frustrating (I was lucky enough to make it through in one piece). Given the steep upswing in the difficulty curve of the final stages, I can see that this battle could be cause for some to throw in the towel and miss out on some subsequent, better designed set pieces.
My only other complaint is that the game does very little to explain itself to the uninitiated. There's very little in the way of instruction for players who haven't cut their teeth on console classics, so a lot of younger and/or inexperienced people may miss out on a truly great experience.
You might baulk at the near twenty dollar price tag, but this is some of the best five hours of play I've had all year. Shovel Knight demands concentration, keen reflexes and your immediate attention. Yacht Club Games did right by Australian 3DS owners in getting their game here eventually, the least any platforming enthusiast can do is give it a go.