I feel like I wasted my love letter to NES games article on 1001 Spikes after playing Shovel Knight. I still love 1001 Spikes and wouldn’t change anything I wrote about it, but Shovel Knight is definitely a more heartfelt love letter than it was. 1001 Spikes and Shovel Knight have a similar effect, though they reach it from opposite directions. 1001 Spikes looks like an early 8-bit game, but it doesn’t really play like any of them. It is deliberately and viciously cruel to the player, but not in the same ways that archaic 8-bit games were hard. It’s difficultly is on purpose, part of a joke on the player, not like actual old games’ desire to wring quarters out of players or artificially inflate the playtime. Shovel Knight is more like a late NES game, but informed by more than 20 years of game development. Its creators have described it as an NES game that plays like you remember them playing rather than how they actually did. That is accurate. While it pushes the NES aesthetic a little further than some later games on the system (check out Yacht Club Games breakdowns of how they broke from NES limits on Gamasutra), it looks and moves just like and NES game, only with all of the rough edges sanded off.
Shovel Knight pulls from tons of NES games. Its world map is much like Super Mario Bros. 3, its 8 evil Knight in the Order of No Quarter are much like Mega Man’s 8 Robot Masters, the Shovel Drop move is the same as the cane pogo from DuckTales, etc. However, it weaves these myriad influences into something new and unique. Shovel Knight moves like Mega Man, more agile than a Belmont but lacking the momentum of Mario, but he is mostly restricted to melee combat. The controls are pitch perfect. Plenty of parts of the game seem incredibly difficult, but are actually quite easy thanks to how well the protagonist controls. There is a cool risk/reward system with the checkpoints, where the player can break them for more money, but then they won’t respawn at them. What is lacks are those really cheap moments that tend to abound in even the best NES games. In fact, Shovel Knight occasionally feels too easy, at least until you try a new game plus.
What the game does best is create a world highly reminiscent of an NES game, with that particular sort of non-logic that rules that era. The main character is a knight that fights with a shovel, but other than an avalanche of puns no one comments on it. The shop owner beats the player to all the good treasures and makes him buy them from him in the dungeon. Then there is the Troupple King, who is half trout and half apple. He dances and fills up the player’s chalices with helpful ichors. Everything is just slightly weird and wholly charming.
A feeling of love for 8-bit action games simply permeates Shovel Knight. The player can feel it. For players that can remember spending weekends renting Mega Man or Castlevania and playing it as much as possible, this game feels like coming home. I don’t know how to keep writing about this game without straight gushing about it. Like the music, which is excellent. Same goes for the graphics. The whole package perfectly captures the aesthetic of the era. Then there is the pdf instruction manual made to look just like an instruction manual from the NES era. I know I can be a sucker for nostalgia, and no game has more effectively given me the sort of nostalgia that I want than Shovel Knight. Aside from that, though, I genuinely believe that it is a very good game. The levels may be a touch too long and a touch too easy, but it is immensely playable. After beating it the first time, I immediately fired up it up to play a second time. I never do that. If you are a person with any affection for NES games, you owe it to yourself to play Shovel Knight. It is just the best.