Call a spade a spade.

I launched into Shovel Knight with some pretty hefty expectations given the buzz about it being one of the standout indie titles of 2014. Catchy chiptunes, uber-hard platform mechanics, old school rescue-the-princess storyline re-imagined with shovels instead of swords. The whole presentation of this game is a monument to the NES days of pixel glory.

The nods are all there; Super Mario 3, Mega Man, Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link, DuckTales. It takes the best of these games and throws them together in an original concept mashup of a shovel-bearing hero out to slay his former comrades that are under the spell of an evil Enchantress. You storm castles and face-off in the lairs of these evil knights, unlocking gates and spreading your claim over the Mario 3-style overworld map as you go.

What did the shovel say to the face? SLAP

What did the shovel say to the face…? SLAP!

I too fell under Shovel Knight’s spell, at least for a while. There’s so much to love about this game besides its obvious influences; neat gravity mechanics that would have blown the roof off back in the day, an 8-bit soundtrack that you want to keep hearing long after you’ve quit, and the occasional choice to risk it all and double down for extra loot. It certainly ticks a lot of boxes, but just like a double-edged shovel, it cuts both ways.

I get why it’s so difficult (probably because NES games like Mega Man 2 were insanely difficult), but as much variety as Yacht Club Games put into the levels I feel the odd short cut was taken: like blocking my line of sight. In the early stages, this was implemented with dark rooms being illuminated by sporadic lightning bolts; a clever use of the game’s environment, sure, but in a later castle I couldn’t see where I was landing because a curtain was blocking my view. Some might call that an added challenge. I call that a cheap shot.

At least there's some sympathy from the NPCs

At least there’s some sympathy from the NPCs

The leveling system is a tad unfair as well. You need gold to purchase your upgrades, but you can’t exit castles without giving up all your hard-earned goal and checkpoints (thank GOD there’s checkpoints). Every time you die a portion of your money floats around your last corpse with little angel wings waiting for you to recover it – a la Darksouls. There’s plenty of treasure scattered around the castles and secret rooms to discover and get your loot on, but most of it was lost by the frequent deaths I experienced getting to the boss. Maybe I should have spent more time in challenge mode or practicing how to not die so frequently, but as an experienced platformer fan who still couldn’t figure that out on the fly after a handful of hours, the difficulty probably needs some tuning. After defeating the boss I’d still get my token bonus, but seeing tens of thousands of gold evaporated – gold that I painstakingly dug out of the ground and otherwise looted fair and square – I couldn’t help but feel cheated a little.

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Diggin’ a Grave…

I respect what Shovel Knight is doing. It obviously has its fans that will defend its ridiculous difficulty and jeer me to suck it up, otherwise it wouldn’t have raised over four times its Kickstarter goal. You can not get through this game without tapping into your old-school 8-bit skills and more importantly, your old-school patience. But had I been a bit more rewarded for my victories and a little less punished for not having the controls mastered and already being familiar with the traps, I’d have walked away from this game with a little less ash in my mouth.

I struggled to play through more than one castle at a time.

I haven’t uttered the blasphemous words “stupid game” before rage quitting in a long time (OK, maybe a bunch of times in Dark Souls), but that doesn’t mean I think Shovel Knight is stupid, because it isn’t. I just found it really, really frustrating – constantly. Maybe I’ve grown soft in the last 25 years since Mega Man, but I struggled to play through more than one castle at a time without the need to take a break and breath deeply. That’s not what I want to revisit from the old days. Beating the devilish castle bosses is a necessary catharsis, one that you truly feel like you’ve earned. But at this rate I doubt I’ll ever make it to the final showdown.

A review code of Shovel Knight was provided courtesy of Yacht Club Games. The game was reviewed on PC.

Hard As Dirt

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