Shovel Knight 3DS Review: The NES Gets One Last Incredible 8-Bit Platform Game

By Alex Riviello , Updated Jul 01, 2014 01:23 PM EDT
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Shovel Knight is a retro throwback more effective than any in recent memory. If you didn't know better you would think this is a classic 8-bit game, so perfectly is the style recreated. 

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When most studios try to make a retro game they throw together some pixel art, construct some platforms to jump on, and call it a day. 

Not so with Yacht Club Games. They’ve done a meticulous job of making this game faithful to the NES platformers that influenced it, going so far as to limit the graphics and sounds to make sure that this really feels like a game lost in time. While there are a few concessions they made in terms of an expanded color palette and more parallax (there weren’t nearly as many scrolling backgrounds as appear here) there’s no way you could blame them for it. This looks and feels just like an 8-bit game, just better.

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As you'd expect you play the titular character as he wields his Shovel Blade and tries to save his old adventuring companion Shield Knight from an evil Enchantress. The Shovel Knight can dig with his weapon of choice and bounce on enemies by aiming it down, and he will amass a number of relic special weapons that can assist him in battle. The controls are perfect, and easily picked up by anyone who's had even the most passing familiarity with a platformer, offering two-button gameplay and no shortage of fun enemies to fight, secret locations to unearth, and memorable bosses to fight. 

Right away you’ll know what games the developers loved, though. It’s an ode to every great NES title, a game that combines the overworld map from Super Mario 3 (complete with roaming enemies that move around after you die), the special weapons of Castlevania, and bosses straight out of Mega Man

But it’s not all old influences. There’s a little bit of RPG variety to be found in the game’s couple of towns, which offer a couple of quests and characters to interact with. And while you will certainly die during combat there are no limited lives to worry about here. Die and you’ll leave floating bags of money around, which can be picked up during your next life. Fail to reach them and that money will be gone forever, however- a clear nod to the evil mechanics of Dark Souls.

Shovel Knight will take you around 6-7 hours to complete but it does offer a New Game + mode that lets you continue to play a harder version of the game with everything you’ve collected, and those of you who really want to (ahem) dig into the game will find a number of fun achievements to earn, some of which will really test your skills. Can you get through a level using the shovel less than 20 times, or without dying? How about playing through the entire game without falling into a bottomless hole? Good luck with that one.

But even with all of that it’s hard not to wish for more. There are a total of two towns in the game with a handful of characters to interact with, and the dialogue and little quests you can start really help change up the gameplay, so it’s a disappointment to find out that it’s very limited in scope. There’s one location that's a sidequest in itself, allowing you to explore a mansion full of ghosts and save those (Kickstarter backers!) trapped within it, and it’s the kind of thing you wish there was more of, even though what we have is so finely polished and replayable that you probably won’t mind too much.

However, one thing is immediately clear- the 3DS version is the way to go. I personally find the handheld's 3D effect irritating in most titles and rarely finish an entire game with the 3D enabled, but here there’s no other way to do it. The characters all appear on a single plane in front of the background, which makes them stand out and look incredible, whereas in 2D they can sometimes feel hidden among the background details. Platforms seem that much more accessible and the parallax effect is beautifully realized, as backgrounds scroll far off in the distance. It really is an incredible use of the platform. The second screen lets you more easily select new weapons and the game also supports Streetpass, where you can stage battles for passers-by to contend with. If you have the option of this on all three versions (PC, Wii U and 3DS),go for 3DS, although each version offers its own strengths- off-screen play on Wii U, trading cards and achievemnts for Steam, etc.

This is the kind of throwback we love to see, one that completely understands the genre it’s trying to emulate, inside and out, taking it and reshaping it and adding a little taste of its own. Shovel Knight is a wonderfully fun game and we can only hope that this isn’t the last time he hoists his shovel against evil.

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Shovel Knight was reviewed from a Nintendo 3DS review code provided by Yacht Club Games. The game is now available for $14.99 on both PC via Steam and Humble and the Nintendo eShops for Wii U and 3DS. Mac and Linux versions are on the way along with free updates for all platforms.

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