Shovel Knight (Nintendo 3DS) Review

By Javier Jimenez 30.06.2014

Review for Shovel Knight on Nintendo 3DS

Shovel Knight, shovel blade in hand, has already tunneled its way into the hearts of gamers. By now, synthesized cries of retro joy are rising from message board to message board. Bubbling beneath this surface of praise for a great game, though, are deeper threads of industry dialogue: the triumph of the crowd funding development model, with a criticism of big name publishers on the side, and justification of sprite based indie platformers, from Cave Story to now - an exciting reminder that Mighty No. 9 is still on its way, as well.

All of these could add to the story of Shovel Knight. Some could fill an entire article. Right now is Shovel Knight's moment, though, so the best way to talk about it is on its own terms, a product unto itself, a sincere work by experienced developers.

Which is what Shovel Knight is. Yacht Club Games is a new name, but the people who comprise Yacht Club's staff are industry veterans. They are skilled, intelligent people who have gone through more than one crunch. They made Double Dragon Neon, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, A Boy and His Blob, Contra 4 and more. Therefore, it should be less a surprise than it is that Shovel Knight is as good as it is.

Striking out on one's own to form a wholly independent studio is never a safe venture, however - especially not in such a vicious industry and at such a tough economic period. Nor is the promise of a game made in just 12 months a sure bet. When Kickstarter backers first played Shovel Knight on June 25th, 2014, then, it was with relief that they found something great. Here was exactly what had been promised when they backed the project: a lost child of the NES age, a modernized retro classic, filled with loving detail.

Screenshot for Shovel Knight on Nintendo 3DS

For those not familiar with Shovel Knight, it might be best described by saying two things. First, yes, it is "NES action". That is, indeed, it is Mega Man and Castlevania and Zelda II and Duck Tales all blended together in a frothy pixelated shake. It will test gaming skills. There will be platforms suspended in the air. They will fall when jumped on. Enemies will knock the player off of said platforms. Most of all, it will be fun, because on a technical level Shovel Knight is nearly flawless, while on a design level it is smart and fair.

Second is that Shovel Knight modernises NES gaming in ways that even Cave Story did not. Yacht Club are obviously students of gaming. Their Twitch streams feature them playing games and speaking of everything from the minutiae of tile based game design and engineering to larger design concerns. They also understand what concepts of the 8-bit era are outdated. For example, they've discarded limited lives, allowing the player to challenge him or herself as desired with bypassable checkpoints.

Screenshot for Shovel Knight on Nintendo 3DS

Nor has Yacht Club allowed themselves to be trapped by the presentation format of the games they have learned from. Without spoilers, Shovel Knight's presentation is beyond reproach, given the 8-bit boundaries of its engineering (boundaries it breaks, as discussed in David D'Angelo's "Breaking the NES for Shovel Knight" article). Though focused on gameplay, Shovel Knight contains interactive story moments one does not expect of 8-bit NES action games. These moments range from amusing to surprisingly beautiful. In terms of both artistic vision and execution, they equal or surpass such moments as the dream sequence at the end of Super Mario Bros 2. or the interlude at the start of Final Fantasy - scenes that defined the NES and entire genres.

This sort of artistic excellence is present throughout Shovel Knight. The game's characters, despite adhering to strict NES sprite size and colour restrictions, are incredibly detailed. Tinker Knight, Spectre Knight, Propeller Knight and other feature characters are all as entertaining as the game's star, as are individual villagers in towns and minor enemies such as the flying rats. Not only are their overall designs pixel perfect, so are their animations, at least in the case of showcases such as the bosses. This is all to say, 8-bit or not, Shovel Knight is a very good looking game.

Screenshot for Shovel Knight on Nintendo 3DS

It's a nice sounding one as well, with music composed by Jake "Virt" Kaufman. Although Shovel Knight lacks the high fidelity punch of Double Dragon Neon (go listen to Mango Tango, over and over), it squeezes every last waveform from the NES specifications with just as much skill. It's a crunchy, bopping, trilling, pure pitch sort of NES techno soundtrack, including some clever homages to classic franchises such as Castlevania.

Put this all together...
1) A game that plays beautifully
2) A game that looks lovely
3) A game that sounds good

That's sort of the definition of a great game, and that's exactly what Shovel Knight is. Flawless? Without any debatable design decisions? No. However, it is close enough that anyone with a passing interest should buy it, or at least watch it in action (and then go buy it).

Screenshot for Shovel Knight on Nintendo 3DS

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 10 out of 10

Masterpiece - Platinum Award

Rated 10 out of 10

Shovel Knight is, at the risk of repetition, brilliant, beautiful stuff. "Retro" may not be the right word to describe it. It is fun not because it evokes memories of 1989, but because it is self sufficiently excellent, here, today, in 2014. It rises to levels of technical and artistic achievement not often seen in the industry, and it has done so within a strict 8-bit structure. If Yacht Club can keep up this kind of quality and creativity, they have a long, productive future ahead of them. Here's hoping so, and here's hoping for more games as good as Shovel Knight.


Yacht Club Games


Yacht Club Games


2D Platformer



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  10/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   


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