Shovel Knight Retrospective- Part 1: Shovel of Hope

(Over the next few months, Electric Retrospective will include a series of analyses on Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, a critically hailed 2D platformer and the first release of Yacht Club Games. Each part will discuss one of the game’s campaigns, each of which are unique enough to warrant a review, and why those campaigns stand out amongst both classic and modern games. This first part of the Shovel Knight retrospective will discuss Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope, which was the base campaign released in 2014, as well as the version differences and content between consoles.

To avoid confusion, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove is the name of the game as a whole, as a collection of all the story campaigns. Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope, the base campaign, is the campaign the game began with in 2014. The game has received two campaigns thus far- Plague of Shadows, released in 2015, and Specter of Torment, released in 2017- with the final major update, King of Cards, to be released in 2018.)

shovel of hope

Though it’s only been less than a year since Electric Retrospective began, the blog and column have had self-contained news stories, editorials, and reviews, but never a four part critique, let alone for a single series. The thought probably comes to the minds of many that a game must be fairly special to warrant a full-length project such as this. However, any doubts about that can be put to rest, because Shovel Knight is one of the most special games out there. This Kickstarter project from Yacht Club Games became an instant hit, hailed by critics and fans alike for its gameplay, music, characters, humor, graphics, and just about anything else a game can be praised for. The game even received constant free updates with new content, stories, and characters, set to conclude with a brilliant finale in 2018. Of course, it isn’t a perfect game- no game is- but it’s deserving of every bit of praise it received, even in its original release. Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope is fantastic even in its base form, and one doesn’t have to dig too deep to find out why.

tower of fate
Shovel Knight looks towards the Tower of Fate, where he hopes to find answers about his missing traveling partner, Shield Knight. Image from Yacht Club Games

The story follows the titular Shovel Knight, an kind-hearted knight who follows the code of Shovelry. Shovel Knight and his partner, Shield Knight, formerly traveled the land in search of adventure and treasure, but Shovel Knight was mysteriously separated from her by the power of a cursed amulet confined in the Tower of Fate. In his grief, Shovel Knight went into a life of solitude, but in the short time he was away, a villain called the Enchantress formed the Order of No Quarter, a group of eight knights she leads to conquer the world. The Enchantress just so happens to live in the Tower of Fate, which leads Shovel Knight to begin a new quest, both to protect the land and to discover what happened to his beloved Shield Knight.

don't throw in the trowel
Shovel Knight drops by the village tavern, which always has colorful characters to talk to, such as the Troupple Acolyte (middle) and Chester (right). However, the true star here is Croaker; Shovel Knight really digs his puns. Image from Yacht Club Games

The setup to the story is fairly standard and somewhat easy to predict, but even a basic plot becomes engaging with the right writing. Shovel of Hope is filled to the brim with interesting characters and dialogue, especially interactions between Shovel Knight and the game’s bosses, which gives specific bosses extra depth. Most of the Order bosses aren’t even true villains as shown in dialogue- some of them are misled, and a few of them actually have pure motives. Even minor NPCs can leave a positive impact on the player with their goofy charm, such as the Troupple King, a dancing fish-fruit hybrid that rules over a pond, or Croaker, a frog with an admirable collection of puns. Much of the dialogue also references the game’s development, including some tongue-in-cheek jokes about crowdfunding, but they’re cleverly worked into the context of the story and don’t feel out of place. Even aside from its humor and dialogue, Shovel of Hope’s story becomes incredibly compelling in the last stretch of the game. Especially during the final boss, the game does an effective job of conveying the bonds between characters in unexpected ways.

Shovel Knight’s controls are fairly simple, but aside from a basic jump one would expect from a 2D platformer, Shovel Knight’s signature weapon, the Shovel Blade, takes center stage. As ridiculous as some may pass it off as, the Shovel Blade is a versatile melee weapon, and can be used for attacking enemies, breaking dirt blocks, or digging up buried treasure. Delivering a nonfatal blow to an enemy causes Shovel Knight to move backwards slightly, so players must use strategy to take down difficult enemies, lest they be knocked back and fall.

shovel drop
The Shovel Blade allows the player to damage enemies while reaching new heights, and many of the game’s challenges involve using enemies as platforms to access secret areas. Image from Yacht Club Games

The Shovel Blade also gives the player the ability to pogo jump by holding the joystick down while in air, which causes Shovel Knight to thrust his weapon downward. The pogo jump allows the player to damage enemies and objects while bouncing off them, and while it works much like Scrooge’s pogo jump from DuckTales, the game has many unique challenges designed around this mechanic. Certain enemies have weak spots that make them vulnerable to either a basic attack or a pogo jump, and others require the player to get creative in combat. For example, the Goldarmor enemy, a variant of which appears in most of the game’s levels, will constantly move its shield upward to protect from pogo jumps or forward to protect from basic attacks. The player can bait a Goldarmor into holding its shield either way, then surprise the Goldarmor with an unexpected attack.

Shovel of Hope has fantastic level design, both in theming and gameplay. Many platforming games stick to basic level concepts, a trait often connected to the New Super Mario Bros. series (common level themes include plains, desert, water, sky, fire, ice, and forest). However, while the game does use some of these concepts, they’re expanded upon in fascinating ways. For example, the fire level in a typical 2D platformer tends to be a volcano, but the Lost City, Shovel of Hope’s fire level, is a cave filled with lava that can be turned into bouncy green jelly for Shovel Knight to use as a trampoline. The same conceptual creativity is applied to the bosses, such as Propeller Knight, a fencing romantic that uses a helicopter helmet to fly.

Each level balances fairness and challenge in gameplay by introducing a mechanic early on in the stage in an easy situation. Once the player learns the ropes, the level ramps up the difficulty by setting those mechanics in new situations, and eventually tasks the player with handling multiple obstacles at once after they learn about both. The levels never feel unfair due to the tight controls and good learning curve, even if a few sections can be quite challenging even for experienced players. In addition, there are secret areas containing treasure and items that can be found by breaking open walls or clearing platforming challenges. While they’re well-hidden, they aren’t so obscured that first-time players don’t have a fair chance to find them.

fishing
One of Shovel Knight’s most useful Relics is the Fishing Rod, which lets the player fish for items in bottomless pits. Sparkling areas in pits contain special items such as treasure and music sheets. Image from Yacht Club Games

In some secret areas, Shovel Knight can find Chester, an eccentric treasure hunter that sells him Relics. These special items use Magic energy, which can be refilled with Magic Jars. Players shouldn’t worry about running out of Magic in most areas, since Magic Jars are readily available across every level, but one must be wary of their Magic amount during boss battles. Each Relic has a different use- some are weapons, some allow Shovel Knight to access new areas, and some have more specific powers. Most of the Relics are fun to use, especially the Propeller Dagger and the Dust Knuckles, and while not all Relics are equally useful, they all serve a purpose.

Aside from Relics, Shovel Knight can find other collectibles. A few music sheets are found in each stage, but treasure is the most prominent part of Shovel Knight’s rewards. Money is spread across every level, and can be used to increase magic and health, buy relics, give the Shovel Blade new abilities, and upgrade Shovel Knight’s armor. Armor upgrades in particular accommodate multiple playstyles- there’s armor for players that want to avoid knockback, armor that gives more magic for extra Relic usage, there’s even a set of shiny gold armor that does nothing but make Shovel Knight look brilliant and do backflips instead of jumps.

Speaking of money, Shovel Knight uses a unique alternative to a lives system. Rather than having a set amount of lives before reaching game over, the player returns to their last checkpoint when they die, but they drop a fraction of their money exactly where they died in the form of winged money bags. The player can choose to move on in the stage, or they can return to that section from the checkpoint to try and reclaim their cash, though dying again will cause it to disappear, as their wallet is further subtracted from. What makes this system more complex in design is the fact that checkpoints can be broken. Treasure of different value appears inside each checkpoint, with higher value treasure indicating the difficulty of the ahead section, and after a few hits, the player can break any checkpoint -with the exception of checkpoints in the first and last stages- for monetary gain. However, once a checkpoint is broken, it can’t be repaired, and if the player dies, they have to return to the closest checkpoint that isn’t broken. This gives the player a risk VS reward situation, allowing experienced players to put a farther trek forward at stake for a chance at extra treasure.

mole knight fight
Shovel Knight duels with Mole Knight, a member of the Order of No Quarter who fights using massive claws and lava plumes. Image from Yacht Club Games

Another aspect of Shovel of Hope’s difficulty is the boss tier system. While Shovel Knight’s eight foes in the Order are a certain nod to the eight Robot Master bosses of most Mega Man games, which can be fought in any order, the game takes an extra step to ensure players have fair difficulty and stage choice. While Mega Man games usually have eight bosses that can be fought in any order, with each boss giving a weapon that’s strong against another boss, not every stage is as easy as others, meaning there’s usually a “right way” fans declare to play the game, thus defeating the purpose of choosing any boss to start. For example, Mega Man 2 could be played by starting on Quick Man’s stage, one of the most difficult in the game, or the player could go to Metal Man first, getting an easy boss out of the way and gaining a weapon that’s strong against most of the game’s bosses. However, in Shovel of Hope, bosses are split into three groups of difficulty- King Knight and Specter Knight are somewhat easy bosses placed at the beginning, Plague Knight, Mole Knight, and Treasure Knight increase the challenge midway through, and Propeller Knight, Polar Knight, and Tinker Knight are the final obstacles before the Tower of Fate. In addition, bosses don’t have Relic weaknesses -with one exception-, but can be defeated using strategies with Relics. For example, Plague Knight’s sporadic movement can be matched by the unpredictable Chaos Orb, and the Throwing Anchor can hit Propeller Knight when he flies out of Shovel Knight’s reach.

Being based on many classic NES platformers, Shovel Knight’s art style uses pixel art. However, if there’s one thing indie games with pixel art tend to have, it’s fantastic art direction. Shovel Knight’s world is brought to life by colorful and vibrant sprites, and while sticking close to NES limitations, character animation is fluid. Background artwork makes the stages feel like expansive worlds, and the level of detail is excellent even by modern standards. It also helps that the character designs stand out, making each character memorable.

Of course, one of Shovel Knight’s strongest attributes is its soundtrack, composed by the wonderful Jake Kaufman. Any soundtrack is instantly made better with him behind it, and Shovel Knight may be one of his best works yet. Music sheets can be found in stages and brought to the Bard, based on Kaufman himself, who will pay the player in treasure and allow them to play songs from different stages in the hubworld. The bard even has various stories about each song he composed- some of them involving humourous interactions with his clients, and others being real stories about how Kaufman created the song, such as how “High Above the Land,” the song played in the Flying Machine, was composed during a three-hour livestream. In addition, two excellent themes are composed by one of the composers for Mega Man games, Manami Matsumae, those songs being “A Thousand Leagues Below,” the theme of the Iron Whale, and “Flowers of Antimony,” the theme of the Explodatorium.

In true NES fashion, Shovel Knight even has a few cheat codes to use. While ingame achievements are turned off while cheats are active, many of the cheat codes are just plain fun to use. Some cheat codes turn Shovel Knight into a giant, others change his running speed, and a few give him Relics at the beginning of the game. One of the codes even unlocks a special speedrunning challenge from ScrewAttack Game Convention. Most famously, the code “X&BUTT” activates Butt Mode, which does nothing but change certain words in character dialogue, primarily “shovel” and “knight,” to “butt.” There’s over 300 cheat codes in Shovel of Hope alone, as well as codes for other campaigns, some of which were added in later updates. Nonetheless, while Yacht Club Games didn’t have to put in cheat codes at all, it speaks to the game’s success as a love letter to NES classics, as well as just being an enjoyable time for players.

battletoads
Shovel Knight poses with the Battletoads, who help him train in the XBox One, PC, Mac, and Linux versions of Shovel of Hope. Image from Yacht Club Games

Shovel of Hope has a few content differences depending on which console the player uses. The PS4, PS3, and Vita versions include a boss fight with the god-slaying Kratos from God of War, as well as special armor with Kratos’s abilities. Likewise, the XBox One, PC, Mac, and Linux versions include a boss fight with the Battletoads, a name that most NES aficionados remember as one of the hardest games on the system, plus armor that gives Shovel Knight the Battletoads’ abilities. While the Wii U and 3DS versions didn’t receive any bonus boss fights with Nintendo characters, these versions have dual screens, which allow the player to select Relics from a touch screen menu without having to pause the game; while this may seem like the short end of the stick, it’s actually quite convenient for moment-to-moment action. These versions did receive exclusive content later in the form of a Shovel Knight Amiibo, but it’ll be discussed in Part 2 of this retrospective, which will focus on the Plague of Shadows update and the Amiibo update.

If there’s one thing Shovel of Hope did above all else, it was that it took what made classic games of the NES era so magnificent, then improved upon them and made them unique, new attributes. By allowing the player to use different strategies and items to complete challenges, as well as allowing players to choose the risk of certain areas, the game becomes accessible to both newcomers and experienced players, offering a fair challenge for both. That’s not even mentioning the effort and creativity put into the characters, dialogue, visuals, and music, all of which are high quality and give the game a unique charm. Even if most of the game is inspired by games like Mega Man, Zelda II, DuckTales, Castlevania, and Super Mario Bros. 3, the talented team at Yacht Club Games managed to make Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope a truly groundbreaking experience that’s all its own.

Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove is available for $24.99 on Wii U, 3DS, Switch, PS4, PS3, Vita, XBox One, PC, Mac, Linux, and Amazon Fire TV. All currently available campaigns are included, and future content updates are free for all versions. Campaigns can also be purchased separately at a lower price at a later date. This review was made using the Wii U, 3DS, and Switch versions.

Tune in on February 20 as the retrospective of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove continues. Next time, the spotlight will be given to Plague of Shadows, the first boss campaign, and how Yacht Club Games did DLC right.

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