At first it appears Shovel Knight is something of a Ducktales clone, with the eponymous knight bouncing about on his shovel like Scrooge with his cane. The knight can only bounce when hitting an enemy or specific in-game objects, however, and most of his attacks are reserved to lashing out and striking enemies with his scooper.
Every inch inspired by the traditional 8-bit platformer, Shovel Knight does fall back on established design tropes. Disappearing blocks and bottomless pits abound, for example. But the game is pleasantly distinct. Everything from the way that the knight can dig up treasure, to the way he can reflect projectiles with a swing of his shovel adds to its unique identity. Shovel Knight isn't a rehash or collection of ill-fitting parts to feed off nostalgia in the modern era. It is its own game and could stand in the pantheon of respected 8-bit platformers.
One particularly noteworthy feature is the aforementioned disappearing blocks – a platformer tradition that Shovel Knight is happy to borrow, but with an added twist. Rather than appearing in a set pattern, the blocks are activated by hitting a switch with a downward strike from the shovel. The blocks then disappear after a set amount of time, forcing players to quickly maneuver while deadly lava spills intermittently between the gaps.
The sequence initially frustrated me, as a pot of lava continuously crashed down on my head at the apex of a final jump. I died more than once at that moment of the level, and initially I wanted to decry the game for being cheap, but I grew to appreciate its design.
One of the hallmarks of good design is when a level gives you a glimpse of a trap or an enemy before throwing you into the deep end. Granted, Shovel Knight is a little more unforgiving than that, but that doesn't mean the pot of lava is a complete surprise. Those who have taken note of the timing of previous pots of falling lava, which are considerably easier to avoid, will know to hold up a moment before making the final jump. Of course, there's a lot of pressure to make the leap, since the floor is about to disappear under your feet. But it's that sort of moment that illustrates Shovel Knight knows how to walk the line between tense 8-bit challenge and being outright unfair. It's a critical test, one that it mostly passes with flying colors.
Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to Shovel Knight is that it could have fit right in with the most enjoyable lot of classic NES platformers. Nintendo's original console may be long gone, but the tradition of the experiences it helped shape remains strong thanks to the likes of throwback games like Shovel Knight.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.