Shovel Knight is quite possibly the best faux-NES game I’ve ever played.
It’s an homage to 8-bit glory, in love with the past but never constrained by it, taking everything that was ever great about the era and bringing it together with a modern design insight. There’s a purity driving the experience, distilling the essence of classic 2D platformers without sacrificing depth or refinement, continually asking you to reevaluated your expectations as it pours out an abundance of creativity. It gave me something I already loved and then found ways to make it better, as I made my way through with a stupid grin on my face like I was rediscovering games again for the first time.
There’s this fundamental mechanical understanding at the heart of Shovel Knight that forms the invisible glue holding it all together. Every platform, enemy, and secret area is tuned so perfectly to how the game plays that playing it feels almost instinctual, like you knew before even picking up the controller exactly how everything works. And that’s likely in large part do to how much Shovel Knight borrows from the games that built the genre it resides in, but there’s never a feeling that it’s ripping anything off. It’s entirely its own creation, with its own quirks and strategies, but playing it is so natural and fluid that it feels like an old friend that’s been hiding all these years.
Shovel Knight’s understandable nature shouldn’t be mistaken for simplicity, as the burden has simply been shifted from interfacing with the game to relentless level designs and boss fights. Progression always feels earned and satisfying, be it a treasure chest at the end, a tricky enemy, or just managing to clear a difficult platform sequence. But Shovel Knight also never falls into the realm of being unfair. Its rules are plainly laid out and death is simply another learning experience, as you figure out new ways to tackle a situation. No matter how many times I died it never seemed as if the game was cheating me, and I always wanted to rush immediately back in to try it again.
Where so many 8-bit games require root memorization and perfect execution, Shovel Knight doesn’t want to waste your time or break your abilities; it wants to teach you how to play better. Success is rewarded and brings with it new challenges such as destroying checkpoints for a bigger reward, or secret areas you couldn’t access or weren’t aware were there before. It made me want to seek out everything there was to see, to take on the biggest challenge to discover new tools and places, and never failed to have something cool to show me at the end.
Playing Shovel Knight was probably one of the more nostalgic experiences I’ve ever had with a game. It reintroduced me to that raw joy and excitement I had when I first started playing games as a child, but without the memory shattering disappointment that so often comes with revisiting the things I used to love. It stands on its own as a brilliantly executed creation without dismissing that which came before it, familiar yet completely inspired and so unbelievably fun with every swing of your shovel; the sort of game I feel compelled to tell others about and all but force them to play in the hopes they experience what I did from the very first screen.