A game by Yacht Club Games for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, PS3, Vita, XB1, Switch, Wii U, and 3DS, originally released in 2014.
Shovel Knight is an action platformer starring an armored hero with an unlikely weapon: the shovel blade. The eponymous Shovel Knight was once part of a duo, travelling and fighting alongside his companion, Shield Knight, but she was lost to a great and terrible magic in the Tower of Fate. With Shield Knight gone, Shovel Knight sets out on his own and leaves his valiant ways behind. But without these legendary heroes to stand in her way, the Enchantress rises to power, using the Tower of Fate to usher in a new reign of destruction. Aiding her in this dubious endeavor is a band of ne’er-do-wells called the Order of No Quarter. Shovel Knight decides that he can’t stand by while the world is taken by evil, and so he dashes into the fray once more to prove that shovelry is not dead!
The knight has an upgradeable health meter that allows him to sustain a decent amount of combat damage before being ushered back to the last checkpoint. He begins the game with four units of health – which may be reduced in half-hit increments – but a number of upgrades eventually brings this total to 10 units.
A bit of health may be restored within the level by finding apples or carrots, or fully restored by finding a plate with a fully cooked turkey, per 8-bit gaming standards. Occasionally, these turkey platters may instead contain a bomb with a lit fuse, also per 8-bit gaming standards, and the player only has a couple of seconds to move out of the blast range.
Most of the knight’s upgrades must be purchased, which makes gem collection the primary means of progression, and it is also the game’s primary means of penalty. Shovel Knight does not have a limited number of lives; rather, he is able to try again and again, but every time he dies, he loses a quarter of his total wealth. Even gold earned in a previous stage may be sacrificed if the knight falls in combat or drops into a bottomless pit. When this happens, three bags of gold rise up from the place where the knight fell, and if the player is able to collect these bags on his next attempt, the gold returns to his pockets. Otherwise, it is lost forever.
This design allows the developer to cast out the generally antiquated system of limited lives while still offering a real penalty for failure. Players need money to buy upgrades and items, but this money may be lost upon death. Since dropped money bags aren’t always accessible on the next run – and the player risks dying again in the act of retrieving them – the player may lose the opportunity to regain his prior riches. On the other hand, the player is free to exit to the world map at any time, regaining the gold he lost while also sacrificing his progress in the level he left, allowing the player to decide how much risk is worth the reward.
If the player is struggling with a given level, he may opt instead to head back to the world map and upgrade his health or magic meter, or perhaps purchase a relic that allows him to destroy enemies at a distance. And, if he’s having a truly tough time of it, the player may return to an easier level to build up some additional gold before he moves forward. Conversely, skilled players are given the option to destroy a number of the game’s checkpoints, revealing gold in the trade and further rewarding players who put themselves at greater risk.
The knight’s shovel is more than a mere replacement for a sword, as players can use the tool to shovel away piles of dirt to reveal gems, dig down through dirt and stones, and even dig into walls to reveal hidden passageways leading to valuable gems, health restoratives, or music sheets (more on these in a bit). Various materials act differently when the knight dives down into them with his shovel… Sand disappears immediately and causes the knight to fall straight down through it, dirt can be destroyed in a single hit and allows the knight to bounce, and stones take two hits to destroy. The knight must also bounce on some moving objects such as rolling cogwheels and rising bubbles. On occasion, the knight can use the shovel to interact with objects in the environment, such as flinging skulls at approaching enemies to cause damage at a distance.
Players must be wary of the fact that the knight will continue his downward thrust once it has been initiated, and this continues until he uses another attack or reaches solid ground. This not only allows players to repeatedly bounce on an enemy’s head without any additional input, but it also sets up some challenges late in the game where the knight needs to break down through a series of blocks, but stop himself before he reaches the spikes at the bottom. In these areas, players must bounce ever downward and then initiate another attack to break the sequence.
The knight is able to attack while on the ground or in the air, and the player will frequently need to jump and swing the shovel to attack enemies, in addition to diving downward. The only way to attack on the move is to do it in the air, as swinging the shovel while running will cause the knight to come to a stop. Attacking enemies from above is also beneficial for preserving momentum, as striking enemies from the side sometimes pushes the knight backwards a bit, which can be problematic when navigating between narrow platforms. The knight can also climb ladders and attack while climbing, and he is able to grab ladders in midair, but jumping from a ladder causes him to drop down.
When the game begins, the knight appears in a pastoral field and slowly encounters various obstacles and enemy types that help him to learn the controls. As in the 8-bit games that inspired it, there is no formal tutorial. The player is free to move forward and experiment with his limited moveset, and even the penalty for death is lowered as the player has not yet had the opportunity to gather much wealth.
Early on, the player enters a room where a bubble floats up from below. Popping this bubble does nothing, but the ledge on the right side of the room is too high to reach with your normal jump. And so you jump and press DOWN, popping the bubble and sending yourself high in the air.
Soon thereafter, you encounter a miniboss in the form of a dragon that blows bubbles at you. You can use the same technique to clear these obstacles (which will hurt you if you touch them directly), and in doing so, you are likely to find yourself falling shovel-first onto the dragon’s head, which will cause it damage. From there, you are able to bounce repeatedly to bring the dragon down, at which point it will dispense a number of gems and a health restorative.
Use of this bouncing technique can be used later in the level to reach an out-of-the-way platform that leads to a treasure chest, setting up a series of sub-challenges in each level where the player may seek out hidden rooms, many of which act as challenge areas. Most of these rooms contain music sheets, which may be sold to a bard in the nearby village for a decent price, after which he will play any of the songs you have collected for him, totaling 46 in all.
Occasionally, the player encounters large blue treasure chests containing one of the town’s shopkeepers, and he will offer to sell you the magical relic found within rather than allowing you to collect it outright (again, enforcing money as a key driver for progress).
Relics appear in various forms with most of them designed for use in combat, and each of them requires a certain amount of magic to use. When you first encounter the shopkeeper, he has only two relics available for sale. One is a fishing rod that can be used in certain sparkly pits to gain a monetary reward or a potion, and the other is the Chaos Sphere which is a projectile that bounces around and causes damage to enemies. Later, the player will encounter a relic that allows him to fire projectiles straight across the screen, and another that lets him toss projectiles in an arc, as well as numerous gameplay-altering pickups that can also be used in combat and in designated challenge areas.
In all cases, these relics may only be equipped one at a time and are activated by pressing UP and ATTACK, just like in the old 2-button controller days. The magic meter may be refilled by finding blue pots, gained by killing enemies and destroying objects. Small blue pots offer a partial refill, and large blue pots refill the meter to its maximum.
Another helpful tool is the chalice, which is offered for sale early in the game by a crazy fish worshipper who promises you the benefits of his deity’s magical liquids. At first, the fellow seems to be a bit of a loony, especially given his outfit and the fact that he proclaims the so-called Troupple King to be half trout and half apple, so you may decide not to part with your hard-earned gold when you first meet him.
But you’ll soon discover that the Troupple King is real and – after watching a prolonged fish-apple dancing ceremony – you can fill your glass with the ichor of renewal, the ichor of boldness, or the ichor of fortune. The first refills your health and magic meters to their maximum, the second allows for temporary invincibility, and the third allows you to pull in nearby treasure. A full health and magic restore can help players hold on to their gold and work their way through boss encounters with brute force. Just be sure to swap out the item in your inventory, because holding the chalice replaces your equipped relic and you don’t want to use it up accidentally. The player may carry up to two chalices and he may to refill them both between levels at no cost.
In addition to relics, a number of shovel and armor upgrades may be purchased as well, becoming available about halfway through the game. None of these have a dramatic impact on gameplay, and many of them are quite pricey, but the armors do offer minor enhancements that support certain play styles, such as those players who are going after lots of money, those who rely heavily on magic, or those who have mastered the art of melee.
On the world map are various challenge areas that make use of specific relics. These challenges are entirely optional but offer gold and music sheets as a reward. Some of these challenges are built around dashing through the air to collect treasure while performing complex platforming sequences. Another has the player clearing out a haunted building by eliminating ghosts that can only be destroyed indirectly.
The world map is reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, offering a generally linear path from left to right while also allowing the player to make decisions about the order in which to approach levels and whether or not to take on optional challenges. Occasionally, an enemy or gem will appear on the map as well, and touching it will take the player into a separate encounter, including several optional boss encounters. Entering a gem challenge has the player attempting to collect as many gems as possible under various environmental restrictions, such as moving through a forced scrolling environment.
While dedicated platforming fans will find the difficulty a bit light, there are a number of challenging sequences that test the player’s abilities and add a bit of variety. For instance, some areas are completely enshrouded in darkness, and only the silhouette of the knight and his enemies can be seen. Parts of these areas are in complete darkness, making it impossible to see anything, including platforms. In these areas, lightning occasionally strikes, lighting the area for a split second and giving the player a quick idea of where he needs to move next, which may include hopping on a narrow platform, and possibly killing the enemy that is already occupying it.
One late-game level features a variety of wind-based environmental puzzles, rooms lined with spikes and narrow platforms, and some enemies that can use wind to their advantage as well. Underwater sections offer their own unique challenges by increasing the knight’s jump height and reducing his falling speed, while adding in treasure that floats upward and hermit crab shells that can be knocked around the room to break objects and kill enemies.
Certain enemy types present challenges of their own, including a number of large minibosses with unique attacks that take multiple hits to destroy. One interesting normal enemy is the praetorian guard, which appears in multiple levels throughout the game. These enemies carry shields and are able to block many of your attacks. As such, the player must strategically lure the praetorian toward him and wait for an opening to strike, or attack from above and then drop down to quickly strike the guard from behind before he can recover.
A number of areas require the player to make changes to the environment to move forward, such as dropping green globs into lava to turn it into a Flubbery river, standing on platforms that descend as more weight is placed on them, or striking a two headed statue to make it vomit rainbows that you can run across… defying explanation in a way that can only be done in a retro title.
Boss encounters against the Order of No Quarter take place in confined areas, and each offers its own trials that tend to be themed to the level, much like the bosses in Mega Man, such as an underwater boss who wears diving gear and attacks you with boat anchors. Most bosses are not much larger than Shovel Knight himself, allowing him to duel it out with melee strikes and dodging his enemies’ quick attacks by jumping over them. Having the right relic on hand can help as well, allowing the player to deal damage from a distance.
While many levels may be played in any order, defeating a certain number of bosses is required to open each successive section of the map. After each victory, the Shovel Knight rests beside a roaring fire. During major transitions, he drifts off to sleep where he dreams about Shield Knight falling from the sky in a player-controlled sequence. In many of these dreams, he faces off against a horde of approaching enemies, until eventually Shield Knight enters the screen and time slows down while he runs forward to grab her out of the air, waking up in the process.
Shovel Knight clearly draws its inspirations from the 8-bit era of gaming, featuring simple yet compelling gameplay, colorful environments, and striking character designs, while casting off the hardware restrictions of the day, like sprite limitations, slowdown, and flicker. There are some areas where enemies will respawn if you scroll them off the screen and return, although this is often done to allow the player to use the enemies to bounce to an out-of-the-way platform. Dialogue exchanges are packed with silly humor and an overabundance of shovel-related puns, including one character who does nothing but tell pun-filled jokes like “Hey, Shovel Knight, I know things are tough, but don’t throw in the trowel!”
The knight’s journey is accompanied by a fitting chiptune soundtrack composed by Jake “Virt” Kaufman and Manami Matsumae. Virt’s previous works include the Shantae series, Contra 4, and Retro City Rampage, among many others. Matsumae is known as the composer behind the original Mega Man.
Completing the game opens up a New Game Plus for those players looking for a bit of added challenge. In this mode, you get to keep all of your relics, upgrades, and music sheets, but you take twice as much damage and life restoring turkeys are replaced with bombs.
Plague of Shadows
In the year following the release of Shovel Knight, the developer returned to the game with free DLC that added a new playable character in the form of Plague Knight, who appeared as one of the bosses in the original game. With an add-on character, players might expect a very similar gameplay experience, with the character having functionally identical abilities as the original protagonist. However, this is far from the case…
The DLC, entitled Plague of Shadows, offers an entirely new storyline centered around Plague Knight as he attempts to develop a potion that will grant him ultimate power. As it turns out, the recipe calls for the essences of the knights of the Order of No Quarter, which requires Plague Knight to defeat them in battle and steal this essence from each of them.
In order to accomplish this task, Plague Knight teams up with Mona, a potion maker who is a bit sweet on him, although he is oblivious to her advances. As he collects essences, he brings them back to Mona to process through her machinery and add to the grand concoction. She also helps him on his journey by selling upgrades and enhancements to modify his projectiles.
Unlike Shovel Knight, who is a melee-based character, Plague Knight’s movements and combat abilities center around the use of various types of explosive projectiles. So, even though the player is revisiting all of the same areas from his original adventure – with a few new paths and secrets to be found – the way in which he navigates these environments and deals with enemies has changed completely. This includes somewhat more slippery movement as Plague Knight skids to a halt when slowing down or changing directions.
Shovel Knight had a higher than average platforming jump, which ne needed in order to navigate the world and get above enemies to use his downward-facing bouncing shovel attack. Plague Knight, on the other hand, only has a 1x nonvariable jump and a double jump that grants him a bit of extra height. He also moves somewhat more slowly, making him less capable at basic environmental navigation.
However, by tossing a bomb and continuing to hold the ATTACK button, Plague Knight builds up a charge, and letting of the button causes him to boost upward quickly. This move can be used in combination with the double jump to send Plague Knight soaring into the air, reaching heights that would have been impossible with Shovel Knight… but the tradeoff is that boost-jumping is harder to control, as Plague Knight moves very quickly and has no midair direction control (at least until a certain upgrade is acquired).
The boost jump can be used on its own or in combination with the player’s regular jump and/or double jump abilities, allowing for a number of options when dealing with platforming challenges. Players can boost upward after walking off a ledge, or perform all three jump types in succession for a high vertical leap. Players may also opt to jump and then boost jump to leap great distances, followed by a double jump to give them a bit of extra control when attempting to stick the landing.
The player is introduced to these basic mechanics at the start of the first level, as he is presented with a barrier that is too tall to overcome with his jump or double jump, and different types of jumps are required in order to reach the end of the stage. Players will recognize some minor differences in level construction in Plague of Shadows, such as the area where Shovel Knight originally encounters rising bubbles that he needs to bounce on with his shovel in order to reach a tall ledge. Here, there are no bubbles, and Plague Knight must use his enhanced jumping abilities to reach the platform instead.
In fact, Plague Knight has no downward attack and therefore cannot jump onto bubbles as Shovel Knight could, so when he reaches areas that have bubbles floating over bottomless pits, he has to boost jump completely over them rather than hopping across. The sleeping dragon miniboss that appears twice in the first area poses more of a threat because he spits out bubbles that must be avoided rather than acting as platforms to put the player in a position to deliver a downward strike on the dragon’s head.
At the start of the game, Plague Knight comes equipped with a set of three bombs that he can toss at a downward angle, and these bounce along for a bit before exploding. These bombs automatically explode when coming in contact with an enemy or destructible object, and players can break blocks above them by charging and boost jumping into them.
Money earned by killing enemies and hunting for treasure may be spent in Mona’s shop to purchase a number of upgrades and enhancements to these abilities. In addition, each level (including optional levels) has a number of green coins spread throughout – called Cipher Coins – and these may be collected and given to Mona to research new upgrades. This sets up a tiered upgrade system, as it’s not possible to grind your way to all of the best gear at the start of the game. That said, later tiers offer different abilities rather than more powerful abilities, simply offering new combat options… the game can beaten without purchasing a single upgrade.
Upgrades come in four varieties: case, powder, fuse, and burst. The bomb’s case determines how it is thrown. By default, bombs are tossed at a downward angle, but the proper upgrade allows players to lob them into the air – great for aerial enemies and some bosses – or drop them straight down. Powder determines how the bomb explodes, such as sending a shockwave outward or sending fire crawling up the walls and around corners, making it easier to damage distant enemies. However, the powder type also determines how many bombs the player can throw, potentially reducing his triple bomb toss down to one or two. Lastly, the fuse determines how long the bomb will stay active before it explodes, with short and long fuses available, as well as remote detonation.
Finally, there is the burst upgrade, which determines what happens when the player initiates a boost jump. While many of these include secondary attacks, the first upgrade available is called Float Burst, which allows Plague Knight to fall slowly downward from any boost jump. This upgrade is very useful for basic environmental navigation, particularly when lining up long leaps, hopping over bottomless pits, and landing on narrow or moving platforms.
Once the player has purchased these upgrades, he is free to mix and match them as he likes to suit his general playstyle, or switch over to deal with a troublesome enemy and then switch back. Some more powerful combinations allow the player to toss multiple bombs that build up into a huge explosion and ones that seek out nearby enemies, allowing for some strategic combinations that are effective against the game’s many bosses.
As in the original game, the player must face off against each of the Order of No Quarter, and there are a number of optional boss encounters that are accessible from the world map. Each of these encounters is preceded by some humorous dialogue as the knights question Plague Knight’s intentions for visiting them, and Plague Knight takes joy in his quest to defeat them. Interestingly, the battle at the end of Plague Knight’s own domain takes place against Shovel Knight… setting up an interesting sequence when the player wins the battle.
The player has a number of indirect encounters with the blue knight on his journey, such as seeing Shovel Knight running into town while Plague Knight sneaks in through the sewers. NPC’s react to Plague Knight appropriately, with the town guard refusing his admittance and passersby running away from him. As such, he is not able to enter either of the towns in a traditional manner.
Players familiar with the game’s level layouts will find destructible walls and secrets easy to uncover, and Plague Knight is also able to find music sheets to bring back to town (although the execution is quite different here). He is also able to uncover the same relics that Shovel Knight did, even though he can’t use them himself. Whenever Plague Knight encounters one of these relics, he jokes about them being useless junk.
However, finding these relics comes in handy when the player encounters a large blue treasure chest and the oddball shopkeeper inside. The shopkeeper will offer to sell Plague Knight a new magical ability at a price, or he will take the level’s relic in trade and give it to Plague Knight at no cost. These upgrades include things like a potion that lets Plague Knight earn back health by killing enemies, as well as gameplay-altering abilities such as performing quick forward dashes and creating floating platforms at will, each of which consumes a bit of magic when used.
As Plague Knight makes progress, he slowly earns additional units in his life meter, but he can also temporarily extend the meter on his own… An interesting health mechanic is in place where Plague Knight can consume a potion to add one unit of health to his meter, and these effects are stackable, allowing him to add several additional units. This extra health remains in place until Plague Knight is killed – which can happen quickly in areas with bottomless pits or spikes – allowing players to buff their health at will. However, since the player’s potion stores are severely limited and potion pickups are infrequent, they must be used sparingly.
It is interesting to see a developer revisit a game to create a character whose abilities are such a vast departure from that of the original protagonist, and a whole new set of challenges open up as the player attempts to navigate shovel-centric environments with a bomb-powered wizard. That said, the fact that Plague Knight’s jump height is so low presents some pacing issues in a number of areas. Where Shovel Knight could just hop up onto a mid-height platform, Plague Knight must often charge a boost jump in order to mount the same platform, slowing down the action somewhat since these platforms can’t even be reached with a double jump.
Shovel Knight was created by Yacht Club games, a studio based in Valencia, California. The studio was founded in 2013 by a number of former WayForward employees who previously worked on such titles as Contra 4, A Boy and His Blob, BloodRayne Betrayal, and Double Dragon Neon. Shovel Knight was the studio’s first commercial release.