Shovel Knight is a video game about a knight who carries a shovel. It's an NES game released 25 years too late. It's the type of platformer that a whole lot of people have been craving for a very long time.
There is no way to talk about Shovel Knight without talking about the games that came before it, so let's do that first.
Shovel Knight is a whole lot of this...
...and there's also a ton of this...
...combined with the jumping move from this...
...and the towns from this...
...with the map from this...
...and bosses that call back to this.
If all of those NES games—Mega Man, Castlevania, Adventure of Link, Duck Tales, Super Mario Bros. 3—fused together and turned into one sort of super-NES game (not to be confused with a Super NES game), it would be called Shovel Knight. And it would be glorious.
Shovel Knight is a platformer, which means it's the type of game where you control a little avatar who moves from left to right on a series of two-dimensional screens, jumping over pits and defeating enemies as you progress toward The Goal, which is usually a boss. There are eight main stages, each themed around one of those bosses, like Polar Knight (ice-themed) and King Knight (king-themed). You can also go to a handful of bonus stages and a couple of towns, where you can use the gold you collect (dig up) to boost your health and purchase special abilities.
To clear out obstacles in each stage, you can use your shovel as a sword, swiping horizontally to take out enemies, or you can use it as a pogo stick, bouncing on top of enemies and platforms as you jump between death-pits. There are also ladders, and sub-bosses, and just about everything else you might expect from a game emulating the likes of Mega Man and Castlevania.
This all seems simple, at first, but as you progress, you'll find increasingly difficult challenges that will test your Platforming Skills in ways that are tough compared to most of today's games, though Shovel Knight might seem tame when held up next to, say, Mega Man 3. As with all platformers, almost everything in Shovel Knight is about execution rather than conceptualization—it's easy to visualize how you'll hop across each stage, but it's not always easy to pull it off.
People will inevitably describe Shovel Knight using phrases like "old-school platforming bliss" and "a love letter to retro games," and that's true and all, but really, this is an experience that captures what people remember about those old games, without all of the clunky jitteriness that actually plagued them. You won't have to worry about slowdown or random graphical glitches here. The jumps and swings have the heft of a modern game. You will get angry at the game when it kills you, but not because it screwed you over with some sort of unfair graphical trick or Battletoads-style death trap.
In other words, Shovel Knight is pure nostalgia. It's like diving into your memory and picking out the good parts. For twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with the NES, this game will feel comforting, like a trip back to the era when we just didn't notice flaws and glitches—they just felt like obstacles to be conquered.
I imagine players who didn't grow up with the NES will enjoy Shovel Knight too, because this is platforming as it should be. Every stage is challenging and smart. No space is wasted. No battle is boring. Even the towns have little secrets and delightful surprises that I certainly won't spoil here.
And goddamn, that soundtrack sure is killer.
For a second opinion, check out this review by GiantBoyDetective and TimeHacker over at TAY, our reader-run blog.