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Retro ‘Shovel Knight’ digs up treasures from the past

It’s always best when journalists are open and honest about their biases, so here goes: I’ve been excited about “Shovel Knight,” a sidescrolling adventure title developed in the style of 8-bit games like “Super Mario Bros. 3” and the original “Mega Man” series, ever since it was first announced by Yacht Club Games. Apparently I wasn’t the only one: It more than quadrupled its $75,000 Kickstarter ask.

Like many gamers with fond memories of brilliant NES-generation sidescrollers, I’ve been keeping a close eye on its development and was frustrated by a last-minute delay in March that ended up lengthening the wait by almost three months. It’s finally been released for PC, 3DS, and WiiU.

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And luckily, it was worth the wait. Man, was it worth it. This is one lovingly, authentically, beautifully executed stroll down gaming memory lane — a game that extracts huge amounts of satisfying goodness from its various inspirations, all while maintaining its originality and sense of identity throughout.

“Shovel Knight” features exactly the sort of story you’d expect from an old NES game: Back in the day, you, Shovel Knight, adventured alongside your companion, Shield Knight, in a land that was peaceful and full of undiscovered treasures. Then an evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter invaded the land. Shield Knight’s gone (or is she?), and you have to rescue the land from the Enchantress by traversing a bunch of dangerous, differently themed levels and defeating the knights waiting for you at the end of them, from Propeller Knight to Polar Knight.

“Shovel Knight” does a remarkable job resurrecting many of the elements that made games like “Zelda 2,” “Duck Tales,” and the aforementioned such classics. It’s a hard thing to describe to anyone who hasn’t played them, but certain platforming elements, certain rhythms to the tough jumping sequences, simply feel like these old games in a way that’s simultaneously nostalgia-inducing, challenging, and original enough not to simply be a rip-off.

The overworld map — lifted from “Super Mario Bros. 3” — adds some degree of nonlinearity to the game, and the developers threw in a bunch of optional levels and encounters to let you rack up treasure that can be spent on various upgrades. The two village levels — which contain more than a touch of “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” — are full of bizarre and entertaining characters, rendered beautifully within the intentional technological constraints of retro-ism (my favorite character, found elsewhere, was probably the “Troupple King” — that’s half-trout, half-apple, naturally — who proved an invaluable ally). The enemies were equally visually impressive, surprisingly distinctive, and, in some cases, eerie.

As you progress, Shovel Knight gains new powers along a satisfying trajectory, and (again) in the tradition of the game’s ancestors, these powers allow you to access secret areas in levels you’ve already completed, adding to the game’s replayability. There are secrets everywhere.

Certain platforming elements, certain rhythms to the tough jumping sequences, simply feel like these old games in a way that’s nostalgia-inducing, challenging, and original enough not to simply be a rip-off.

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“Shovel Knight” is great, but I’m not without quibbles. The difficulty of the bosses doesn’t quite scale up with our trusty knight’s increasing power and survivability, so by the end they don’t tend to be all that difficult. And the last level and final boss are both underwhelming, especially compared with so much of the excellent gameplay that precedes them. And while it may not be a fair complaint given how much love and perfect tuning went into the big, tough levels, this isn’t a long game — I finished in just over five hours. There is, however, a “new game plus” mode — again, lifted from the oldies — that lets you play a more challenging version with all of the equipment and skills you accumulate in your first playthrough, but I haven’t tried it yet. Plus, Yacht Club Games has promised free downloadable content down the line that I definitely will be checking out.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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