Funded through Kickstarter and developed by a team of less than ten people, Shovel Knight was one of 2014's unexpected Game of the Year contenders. Indeed, the retro jump-'em-up was met with praise from game journalists and YouTube personalities alike, and now that it's finally made its way to PlayStation, not much has changed – it's still pretty great.
The developer behind it is Yacht Club Games, a group of former WayForward employees who decided to pack up, leave, and start something new. If our interview with the team's David D'Angelo told us anything, it's that what the studio's crafted is a labour of love: a playful salute to the legendary NES titles of days gone by.
Players are tasked with running, jumping, and shovelling their way through stages, fighting bosses and snagging loot as they go. It's a combination of winning formulas ripped straight from the 8-bit handbook. There are a few new ideas, too, but what this game does best is copying and editing. It borrows ideas left and right, from its Super Mario-inspired world map to its Mega Man-esque bosses who occupy thematically matching levels.
What sets this title apart from the current sea of retro indies, then, is that it understands the shortcomings of its predecessors. For every meaty idea borrowed, about a pound of useless fat has been trimmed. Simply put, obnoxious quirks and nuisances – like ridiculous amounts of backtracking or obnoxious leaps of faith – have all been cut to keep the experience free of any drivel.
Furthermore, every aspect of the game has been designed in a way that it can appeal to both old-school veterans and newbies at the same time. For example, multiple checkpoints occupy each stage, but if using one in an 8-bit game makes you want to throw up, then you can just as easily smash it open and grab some extra loot. You'll be thrown back to the beginning of the stage if you die, but the choice is meant for those who want a challenge.
There's no lives system in Shovel Knight; instead, each time you fall in battle you'll lose a substantial amount of your gathered treasure. There's still time to get it back, but if you die trying or just pass on the chance, your plunder is gone for good. This system promises a swift and appropriate consequence for dying, but the punishment is never severe enough to induce a temper tantrum.
You'll still want to hold on to as much currency as possible, though, as it allows you to buy everything from new suits of armour to magic and health upgrades. Of course, if outside help isn't your cup of tea, then you can just as well beat the game without any assistance – but be prepared for the hell that waits ahead. The game isn't Ghosts 'n Goblins hard, but trust us when we say that your reflexes will be put to the test, especially in later levels.
Not much has been added or changed since the title has come to PlayStation, but Sony's hardware has been put to good use. Cross-buy and cross-save are both supported, so you can put down your DualShock 4 and pick up where you left off on the Vita. Other expected features like Light Bar support and a Platinum Trophy are all present and accounted for.
Just as Xbox owners are getting the chance to square up with the Battletoads, there's a boss fight with God of War's Kratos in Sony's versions. Honestly, the Ghost of Sparta doesn't add much: there's a short and simple puzzle to unlock his fight, and from there the actual brawl takes about fifteen minutes. You can snag some nifty armour if you beat him, though.
Either way, there's no shortage of content to be played. All things considered, you could easily clock in at about 12-15 hours if you went through the entirety of the game, visited shops, and then tried out the New Game Plus mode, which throws you back into a more challenging setting, but with all of the acquisitions from your initial playthrough.
As far as presentation goes, Shovel Knight stays true to its 8-bit look, but does so with a level of creativity that '80s gaming never saw. The backgrounds vary from dark and lamenting graveyards to bright, colourful pastures. Using old-style visuals hasn't held the developer back; if anything, the sheer simplicity of that approach has given it an advantage.
There's a phenomenal chiptune soundtrack to jam out to as you bust baddies and break through blocks, too. It's been composed mostly by a guy named Jake Kaufman, who is amazing in his own right, but we think that you'll be especially intrigued knowing that Manami Matsumae, who is responsible for the music in first Mega Man, has thrown in some tracks as well.
It's unfortunate that this new version of Shovel Knight doesn't add much, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the best games on Sony's hardware. If you haven't already, now's the perfect time to jump into Yacht Club Games' 8-bit masterpiece.