Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight just feels good to play; if you're the kind of person who will spend hours cranking through the original Super Mario Bros. or early Mega Man titles, you'll feel right at home with the "Blue Burrower."
A demo I played at New York Comic Con earlier today featured the complete first level of the Kickstarter-funded title on the Wii U. Players have just four actions at their disposal. They can flip dirt into the air or attack enemies using their shovel; doing the former unearths treasure and collectibles. Shovel Knight can jump, or a jump and press down on the d-pad will let him ram his shovel downwards. You can also walk in any direction at one speed. It's all fairly simple, and that's what makes it so satisfying.
I guided my little shovel-equipped hero through a castle of stone blocks — some more fragile than others. Moving through levels smacking enemies with your shovel isn't just satisfying, it's comfortable; playing the game, I felt not only nostalgia, but I felt at home. The charm of the game is how closely Yacht Club strove to recreate not just the look of those classic games, but the atmosphere and feel.
Some of the items players find under piles of dirt allow Shovel Knight to throw fireballs. These come in handy against enemies that look like tiny sorcerers. These magicians will also shoot fireballs at Shovel Knight, but if he doesn't shoot fire right back he has the option to whack their fire back in their face with his shovel.
"Out of all the games at this show, you want to play that one?"
The two small boys standing behind me didn't answer their father. They continue to watch my Shovel Knight jump from chandelier to chandelier in the brown stone castle, each one crumbling away to nothing after I stepped on it. Evil green ponies bearing striped jousting lances ran at me from every direction, and if I didn't jump out of the way I would be skewered. Unfortunately my last jump led me down into a hole where I died ... and restarted from the area just before the previous one.
"This game looks too old," the father standing behind me said.
But looking old and being old are two different things, and in no way does Shovel Knight feel old despite its commitment to recreating a new classic and a freshly-baked batch of nostalgia. I watched the young boy start over from where I had left out. He cleared a room of enemies, seamlessly jumped the pit I had stumbled into, and then went to the next screen. He then went back to the previous area — only to find the enemies had all respawned. I was told by a Nintendo representative that this is true of all areas; you can clear them, but the enemies will come back should you choose to revisit.
Shovel Knight is familiar territory, but it's not — maybe more like spending time with an old friend after they've gotten a new haircut and maybe even a nose job. The game itself is exceedingly simple, but the carefully-crafted old school graphics and dedication to recreating the NES experience go beyond brewing nostalgia — for gamers who cut their teeth on pixelated 2D platformers, it feels like coming home.