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Aaron Waite Aaron Waite
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Review: Shovel Knight

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The best kind of shovelware

Retro is pretty big right now. Whether it's a wave of genuine nostalgia or just developers smelling the cash of 27-37 year olds, I'm not sure, but there's been a good glut of gigantic pixels that have people reaching for the yesteryears of boxy controllers and Flock of Seagulls. Many of them get by with sly references to the play mechanics of yore, be it a quip about eating food on the ground or blowing on cartridges or something to the extent of winking extra-hard at the audience. Even as someone that absolutely adores the 8- and 16-bit eras, it's gotten slightly obnoxious and old hat, to be perfect honest.

But what if a retro game had no clue of its NES roots? What if there were no self-aware jabs, no pop culture references, no need to remind someone that they're playing something from the dawn of gaming? A game so retro, it has no clue that it's retro?
Enter 'Shovel Knight,' the game that our 8-year-old selves have been waiting for since 1989.

Every ounce of 'Shovel Knight' drips with the trappings of a game that released for the NES. The developers have spoken at length how the pixelated graphics were built specifically with the restraints of Nintendo's original console in mind. All of their work in replicating that authenticity has paid marvelous dividends on the visual end, and if I hadn't been holding a Wii U Pro Controller in my hand and playing in widescreen, I literally wouldn't have known I was playing something released in 2014.

The controls are 'Mega Man' level of precision, and they need to be. Platforming is deep, difficult and rewarding. Always difficult, but never cheap, you're going to need to dig deep into your reflexes that finished 'Super Mario Bros.' if you want to stand a chance at seeing the end of 'Shovel Knight.' Upgrades are scattered about the map, rewarding players that explore each stage thoroughly and giving a pseudo-RPG feel to the game. If you don't happen to find a particular stage's relic, don't worry. You can purchase them in the local village, albeit at a higher price.

The gameplay is broken up into stages, tied together by a 'Super Mario Bros. 3'-esque map. Sidequests pepper the overworld, along with roving challenge stages. A couple of safe havens dot the countryside that lead to villages that are extremely inspired by 'Zelda II' hamlets, each with unique secrets and NPCs to root around for.

One of the biggest draws in my opinion, though, is the music. I have heard plenty of chiptunes in plenty of games over the years, but they all were lacking in one thing: authenticity. They always had some form of modern flair that just pulled it away from the 8-bit era. 'Shovel Knight's' soundtrack soars with the gameplay, incredibly memorable melodies that will crawl inside your head and make a home for days. Each track feels like it belongs firmly in the '80s, simple and clean, without any overproduction that plagues today's chiptunes.

There are games that are love letters, and there games that you write love letters about. 'Shovel Knight' has brought me back to a cool basement in the summer, playing 'Kirby's Adventure' and not even noticing three hours go by. This game is so much more than the sum of its mere parts, because it's managed to capture an entire generation of gaming, encapsulate it and then show it to the world with every bit of charm and aplomb that its predecessors possessed. 'Shovel Knight' doesn't just represent one game, it's a journey into why we fell in love with gaming.
'Shovel Knight' is available on the 3DS, Wii U and fine Windows PCs everywhere.

Aaron Waite would like Nintendo to give us Mother 3.' Anytime now.


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