Spyro the Dragon Review

Spyro the Dragon

The early years of the Playstation saw the rise of many new faces in gaming, as Sony was building its brand to compete with the established franchises of Nintendo and Sega. In a robust library that saw the introductions of series like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, the Playstation also had its share of more colorful characters that were more akin to those of its competitors. Crash Bandicoot was the unofficial mascot of the Playstation, but he opened the door for another platforming series to make its debut, Spyro the Dragon, by Insomniac Games.

Much like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro’s original studio produced a trilogy of platformers on Sony’s trailblazing home console. And while the first entry in the series is understandably the roughest, it still provides some good fun.

Spyro the Dragon was a more open-world platformer than Crash, with Spyro’s worlds being a little closer to Super Mario 64’s wide, open stages. Though in a fun twist, the worlds are their own little hubs that have a few smaller stages of their own sprinkled throughout.

Spyro’s moveset not only includes running and jumping, but he can also glide, roll, ram enemies with his horns, and breathe small bursts of fire. He’s a fun character to control, though like many early 3D platformers, the camera can become a bit tricky to maneuver.

The story is that a villainous monster called Gnasty Gnork has cast a spell on the dragons and trapped them in crystals (Spyro was so small the spell went right over him), and has used his magic to turn the dragons’ prized gems into his soldiers. It’s up to Spyro to save his fellow dragons and reclaim the treasure.

I admire the simplicity of the plot, though the opening cinematic’s presentation of having a dragon being interviewed by a news crew (with visible boom mic) before the spell hits seems a bit too jokey, and doesn’t mesh with the rest of the game.

The goal of each stage is to collect every gem (found scattered throughout a stage or by defeating enemies), freeing dragons from their crystalized state (Spyro simply has to touch them, and they then become save points), and finding the more secretive dragon eggs, which have been stolen by thieves. You don’t always have to empty a level of all its collectibles and dragons in order to progress, but completionists will have a hefty task with tracking everything down.

In a fun twist, progressing to the next world is not simply about defeating a boss, but Spyro can move on via hot air balloon depending on how many gems he’s acquired or how many dragons he’s saved.

Spyro the DragonSpyro is joined on his adventure by Sparx the dragonfly, who not only grabs nearby gems, but also serves as Spyro’s health meter. Sparx can take three hits before Spyro is left by his vulnerable self. In another fun twist, replenishing health is accomplished by having Sparx eat butterflies.

The game may look dated, but it’s colorful enough to look at. The music isn’t entirely memorable, but it’s far from bad. The voice acting is fun, but Spyro’s dialogue can be a bit one note if you’re used to more varied gaming scripts.

If there’s any real drawback to Spyro the Dragon it’s simply that, today, it feels like the rough concept that would be polished with Insomniac’s follow-ups. The core gameplay is fun enough, but it doesn’t exactly boast a whole lot of variety, and at times collecting everything feels a bit monotonous. It feels like the very base of Insomniac’s concept, with the sequels adding the depth.

Spyro the Dragon remains a solidly entertaining platformer in its own right, it’s just that in retrospect, it’s easy to see how the sequels improved on it in both variety and quality. Still, if you’re wanting to revisit some of the Playstation’s early gems, or want to introduce young audiences to some retro gaming, Spyro remains a good starting point.

 

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Crash Bandicoot: Warped Review

Crash Bandicoot: Warped

When it comes to discussing the best entry of any beloved video game series, you’ll usually find a range of answers. Very rarely does a series have an entry that’s almost unanimously hailed as the best. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is one of those few, as it is consistently cited as the best Crash Bandicoot game. It’s with good reason. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is the best Crash Bandicoot game.

Threequels can go either way in the video game world. They’re either the point in a series where the ideas have seemingly wrung dry, and the game just seems to go through the motions, or they’re the point where creators really prove their mettle by continuously improving their craft.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped falls under the latter category of course. Taking most of its immediate predecessor’s best assets, Warped added a number of fun ideas of its own into the mix, producing the culmination of Naughty Dog’s vision for the Crash Bandicoot series.

The game uses a similar setup to Cortex Strikes Back, with the “Warp Room” concept now being expanded to one larger room leading to five smaller chambers, with each housing five levels and a boss.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedCrash retains all of his moves from Cortex Strikes Back, but this time around he also gains new abilities after defeating the game’s bosses. The new moves include a double jump, a super spin (which also allows Crash to glide), and even a bazooka!

Levels are still played in a 2.5D perspective, with the quality of level design equalling and surpassing that of Crash 2. But Warped doesn’t just settle for matching its predecessor, and new types of stages are also introduced in addition to the platforming stages. Crash Bandicoot, as well as his sister Coco, now partake in motorcycle races, jetski obstacles courses, and aerial dogfights, among other new concepts. Admittedly, the number of these vehicle stages comes at the price of less platforming stages than its predecessor, but Warped’s variety is consistently impressive.

As was the case with the second game, a crystal must be collected on every level to progress further, with each stage also housing one or two secret gems (one gem for breaking every crate in a level, with the potential second gem usually being tucked away in a secret area).

Warped ups the ante for completionists however. In addition to the returning crystals and gems, Crash and Coco now have the option to collect relics. Players can return to any completed stages to partake in that level’s time trial mode. Complete a level fast enough, and Crash is rewarded with a relic. Only the third-tier “sapphire” relics are needed to unlock secret stages, but for those seeking the game’s greatest challenge, you can always go for the gold and platinum relics.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped’s levels aren’t quite as difficult as those in Cortex Strikes Back on their own, but getting every gem is as challenging as anything in its predecessor, and completing the time trials is a whole other beast entirely. This makes Warped the most “all audiences” Crash title, as less experienced players will have a decent challenge just getting through the game, while diehards have a hefty task waiting for them with the gems and relics.

The story this time around is that, after his defeat in Crash Bandicoot 2, Dr. Cortex and his space station crash down to Earth, accidentally freeing an evil voodoo mask named Uka Uka in the process. Two notable retcons take place here: The first is that Uka Uka was apparently the mastermind behind Cortex’s previous evil schemes, and the second is that Uka Uka is the evil brother of Aku Aku, the voodoo mask who was previously just a power-up in the past games, but is now a full-fledged character.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedUka Uka is angered with Cortex’s failings in the past, and once again seeks the power of the crystals and gems to take over the world. But after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2, the crystals and gems have lost their power. So Uka Uka recruits fellow villain Dr. N. Tropy – who dabbles in time travel – to aide them in claiming the crystals and gems in the distant past, where they still have full power. Aku Aku then sends Crash and Coco through time in order to stop his brother, Cortex and N. Tropy’s plot.

While the time travel setup may sound like a gimmick, it actually helps the game stand out from its predecessors all the more. While Crash 1 and 2’s levels stuck closely with themes of water, snow, and the like, Warped instead has stages based on ancient Egypt, medieval times, an under construction Great Wall of China and, of course, dinosaurs.

In an interesting twist, none of the game’s world’s adhere to a singular theme, and the gimmicks are instead thrown about almost randomly. You’ll go from one backdrop to another and back again. In lesser hands this may just seem inconsistent, but here it works in Naughty Dog’s favor, as the sporadic nature of the level’s themes seems to reflect the game’s energy and sense of humor.

The overall sense of control feels more finely-tuned than in the past games, with Crash’s movements feeling more fluid than before. The visuals, while admittedly aged, also look more polished, with the animations being more vibrant than ever. Similarly, the music has taken another leap forward, with Warped having the best soundtrack of Naughty Dog’s trilogy of platformers. Even loading screens are made fun by the presence of various characters speaking to the player as the levels load up, giving you brief glimpses into their entertaining personalities.

As entertaining as Crash Bandicoot: Warped still is, however, the tricky perspectives of its predecessors are still present, and they have only become more noticeable with age. The game’s fixed perspectives still lead to confusion as to the placement of some objects and enemies, leading to some accidental deaths. And while the game’s bosses are a step up from the past two games, the final boss is once again a bit of a letdown (Uka Uka’s presence in the final battle is little more than an obstacle that needs to be jumped over).

Admittedly, some of Warped’s new ideas also fall short of their potential: Coco Bandicoot is introduced as a playable character, but all of her stages involve either riding in vehicles or on the back of a tiger, so she ends up feeling like a missed opportunity at some variety in the platforming gameplay. The aforementioned motorcycle stages, while a nice change of pace, are a bit basic and lack much distinction between one another.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedWhen all is said and done though, Crash Bandicoot: Warped remains one of the original Playstation’s highlights. Crash Bandicoot started his gaming career as a bit of a manufactured gaming mascot, but with Crash Bandicoot 2 and, ultimately, this title, Crash became a genuine video game star.

It is a little bit of a bittersweet affair. Crash Bandicoot: Warped marked the last time Naughty Dog made a platformer starring the titular character before he got passed around to various other developers like a hot potato, never again reaching the heights of Warped.

Naughty Dog has gone on to make Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us to immense acclaim, but many still hope that somehow the developer finds their way back to Crash Bandicoot one day. Playing Crash Bandicoot: Warped is still a blast even today, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder of the fruitful future for Crash Bandicoot that could have been.

 

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Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back Review

Crash Bandicoot 2

What a difference one sequel can make. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back was not only better than its predecessor back in its day, but the years have only magnified what an improvement it really was. The original Crash Bandicoot has its place in history, but many of its aspects now feel archaic. Crash Bandicoot 2 now feels closer to the proper realization of what Naughty Dog was trying to achieve when they created the Playstation’s original mascot.

Crash Bandicoot 2 takes the assets of the first game, and polishes them while also giving the formula more depth.

The core gameplay remains the same: Crash still jumps and spins his way through levels, which are presented in 2.5D. But Crash has some new moves this time around. He can now crouch, crawl, and slide. Jumping while crouching or sliding gives Crash a higher and longer jump, respectively. And Crash also gets his own equivalent of Mario’s stomp attack, but in keeping with the Bandicoot’s sense of humor, Crash falls flat on his face, in contrast to Mario’s fancier acrobatics.

Other then the new moves, a lot of the game is more of a refinement than a reinvention of the series. The graphics are more polished and colorful, the music is a lot more memorable and catchy, and the level design is more creative, with an added dose of story to compliment it.

Crash Bandicoot 2The plot is appropriately simple, but surprisingly thought out for a platformer that relishes in cartoonish silliness: After his defeat in the first game, the evil Dr. Neo Cortex stumbled across a magic crystal, and learned it held immense power. With his armies defeated and his former assistant Dr. N. Brio – tired of Cortex’s abuse – turning a new leaf, Cortex’s only ally is the cyborg-like Dr. N. Gin. Needing someone to help find the remaining crystals to complete a super weapon (mad scientists aren’t made for that kind of work), Cortex manipulates a gullible Crash Bandicoot into believing he’s seen the error of his ways, and convinces Crash to gather the crystals as a means to save the planet.

Meanwhile, Dr. N. Brio, trying to stop Cortex’s evil plot, also seeks Crash’s help in gathering magic gems which can help him defeat his former employer. But Cortex is a bit more convincing, so N. Brio sends his remaining forces to stop Crash, should he continue to aid Cortex (which explains the enemies and bosses standing in the player’s way).

The story continues throughout the game via holographic messages from the mad doctors (and Crash’s sister, Coco) in the game’s hub world. It’s a setup that really works in the game’s favor, and this is a good instance of the plot intertwining with gameplay, instead of being an excuse for it.

Crash Bandicoot 2’s levels all house one crystal – usually found towards the end of a stage and in the open – which are required to progress further in the game, and one or two gems, which are optional and sometimes well hidden.

Crash Bandicoot 2Every level has one gem that is acquired by breaking every crate found in the stage, similar to the first game. Mercifully, having to survive the entirety of a level is no longer an additional requirement. The other gems are found by other means (usually via bonus areas or performing special actions in particular levels), and sometimes involve backtracking and return visits.

The game’s later levels can get decently difficult, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble if you only wish to blast through the game and nab the crystals. But obtaining every gem is a task for those seeking a real challenge. There are a few gems where the tasks required to get them can feel convoluted or tedious, leading to some frustrating moments, but most are a fair challenge.

Another very important aspect that Crash 2 improves on its predecessor is saving. The original Crash Bandicoot’s save feature was more than a little bit of a mess, requiring players to collect tokens to play bonus stages to win the opportunity to save. Cortex Strikes Back instead includes a basic save feature in the game’s hub world, and all Crash has to do is walk up to a wall to save in between levels. Compared to its predecessor, it’s a godsend.

Crash Bandicoot 2Crash Bandicoot 2 also tweaks the level progression, with each stage accessed through the innovative “Warp Rooms.” Warp Rooms are condensed spaces that each grant Crash access to five levels apiece, which gives the game a more unique setup than the original’s more generic world map.

There are a few drawbacks to Crash’s otherwise stellar sequel, however. Along with some of the gems feeling like a chore to obtain, the game retains some of its predecessor’s tricky perspectives, with some areas becoming more difficult because you can’t make out the distance between objects. Boss fights are still nothing to boast about, with the final boss in particular being a big letdown.

All things considered, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back remains a textbook example of how to do a proper sequel. It learned from its predecessor’s mistakes and not only touched them up, but also created a heftier and more varied gaming experience of its own. Time may not have been kind to the original Crash Bandicoot, but Cortex Strikes Back remains one of the series’ finest moments. It’s still a whole lot of fun.

 

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The Misadventures Of Tron Bonne Memories

Misadventures of Tron Bonne

The Misadventures of Tron Bonne was released on the Playstation Network recently. This is no small deal, considering the game is one of the rarest PSOne titles ever made (and thus one of the most expensive). It also happens to be one of my favorite Playstation games. Ever.

In case you’re unaware (don’t feel too bad, most people are when it comes to this game), The Misadventures of Tron Bonne is a spinoff of Mega Man Legends, making it a likely candidate for the title of most obscure game in the Mega Man franchise (except maybe Mega Man Soccer).

The Misadventures of Tron Bonne takes place before the events of Mega Man Legends, and turns comical antagonist Tron Bonne into the protagonist, as she tries to raise enough money to save her brothers from a loan shark.

The story is simple and filled with humor, but what makes The Misadventures of Tron Bonne stand out is what a unique game it is. Tron Bonne pilots a robot suit in action-adventure based stages, guides her henchmen through caverns in RPG stages, and even partakes in puzzle-based stages that can become pretty head-scratching. All the while she is joined by the Servbots who, along with Tron’s robot suit, can level up and gain new abilities as the game progresses.

To this day, I’ve never played another game quite like it. Its gameplay meshes genres together in very fun ways, and its story is a fun offshoot of Mega Man Legends, with the villains becoming the heroes as they fight actual heroes and more sinister villains. And it’s swimming in personality.

Misadventures of Tron BonneI have many fond memories of this game back when it was released in 2000. I had recently got Mega Man 8 (after having rented it countless times since 1997), so I was on one of my many Mega Man kicks at the time. I didn’t even know The Misadventures of Tron Bonne existed, since I didn’t see it advertised in any magazines. I went on vacation with my family at around that time, and during this vacation I went into a Gamestop (or EB Games or something, there was more variety back then). That’s when I saw a weird little game called The Misadventures of Tron Bonne on one of the shelves.

I recognized Tron Bonne from Mega Man Legends, so I was immediately curious. I was allowed to get a gift during this vacation, so naturally I picked this video game (even on vacation I couldn’t say no to video games). I had no means of playing it at the time because I was far away from my Playstation, which was still sitting comfortably at home. But I peered through that instruction manual (and player’s guide) countless times during that vacation until I got home (I was ten, okay).

I adored the game so much. Even as a kid, there were some games I hyped myself for but eventually got bored with. But I can’t recall ever being bored with Tron Bonne. It was one of those games that just grabbed my imagination. I would try to draw the characters, or draw my own characters who were really just ripoffs of the characters. I’ll still call it a strong creative influence for me. I loved Mega Man Legends, but I think I always loved this spinoff more.

As the years went by and gaming changed, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne still held a special place in my heart. I came to realize just a few short years ago that the game only received modest reviews from critics, much to my disappointment. But the critics were simply wrong, as far as I was concerned. The game was great, as far as I remembered.

Misadventures of Tron BonneI admit, until a few short days ago, I hadn’t played The Misadventures of Tron Bonne since at least 2002 (though it was probably 2001). I hate to say it, but I began to wonder if perhaps my feelings for the game were simply my ten-year old enthusiasm. I would need to play it again to see if it held up to my memories.

I am not currently in possession of a PSOne, so the news of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne coming to the Playstation Network was a great opportunity to revisit a favorite.

I admit I was a bit skeptical. The game was, after all, from the Playstation/N64 generation, a time that may have been important in my gaming life, but not one that has aged particularly well (Oh Goldeneye, I knew thee well). I was concerned more and more that childhood memories may have been dampened by poor aging. It was a month after I downloaded the game that I finally decided to take the plunge.

I’m glad I did. The Misadventures of Tron Bonne has held up wonderfully, all things considered (there are some camera issues and the mini-games can get pretty difficult, but nothing that affects the game’s appeal too much). I’m having a whole lot of fun playing through this overlooked gem once again, and rediscovering just how unique it really was.

My ten-year old self was right, the critics were wrong. The Misadventures of Tron Bonne may not be the most widely remembered game out there. But for me, it’s simply unforgettable (expect a review down the road). It may not be perfect, but The Misadventures of Tron Bonne remains a fun and unique game, and one of my favorites in Capcom’s illustrious catalogue.

My Top 5 Games from E3 2015

E3 has come and gone once again. Amidst all the big announcements, awesome games, and presentations that aren’t nearly as bad as people are making them out to be, the event itself, while not without its highlights, was ultimately one of the lesser E3s of recent years. But, even if the show didn’t quite reach greatness, it still gave us a glimpse of some great games. Here are my top 5 games presented at the show…but first, some runners-up! Continue reading “My Top 5 Games from E3 2015”

Mega Man 8 Review

Mega Man 8

Mega Man 8 is a terribly underappreciated game. It was originally released in 1997 to celebrate Mega Man’s tenth anniversary, but gaming was changing at that time, and Mega Man 8 was seen as old hat. As the years have gone by its gained a small following, but still remains largely dismissed. Its reputation doesn’t begin to do it justice, as Mega Man 8 – while not perfect – remains one of the series’ best entries.

Mega Man 8 was originally released on the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, so it goes without saying that this was the biggest leap in visuals for the series yet. Given that its sequels revived the 8-bit visuals of the NES games, Mega Man 8 is still the ‘newest’ looking title in the core series.

While a lot of PSOne and Saturn games have aged for the worse, time has been kind to Mega Man 8. The lovingly animated character sprites and colorful visuals still look lively. It expands on the art direction of Mega Man 7 and makes the series feel like an interactive cartoon.

Mega Man 8The game even featured fully animated cutscenes that have a similar charm to the anime of the late 80s and early 90s. On the downside, the game’s English voice acting is so bad it ranks among the worst in any video game (Dr. Light in particular sounds like Elmer Fudd, but even less eloquent). That’s quite a dubious achievement. But you could also say the bad voice acting gives the cutscenes a campy charm.

Mega Man 8 didn’t just overhaul the presentation however, as it made some meaningful (and largely overlooked) tweaks to gameplay and level design as well.

Similar to Mega Man 7, 8 separates the selectable Robot Master stages into two halves. After an introductory stage, four selectable levels open up, followed by an intermission stage, then four more Robot Master levels, culminating, of course, with Dr. Wily’s castle.

While the setup remains similar to Mega Man 7, Mega Man 8 built on its sense of exploration while also adding some fun variety to the gameplay, making its levels some of the deepest in the series.

Mega Man 8 includes Bolts similar to Mega Man 7, but they are no longer dropped by enemies. Instead they are hidden throughout each stage, with some requiring you to replay levels after gaining new powers in order to reach them. The Bolts are used as currency in Dr. Light’s laboratory, where Mega Man can purchase new upgrades to his Mega Buster, among other fun new power-ups. Finding the Bolts and acquiring these upgrades is completely optional, but those seeking a good challenge and full completion should have a good time tracking them all down.

Mega Man 8It’s in the levels themselves that Mega Man 8 differentiates itself from its predecessors. Although it’s classic Mega Man for the most part, various levels will suddenly throw the Blue Bomber into a rail shooter (where Rush, Beat, Eddie and Auto can help Mega Man blast away enemies) or he’ll be sledding through a stage at increasing speed, with a robot sign informing him of when to jump and when to slide to avoid obstacles. The levels themselves are some of the most fun in the series, but segments like these make Mega Man 8 one of the most versatile gameplay experiences in the franchise.

It’s easy to say that Mega Man 8 has some of the weaker Robot Masters in the series, with the likes of Clown Man and the trademark-infringing Aqua Man being downright goofy. But on the plus side, the powers Mega Man gains from them are among the more unique in the series. Mega Man gains weapons like an electrical grappling hook, an icy shockwave, a miniature tornado that sends Mega Man skyward, and a sword made out of fire. The introductory stage even gives Mega Man a soccer ball power! Not all the powers are great, but they all come in handy throughout the game in either combat or exploration. This is also one of the only instances in which Mega Man 2’s Leaf Shield isn’t reskinned and passed off as a new ability.

The fact that Mega Man 8 separates its Robot Master stages in two halves also means that the first four abilities are really emphasized in the latter four levels (Sword Man’s stage in particular is built around them). Not everyone likes the change of segmenting the levels, but it actually gave Capcom a means to better utilize the Robot Master abilities. It also gave them the opportunity to further emphasize the story.

In Mega Man 8, a strange meteor has crashed onto Earth, emitting a powerful, dark energy. Mega Man goes to investigate, but Dr. Wily has beat him to the punch, and is using this energy to power his new Robot Masters and a returning Bass in a plot to take over the world. Mega Man, true to his nature, sets out to stop Wily’s plans, but also encounters a new figure in Duo, a robot from outer space.

It’s the usual simple plot of Mega Man, but it gets some appreciated extra attention. The aforementioned animated sequences add to the stronger attempt at narrative, but are also undermined by the comically bad voice acting.

Mega Man 8Mega Man 8 ups the difficulty from Mega Man 7, and has one of the better difficulty curves in the series. The first four stages have their challenging moments, but shouldn’t take too many attempts to complete. The latter four stages turn things up a notch with some precise platforming and waves of enemies. Once Mega Man makes his way to Dr. Wily’s newest castle, things become reminiscent of Mega Man’s earliest entries. It’s never as hard as Mega Man 3 or 4, but Mega Man 8 is nonetheless satisfyingly difficult.

Another plus is that Mega Man 8 has one of the best soundtracks in the series, and that’s no small feat considering the quality of Mega Man’s soundtracks. Its techno-inspired tunes are as catchy as the best Mega Man tracks, and they each have a distinct personality to fit their respective stages. Much like the rest of the game, Mega Man 8’s music largely goes underrated, but it should be ranked alongside Mega Mans 2, 3 and 9 as being among the best soundtracks in the series.

As a whole, Mega Man 8 is one of the Blue Bomber’s most polished games. It has creative level design, fun powers, a good sense of depth and challenge, it has a killer soundtrack and the visuals haven’t aged a day. It might not have the same level of excellence as Mega Man 2 or 3, and the voice acting almost seems to be making fun of itself. But Mega Man 8 has always been, secretly, one of Mega Man’s finest.

 

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Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight

On the surface, Shovel Knight might resemble any one of the countless retro-inspired indy titles that have been released since Mega Man 9 made 8-bit graphics popular again. While most such NES-inspired indy games seem to completely fallback on nostalgia, Shovel Knight is a much wiser game. It doesn’t bother to hide its inspirations of Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and, most prominently, Mega Man. But Shovel Knight understands that there were more to these games than 8-bit sprites and chiptunes. These games aren’t remembered for nostalgia alone, and they continue to endure because of the genius of their game designs. Shovel Knight seeks to replicate a similar genius, and while its inspirations are obvious, it does so in its own way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shovel Knight was a NES classic from gaming’s earlier days.

Shovel KnightShovel Knight works like many platformers from the 8-bit era, though its titular character has two primary means of attack: A simple strike with his mighty shovel or – pulling a page from Scrooge McDuck – a pogo stick-like jump. Shovel Knight also gains magic items throughout his adventure, akin to Castlevania, which grant him additional attacks or defensive actions.

Naturally, wielding a shovel as a weapon also means that Shovel Knight can dig up dirt to find gold and gems, which he’ll need in order to buy upgrades to his armor, shovel, hit points, magic points and the aforementioned magic items. But be weary, because defeat means that Shovel Knight loses a chunk of his collected treasure. If Shovel Knight can return to the spot he fell he can reclaim it, but should he fall again before regaining his lost treasure, it’s gone. The game lacks a traditional ‘lives’ system, so game overs are never a concern even in the game’s most difficult moments, but losing your collected goods is a fun, modernized compensation for the traditional game over.

The gameplay really is as simple as that. Run, jump, shovel, dig. But the game uses these simple mechanics to their fullest, and through some incredible and varied level design, it ends up being a deep gameplay experience.

Shovel KnightThe stages are strewn together through a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map, separated into four different segments. Shovel Knight allows players to select which order they want to tackle the levels in each segment, but every main stage in each must be completed before moving on to the next segment.

The main stages are lengthy platforming romps that not only grow progressively more challenging, but also more creative. Each main stage is capped off with a boss fight against a different themed knight (all of which includes the title of “Knight” at the end of their name, in a nice tribute to Mega Man’s Robot Masters). Additional challenges, boss fights and optional stages can be found on the world map, should you want to go the extra mile for completion and treasure.

Like many such indy games that build on old school blueprints, Shovel Knight is a challenging game. But whereas many of its peers feel the need to throw insurmountable obstacles at players right out the gate to prove their difficulty, Shovel Knight instead has a nice difficulty curve. It starts off with a simple introductory level to ease players into the game, and continuously becomes more difficult as the game goes on. This helps Shovel Knight’s difficulty feel more fair and, as a result, more fun than its contemporaries.

Despite Shovel Knight’s challenge, it finds a brilliant means to cater to players of varying skill levels through its checkpoints. The levels all feature numerous checkpoints, so more easygoing players don’t have to fret about starting a stage over should they run into a particularly difficult section. But those wanting to test their abilities can destroy the checkpoints – gaining additional treasure in the process – to render them moot, meaning they’ll have to go through the whole stage all over again should they fall. It’s a simple but genius mechanic that adds an interesting twist on difficulty and balance.

The game features an appropriately simplistic story, with Shovel Knight traveling to defeat the knights of the Order of No Quarter in order to unlock the Tower of Fate, hoping against all odds to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue his (presumed dead) partner, Shield Knight. What’s interesting about Shovel Knight’s story is that, simple as it is, the game finds time to provide some quiet story moments to make Shovel Knight a more sympathetic character than most of his 8-bit kin. And despite what the game’s title and its hero’s weapon of choice might suggest, the game and its story never once feel tongue-in-cheek. It earnestly pays homage to retro games and their simplicity, never falling prey to cheap and easy parodies.

Shovel KnightNaturally, Shovel Knight also includes a soundtrack reminiscent of the 8-bit classics that inspired it. Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is full of personality and energy, and can be compared favorably to many of the Mega Man soundtracks, which is no small feat. It also takes advantage of modern hardware by allowing more colorful visuals than the 8-bit games of yesteryear.

It’s hard not to be wowed by everything Shovel Knight accomplishes. Its tight, polished gameplay is complimented by fantastic level design, a nice difficulty curve, fun visuals and stellar music. It not only draws its inspiration from Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania, but it can sit comfortably alongside them in 8-bit glory.

 

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