There’s always a bit of cognitive dissonance whenever an 8-bit/16-bit throwback shows up on the PlayStation Network, knowing that there’s simply no version of the PlayStation where the game would have ever felt native. Nintendo’s systems, of course, never had that problem, which is why Shovel Knight felt far more at home on the Wii U and 3DS. The irony is that the one feature lost in jumping from Nintendo’s systems to the PlayStation 4 is the message feature, the most current-gen feature in the game, where players could leave tips, visual warnings, and encouragements for others, a la Dark Souls. Without it, Shovel Knight is actually a trickier game, sharing far more fraternity with its NES forebears. No help is coming. No mercy is shown. No quarter given.
Despite that, or maybe even because of it, Shovel Knight’s grand Sony debut is a beautiful thing, even in these halcyon days of NES nostalgia. Where most retro throwbacks are content to ape 8-bit conventions—its deep colors, its pixelated fonts, and pick-up-and-play ease—to remind players of games past, Shovel Knight is a refinement, a flagrant, proud display of inside-and-out intimacy with the way these games work. More than even this, there’s a hubris to Shovel Knight that its peers typically don’t dare: The game, with great confidence, doesn’t aim to copy its inspirations, but to surpass many of them.
Luckily, Yacht Club Games are actually that good. Laced throughout Shovel Knight’s DNA is a platformer heritage, equal parts Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania, Mega Man, and Capcom’s DuckTales, all helping to tell the tale of a lone warrior, armed only with his wits and a badass shovel, setting out to slay his way through an order of knights guarding the evil empress who kidnapped his partner, Shield Knight. It’s a game of precision jumps, careful combat where every hit given or taken has a physical consideration that could clear a path or send you flying backward off a cliff to your death. It’s a game where power has to be earned through a pain of a thousand deaths, each stripping away a tiny bit more of your hard-earned cash, which Shovel Knight absolutely needs to better himself against the coming horde, and the wild, varied bosses awaiting him at the end of each stage.
Where Shovel Knight finds itself outpacing its ancestors is in 20 extra years of game design allowing the developers a strong insight in where the NES’s limitations were, in how and where to spawn enemies, in presenting new challenges in every stage instead of recycling the same ones. The game occasionally throws in a nigh-invisible design cheat that the NES would never have been capable of: the beautiful parallax scrolling, the rain in the final stage, the insanely busy Tinker Knight boss which probably would’ve eaten up most of an NES cartridge’s storage by itself. And yet the spirit of the thing is so utterly true to form, you have to be looking to nitpick in order to make the connection. And it’s hard to get that critical when the game is just so damned good at being compulsively playable and fun.
All this, however, was the impression the game gave on the Wii U and 3DS. What the PS4 port brings to the table is having God of War’s Kratos as an optional boss encounter. Kratos sticks out like a sore thumb for the exact reasons mentioned before as far as an 8-bit game on a 3D-centric console ecosystem goes (the upcoming Xbox One port goes with the far more period-appropriate Battletoads instead), though the boss fight itself is a tough but wild three-parter that wins you some very pretty new armor, and Kratos’s Blades of Chaos as an alternate weapon. To Yacht Club Games’ immense credit, Kratos’s weaponry fits in like a glove once obtained, giving our hero a much longer reach, a combo attack, at the expense of some measure of control when using the shovel as a pogo stick.
It’s the game’s raison d’etre encapsulated: It’s new-school thinking applied to old-school mechanics. Shovel Knight isn’t just a nostalgic copy of the games of the medium’s youth; it’s an ultimate advancement, a fever dream of what the 8-bit era was capable of. It just needed a highly sophisticated next-gen system to pull it off.