For those that grew up in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) era, not through emulators, re-releases, thrift shop finds, or hand-me downs from an older sibling, well know how innocent and special that time was. It’s very different than gaming now, or even in the mid to late 1990’s with the advent of the internet. It was an era of tip trading through friends at school, sage advice of that one person who made it one level farther than you, and waiting for that next issue of Gamepro, or Electronic Gaming Monthly, or the holiest grail of all: That month’s issue of Nintendo Power. We didn’t have hand holding or tutorials. Once you pressed “Start”, it was go time, only you and your skills to navigate through whatever obstacles lay ahead.

Shovel Knight feels like that. It’s not a game designed to be like a NES game, or was inspired by 8-bit gameplay, or a tribute to the “popular” concepts of the era. This is a proper NES title from the height and popularity of the era… although someone forgot to release it until 2014.

I’ll get this out of the way: It cheats a little. Were this an actual NES game, it wouldn’t have the sound channels to ring out a more Famicom style sound. Characters would only have 4 colors each instead of 5. And the 58 color palette would only be able to achieve 54 total colors to choose from. And there’s the little matter of some online assistance, but I’ll get to that later. It add just a tiny more than it should, but you’ll forgive it for being too ambitious.

Shovel Knight bursts onto the scene with no punches held back. You’ve probably read elsewhere where it evokes memories of Mega Man, Castlevania, DuckTales, Zelda II, and even Super Mario Bros. 3. “Yes” to all four. The “Order of No Quarter” are the game’s versions of Mega Man‘s Robot Masters. The maddening enemies (and some music) are heavily inspired by Simon Belmont’s adventures. The shovel jump only lacks the recoil of Scrooge McDuck’s Cane. The towns feel like Link’s Adventures, and the World Map come from Mario. If you’re going to be inspired by something, aim high, and yet none of this feels like it’s merely cribbed from other sources or just thrown in there. It all feels natural and organic, like it should be there.

The hard part of this review is deciding where to begin. The graphics perfectly capture the style of those beloved classics, while adding its own personality and style. The tale of the Shovel Knight is realized through a beautiful and colorful pixelated world, brimming with animation and humor. It’s all pleasingly original, and every level looks distinctly different with some fantastic art direction.

Music? Some of the music is from the original Mega Man composer. But there’s something else: It’s memorable. Really think about today’s games. Outside of licensed fare from artists, what games have really stood out to you in terms of soundtracks that you not only remember, but end up absently humming to yourself? Think of Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden…. Even saying the names can pull those melodies out of your brain without even trying. Shovel Knight has that effect. It’s become curiously invasive in my subconscious, and frankly, it’s perfect. I’ve heard strains of some of the best effects Konami and Capcom put into their musical themes, and I only wish the “haunting” effects that Rare placed into some of their melodies could have found a home somewhere in the soundtrack.

Control is also rock solid. The game is instantly responsive to every split second decision that you have to make. It has to be: Some of the trials are exacting and brutal. And yet, these challenges are also fair. You have no one to blame but yourself if you die, and you will die often. And also lose gold that you may or may not be able to get back. But once you “get” the challenges, it’s like something happens inside your brain, and you become the game master you were meant to be. The game is also full of some very creative power-ups to aid you through the levels, which can be re-challenged.

The game also makes some of the best usage out of the Wii U gamepad that I’ve seen to date. Oh sure, there’s inventory management and everything that goes with it, but the “Digger’s Diary” is the crown jewel of the experience. Like a subset version of Miiverse, the diary logs images and writings of other players in the various rooms and travels you encounter. It genuinely adds the feel of the NES era by reintroducing that friend that would play alongside you, offering support, humor, explanations, and tips. It’s that feeling Nintendo Power gave you when you needed just a little nudge. I formed bonds with people I’ve never met, and made sure to add my own tips and commentary into the diary so that other users could benefit from my experiences. It felt immensely gratifying.

For you see, I remember those days of the NES, when I would sleep over at a friends house on a weekend so that we had an excuse to stay up all night to beat that next big game. If the latest magazine didn’t cover the game at hand, we made our notes to prepare us for the next phase of the game’s challenges. And even with all the great advances in gaming today, I do miss the simplicity. For a brief moment, I’ve had a new experience that takes me back to that time.

Shovel Knight never stood in the pantheon of Mario, Pit, Samus, Link. Rygar, Ryu Hayabusa, Simon Belmont, Mega Man, and Scrooge McDuck, but he has retroactively earned his place to stand beside them. He’s a neat little hero. You can’t help but like him, and those other pesky knights who make each level a simultaneous living Hell and joy to behold. Nintendo has found another “great” to stand with their legacy heroes, and Yacht Club deserves full credit for creating such a character. He belongs on a Nintendo system. He’s found his home, which allows me to throw out this one bit of fanboy:

Shovel Knight for Smash Bros….

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