Joystiq Top 10 of 2014: Shovel Knight

ATTENTION: The year 2014 has concluded its temporal self-destruct sequence. If you are among the escapees, please join us in salvaging and preserving the best games from the irradiated chrono-debris.

Retro-inspired platformers are practically synonymous with the indie scene, and the genre's almost as active nowadays as it was back in the early console era. With so much competition already on the market, what makes Yacht Club Games' throwback platformer, Shovel Knight, worth a spot in our list of the best games of 2014?

It has a rare devotion to authenticity, for one thing. Similar in premise to Capcom's NES classic DuckTales, Shovel Knight stars an unlikely hero equipped with an unconventional but multifaceted weapon. Making the most out of simple mechanics is a staple of the 8-bit era, and Shovel Knight himself is a shining example, showcasing a robust moveset in spite of his seemingly limited capabilities. Like the best games from the last millennium, it won't take you long before you've mastered Shovel Knight's initial learning curve and find yourself chaining carefully timed pogo bounces in order to reach faraway platforms.

It's also incredibly faithful to its source material. Like its ancient 8-bit brethren, Shovel Knight is built with hardware limitations in mind, mostly adhering to standards with its tile-based backgrounds, limited color palettes, and exceptionally catchy soundtrack that never exceeds its limited number of allotted sound channels. These are the sort of details that you won't notice unless you're specifically looking for them, but working together in concert they legitimize the experience, and complete the illusion that Shovel Knight escaped from the flannel clutches of the early '90s.

Shovel Knight is more than a product of nerdy nitpicking, though. It emphasizes what made classic video games so fun to play in the first place - solid pacing and fantastic level design. Shovel Knight's levels are lengthier than what you'd expect from, say, the 8-bit Castlevanias or Mega Men, but they're also packed full of secrets and alternate paths. Every level brings new and unexpected challenges to the mix, and you'll intuitively figure out new mechanics and control quirks as they're introduced. There's no filler in Shovel Knight – level segments are built with an eye for detail and purpose, and remain fun during repeat playthroughs.

Shovel Knight smartly makes concessions between classic and modern design, too. Frequent checkpoints ensure that the initial difficulty hump isn't too rough, and if you're ever stumped by a level you can always return to town with your earnings to buy power-ups and equipment. The Troupple King (who we named as one of our favorite new characters of 2014) is another smart addition, equipping players with life refills and power-boosting ichor that will give you an advantage over any bosses that give you a hard time. Shovel Knight's quest is tough but doable, striking a difficult-to-nail balance between toughness and modern convenience.

If you're the hardcore sort, Shovel Knight still has a lot to offer in terms of challenge. Don't like the frequent checkpoints? Bust 'em up with your shovel to earn bonus loot, but don't expect them to save you afterward when your hubris lands you in a bottomless pit. An array of in-game Feats additionally keep retro fiends busy with optional challenges and difficulty modifiers that facilitate skilled play. No matter what your skill level, Shovel Knight has a lot to offer ... doubly so, if you love butts.

Butts aside, though, Shovel Knight is an authentic, satisfying experience that channels the best elements from the 8-bit era while remaining an accessible, thoughtful creation in its own right. It's the best new/old game since 2008's Mega Man 9, and if you enjoy platformers of any stripe it does not disappoint.

[Images: Yacht Club Games]

Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2014 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups.

The list so far:

  1. Shovel Knight

  2. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

  3. Sunset Overdrive

  4. Alien: Isolation

  5. Valiant Hearts: The Great War

  6. Mario Kart 8

  7. Far Cry 4