Shovel Knight: Digging Up The Past

Ahead of the game's release on all three Sony platforms, we spoke to David D'Angelo of Yacht Club Games on Shovel Knight to discuss how traditional gameplay mechanics can be used to inform new player experiences.

Feature by Jack Yarwood | 23 Apr 2015
  • Shovel Knight

Over the last few years, retro gaming has seen a surge in interest, with HD remasters and remakes of games becoming incredibly common amongst developers and studios. Even Nintendo have got in on the act via their wonderful Virtual Console service, where they have begun republishing old titles such as the Legend of Zelda games on their brand new machines.

The huge advantage of this is that it provides younger players with the chance to experience previously hard-to-find games; the disadvantage is that it also demonstrates how far the games industry has come in terms of gameplay over the last twenty-five years, with many such games retaining the same flaws as when they were originally released. In 2011, a group of former employees from Wayforward Technologies, including its previous director Sean Velasco, established Yacht Club Games. Their goal was to create a game in the style of their beloved NES titles, but for a modern audience and with the advantage of hindsight. The result was the hit title Shovel Knight, an incredible 2D platformer that combines excellent storytelling with intuitive gameplay modeled for today’s gamer.

David D’Angelo, programmer on the game, gives some insight on this decision to dig up the past. “We’re playing NES games all the time," he begins. "Whenever we make a game we’re always trying to look for stuff to grasp on to. Whatever helps is what we’re looking for.” To realize their vision, the studio used Kickstarter to fund the project. In doing so, they hoped to create a community around the game like those that had existed for the games they were influenced by. “Kickstarter seemed like the best way to get a bunch of people excited about us and talking and helping us to promote it," says D'Angelo. "If we got a bunch of money from venture capitalists, it doesn’t include building the community, which is what we were most interested in. [Another] thing was that Kickstarter allows you to own everything – you can’t get much better than that. I mean, it’s exciting to build a game with everyone knowing that from the very second it gets created.”

The plot of Shovel Knight hearkens back to the simple narratives of games like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda. It focuses on a central protagonist, the Shovel Knight, who must face a group of knights and an evil enchantress in order to rescue his ally Shield Knight. To do this, he must traverse a series of areas, each equipped with its own specific theme. In contrast to the titles Shovel Knight draws inspiration from, there is one notable alteration to the story. This is its revision to the damsel in distress story, stemming from its inclusion of a female knight as opposed to a helpless damsel. Shield Knight is a strong and heroic character that fights alongside Shovel Knight as an equal. You get the feeling that she is more a victim by circumstance than by the very definition of her character, unlike other interpretations of this model.

“The damsel in distress was essentially where we started," states D'Angelo. "We really wanted to stick to that model, because we thought there’s something about it that works. Obviously looking at all the people criticizing games, the damsel in distress is so overused and so boring now that it’s not really appealing anymore. So we wanted to find a way to make it work. If you look at something like Star Wars (it uses) the damsel in distress model too, but it’s wonderful and Leia looks way more badass than Luke. I guess it was trying to mould it into something that was appealing and modern, but still show that the model is really effective.”

In addition to plot changes, there were also other challenges for the progammers on the game. In creating the title, they had to rethink several established mechanics, such as the checkpoint system, lives and item upgrades. The following changes were made in response to these reservations about the gameplay: instead of lives, gamers lose treasure when dying; checkpoints can be broken in order to gather bonus jewels; and weapon upgrades can be purchased at a store, as well as found through exploration of the levels.

Through these changes, Yacht Club Games developed something unlike the NES games that have come before it, helping establish Shovel Knight's very own identity. This was important to the developers, who also refrained from including any overt references to dialogue or characters from other titles to achieve this. “We were thinking very hard on how to not make it nostalgia bait," explains D'Angelo, "it was very important to us that we didn’t have any references in the game. The classic example is in a lot of retro games, as a joke, you’ll see 'it’s dangerous to go alone, take this.' So we wanted to stay away from stuff like that. We wanted to make it so Shovel Knight could live on its own, you could pick up Shovel Knight and have never played a videogame before and enjoy it. Nothing in there was dependent on anything else.”

Once Shovel Knight was completed, rather than a traditional marketing campaign, the studio reached out to YouTubers to play the game to generate publicity.  When doing this, they targeted specific individuals who already shared their love for old NES titles. These included Let’s Players like Game Grumps, Rooster Teeth & ProJared. “We made a big effort to try and get in touch with YouTubers and try to show them why the game was appealing and why it would be good for them to play it," says D'Angelo. "Other than the money we spent to go to conventions, we didn’t spend on marketing or ads or anything like that. What we tried to do was get the game into people’s hands, people that would be excited about it and would promote it in a way that made sense for us. I think YouTube was the strongest thing we could do there.”

This approach was definitely a success. The game has already sold more than its developer's lifetime estimate, exceeding 300,000 units so far. In addition to this, it has also garnered critical acclaim, with both IGN and Gamespot nominating it for their game of the year. The fan response to the game has also been incredibly favourable. Gamers continue to show their love through cosplay and fan art. D’Angelo states: “All we ever dreamed of is, 'One day someone will cosplay as us.' We want people to be invested in the stuff we make. We are so invested in it; we ate and breathed it for the sixteen months it took to make it, and we’re still making it. We’re still adding updates, so for people to be just as excited about it and just as invested in it as us is really wonderful, heartwarming and encouraging.”

Now Yacht Club Games are releasing a port of Shovel Knight for the PS3, PS4 and PS Vita, as well as new Downloadable Content. This DLC will include new playable game modes and will give players the chance to step into the boots of Plague Knight, King Knight, and Spectre Knight. “The basic structure of them is that you’ll be playing through the old levels – so it’s exactly the same game, but with new mobility, a new story, and one or two new things here and there," explains D'Angelo. "Essentially it’s the same, but it’s more exciting than a Richter mode or Megaman Powered Up.”

Yacht Club Games have clearly shown us that there is still much to learn from past generations of gaming. By digging up the past, they have broken new ground, giving us another marvelous world for gamers to fall in love with.

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Shovel Knight will be released on PS3, PS4 and PS Vita on April 21, 2015.