Shovel Knight digs its way onto Wii U

Digging for victory: How retro platformer Shovel Knight is saving the Wii U’s bacon.
Shovel Knight digs its way onto Wii U
Shovel Knight digs its way onto Wii U © Yacht Club Games
By Damien McFerran

Nintendo’s on its knees right now, but things are looking up for the Japanese gaming giant: Mario Kart 8 is here, the next Smash Bros is on the way – and an unlikely mascot armed with a spade is coming to save the day.

Amid a sea of retro-inspired indie titles, Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight still manages to stand out as a particularly noteworthy title. A passionate love letter to the 8-bit action platformers of the Nintendo Entertainment System era, it boasts old-school visuals and vintage gameplay but at the same time mixes in some modern game design for good measure. As the name suggests, you assume the role of a knight armed with a legendary gardening tool who has to liberate his beloved from the sinister Enchantress and her malevolent band of brigands, known collectively as The Order of No Quarter. Headed to Wii U, 3DS, PC and Mac this year, Shovel Knight has the classic gaming vibe absolutely nailed down.

The excitement surrounding the launch of this title is due in no small part to the pedigree of the developer. While this is Yacht Club's debut outing, the team is made up of staff from WayForward Technologies, a studio which is famous for its sensitive updates of classic games, including Contra 4, A Boy And His Blob, DuckTales Remastered and Double Dragon Neon. However, WayForward is a company which is very much trapped in the traditional model of games development, and this is what lead some of the core staffers to strike out on their own.

© Yacht Club Games

"WayForward is a work-for-hire game developer that occasionally creates original games," Nick Wozniak, who was employed as an assistant director at WayForward and now occupies the rather fancier position of 'Artmancer' at Yacht Club, tells Red Bull. "Making licensed games pays the bills, but it’s soul-crushing to see quality and fun lose out to budgeting and schedules time and time again. We wanted to make highly-polished and creative original titles, and we wanted to control the marketing and branding of our games so we could make sure that each game we make is a blockbuster. We're a group of friends that work well as a team, and when the opportunity arose, we jumped at the chance to start our own company."

Given the team's love of the NES, it should perhaps come as no great surprise to find that Shovel Knight looks, sounds and plays very much like an 8-bit game, but one created with the benefits of 2014 game design and tech. This old-school aesthetic was something that Yacht Club Games was dead set on, right from the start.

"Shovel Knight was always conceived of as an 8-bit game," says Wozniak. "Even before there was a shovel, we knew that we wanted to make a game that allowed the gameplay to naturally grow, born out of a few core mechanics. Harkening back to a time when that was how all games were made was an obvious choice. Additionally, that meant that we could create more content faster; when an enemy or object only has a few frames, iteration turn around time is greatly reduced. This allowed us to focus on what matters most: the gameplay and experience of the player."

The NES library is packed to bursting point with classic titles, and while Yacht Club Games has clearly been influenced by this golden era of gaming, actually pinpointing where inspiration has risen from is harder than you might think. "The NES days were ripe with quality games that really shaped the whole teams’ childhood and sensibilities, so it’s hard to nail down a few," says Wozniak. However, it's the fusion of old and new ideas which makes Shovel Knight such an enticing prospect. "We all love Mega Man, Castlevania, the combat of Zelda 2, and, more recently, Dark Souls, and we’re sure you’ll be able to see hints of all of those in Shovel Knight. Embracing the nostalgia that those games carry is important but is also where a great challenge lies; we want to harken back without ripping off."

Like so many indie studios, Yacht Club has funded development via the Kickstarter crowd-funding model. Last year, almost 15,000 people raised over $300,000 to fund production of the game, completely destroying the original target goal of $75,000. According to Wozniak, it was the only realistic route to market for the fledgling firm.

"If we had decided to develop the game completely on our dime, it wouldn’t have gotten very far," he says. "Kickstarter not only gave us a forum to generate a community around our game but also gave us the necessary resources to make it happen. Besides the sheer resources that a Kickstarter like ours provided, we’ve also been able to use our campaign as a communication tool to generate excitement and understand our audience."

Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight © Yacht Club Games

However, Wozniak is the first to admit that using Kickstarter comes with risk and challenges, such as keeping consumer expectation in check. "Maintaining a balance of delivering on our promises and making sure those promises actually turn into fun gameplay has been a difficult task all throughout the development," he explains. "For example, It’s easy to say 'let’s put in a music player as a stretch goal'. But when it comes time to implement that feature, it becomes obvious that a simple music player isn’t fun at all. Maybe it was cool back on the NES, but now anyone can just load-up all the music tracks on the media player of their choice any time they want. So then the question becomes, 'how do we make a music player that’s different and fun?' That then develops into a much bigger feature where the player is now picking up the music tracks as collectables, hidden throughout the world, which then are returned to a non-player character who is has his own personality and flair that describes why every track is unique."

Back in the 80s, developers were restricted by the limitations of the 8-bit NES hardware and this resulted in a very strict visual style; audio too was constrained by the humble nature of the tech. However, as the years of rolled by these limiting factors have created a style of presentation which invokes feelings of nostalgia in many players. "Not having the limitations of the hardware that our predecessors had to struggle with can lead to a sense of freedom that tempts us to complicate things," admits Wozniak. "In the past, there could only be so many sprites on screen before problems arose and only about 16 colours were allowed on screen at any one time. However, now that we have the capabilities to surpass that, we have to remember that only a few enemies on screen at a time can actually help focus the gameplay and sticking to a few colours per screen can make the design of the levels more clear."

In a tradition which is in keeping with the iconic boss characters of Capcom's Mega Man series, Shovel Knight's Order of No Quarter is filled with characters which are sure to become popular with modern players. Wozniak says that creating this eight-strong team of antagonists was immensely enjoyable, and allowed the entire development team to get involved. "We all had ideas for what a 'Knight' could be and eventually we whittled down a list of core members in name only," he explains. "Then we took each of those names and rendered quick two minute whiteboard sketches that formed the basis of the knights you see in the game now. Eventually those designs were refined with a paper drawing which was then taken to pixel and finally, all sources synthesized, a full colour illustration was made."

Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight © Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight's soundtrack meanwhile takes the retro authenticity to an entirely new level, with famed composers Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae (famous for her work with Capcom on Mega Man) collaborating on the music. "We’ve all been working with Jake for a long time, most recently on Double Dragon Neon," Wozniak says. "He was an obvious choice to do the soundtrack for our game; his talent is unparalleled and the true passion he brings to the group is invaluable to our creative process. His music is actually the most authentic part about Shovel Knight! For this game, Jake worked in a program called Famitracker that outputs real NSF – short for Nintendo Sound Format – audio files. If you had an NES cartridge that was big enough and the right setup, you could actually burn the soundtrack of Shovel Knight to it and play our soundtrack on your NES." How’s that for authenticity?

Such is the team's adoration for the console that they all grew up playing that Shovel Knight is set to be a Nintendo exclusive, at least on consoles. "We knew that we were making a Nintendo style game from the beginning, and it would feel very odd not to have Shovel Knight on a Nintendo platform," comments Wozniak. "Besides, Nintendo being a natural home for an 8-bit game, we found the features of the 3DS and Wii U really intriguing, and we wanted to explore them. Streetpass, stereoscopic 3D, Miiverse and the Wii U GamePad are all really cool, unique features that we want to take advantage of – and we have. We’ve done what we can to make sure that the game really runs well and is perfectly suited to those platforms." Such comments will surely come as a pleasant surprise for Wii U owners, who are suffering from a serious lack of third party support at the moment.

© Yacht Club Games

Rather less welcome was the news earlier this year that Shoven Knight would miss its proposed launch date – a consequence of the successful Kickstarter campaign, according to Wozniak. "Our initial estimated time was for the barebones release of Shovel Knight with a budget of $75,000," he says. "When that number was blown out of the water, we knew that it would allow us to make the game that we always wanted – one not constrained to a tight budget. Our first real date that we stated that wasn’t just a general target was March 31. As March 31 approached, we knew that there were going to be a few loose ends that, if shipped, would tarnish the rest of the game. We extended the date a little in the hopes of making Shovel Knight exactly the experience we were hoping for from the beginning. We are really happy with the results, and hopefully, everyone will all see soon that the wait was worth it."

Although the game has yet to launch, Yacht Club are already looking to the future and thinking about how the world of Shoven Knight can develop from here. "We don’t have any plans set in stone but we would absolutely love to do another Shovel Knight," Wozniak. "It would make a lot of sense to do one or two more in the 8-bit style, but we would also love to do a Super Shovel Knight done in a 16-bit style. Or even a Shovel Knight 64!"

New projects are on the backburner at present though, as the team works hard to complete its first release. "For the foreseeable future we are going to be working on the stretch goal content for Shovel Knight," explains Wozniak. "Our immediate goal is to release the Mac and Linux versions and beyond that, we have the mysterious Gender Swap mode – a complete art swap of the prominent characters – the rigorously difficult Challenge mode, three playable bosses with their own campaigns and unique playstyles, and – the goal we’re most excited about – the mighty Battle Mode, which is a four player couch-multiplayer brawl featuring all the Order of No Quarter. Shovel Knight doesn’t end with the initial release; it’s just the beginning for the Blue Burrower!"

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