The Mak­ing Of…

How a small group har­nessed its 8bit ob­ses­sion to cre­ate the best NES game in 25 years


How a small stu­dio’s 8bit ob­ses­sion birthed Shovel Knight, the best NES game in 25 years


No one would ever say game de­vel­op­ment is easy. But the re­search process for Shovel Knight was cer­tainly no hard­ship for Yacht Club Games. The team has a yearly tra­di­tion known as Mega May, where the fifth month is re­served for play­ing through ev­ery Mega Man game. “Even if we weren’t mak­ing Shovel Knight, we would be play­ing them any­way,” lead pro­gram­mer David D’An­gelo tells us. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re mak­ing a NES game – we need to go back and play all the NES games.’ That was some­thing we were do­ing any­way be­cause we’re ob­sessed with those games.”

D’An­gelo was one of five staff who worked to­gether at WayFor­ward Tech­nolo­gies and be­gan to col­lab­o­rate on an ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar pro­ject. While it didn’t work out, the team had an un­mis­tak­able chem­istry. But af­ter the re­lease of Dou­ble Dragon Neon, they knew they were likely to be sep­a­rated. “What’s in­ter­est­ing about WayFor­ward is that you rarely work with the same peo­ple over again,” D’An­gelo ex­plains. “[As] a work-for-hire com­pany, they just put who­ever they have avail­able on a pro­ject when­ever they sign some­thing.” Some­thing had to give – and so, in 2011, the group left to found Yacht Club Games.

In­spired by the Blue Bomber, as well as Cap­com’s Duck­Tales and Kon­ami’s Castl­e­va­nia

III, the stu­dio con­ceived a cen­tral me­chanic of a ver­sa­tile down­ward sword thrust that could be used to at­tack en­e­mies from above, to bounce on hard sur­faces and to dig into soft ground. Swords don’t dig, but shov­els do – and Yacht Club Games sud­denly had an in­ter­est­ing hook around which to build its game. Though crowd­fund­ing was in its rel­a­tive in­fancy at the time, the stu­dio de­cided Kick­starter would be the best op­tion to raise the $75,000 it sought to com­plete the game, a de­ci­sion taken more to raise its pro­file than as a re­sult of pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful cam­paigns. “There wasn’t a ton of huge ones be­fore we went to Kick­starter,” D’An­gelo says. “At least not fa­mous on the scale of Mighty No 9 or Dou­ble Fine Ad­ven­ture. To us, it was more that we’d made games that peo­ple may have known, but they def­i­nitely didn’t know who we were. We thought it was a good way to get our names out there rather than try­ing to blindly go af­ter me­dia or what­ever. It def­i­nitely felt like the best way we could build a com­mu­nity around the game.”

The gam­ble worked. The cam­paign hit its orig­i­nal tar­get quickly and, as var­i­ous stretch goals were reached and passed, Yacht Club found it­self crowd­sourc­ing ideas from its grow­ing com­mu­nity, one of which re­sulted in one of the more puerile cheat codes of re­cent times, which re­places re­cur­ring nouns in the game’s script with the word ‘butt’. D’An­gelo laughs. “That’s in there be­cause we were do­ing a stream and we were at $250,000, and we were jok­ing with our fans that we couldn’t come up with another stretch goal even if we wanted to; that if we were go­ing to put another up there, it was go­ing to be butt mode. And it turned out to be re­ally pop­u­lar! So we ended up putting that in.”

As silly as it sounds, it proves that Yacht Club was lis­ten­ing to its com­mu­nity. It also paid at­ten­tion to feed­back fol­low­ing a demo it took to PAX – from mi­nor com­plaints about col­li­sion de­tec­tion in spe­cific ar­eas to wider ob­ser­va­tions that made it clear that the de­sires of the de­vel­oper and its au­di­ence were in lock­step. “Peo­ple would see the Flare Wand in the demo and they’d [ask], ‘Oh, does that mean I get new ar­mours, too? I won­der what else we’ll get’ – that kind of thing,” D’An­gelo says. “Hear­ing how peo­ple en­vi­sioned the game grow­ing fed into how we en­vi­sioned it grow­ing, too.”

Another con­cern was the dif­fi­culty level. Though from the be­gin­ning the stu­dio had been try­ing to strike a bal­ance be­tween a con­tem­po­rary re­lease and an 8bit game,

Shovel Knight’s retro aes­thetic meant some ap­proached the game with pre­con­cep­tions about its chal­lenge. “Peo­ple would come up to us and say, ‘Don’t make it NES hard!’” D’An­gelo says. “We didn’t know what that meant at first, and they ex­plained that they meant NES games were too hard [for them] to en­joy.”

From the out­set, Yacht Club had said it didn’t want to have a lives me­chanic, but it still wanted to present a chal­lenge. The trick was how to make that chal­lenge in­ter­est­ing. “If I die on a sec­tion more than once, what makes me not want to put down the con­troller?” D’An­gelo asks. The so­lu­tion was a Dark Souls- like me­chanic whereby Shovel Knight would drop loot upon dy­ing, en­cour­ag­ing the player to try to re­trieve it. “You think, ‘I need to go get that money back so I’m go­ing to keep play­ing,’” D’An­gelo says. “’I’m go­ing to re­turn to that spot and when I do, I’m go­ing to feel good about it, as op­posed to feel­ing crappy that I keep dy­ing.’”

If Shovel Knight was no longer to be ‘NES hard’, it was still go­ing to look like a long-lost 8bit game. Much as the team’s af­fec­tion for the era in­formed the choice of aes­thetic, prac­ti­cal­ity played a part in the de­ci­sion. It wasn’t sim­ply about mak­ing the big­gest game it could rea­son­ably han­dle, but some­thing dense with ideas and sys­tems. This way, Yacht Club could cut down on the time be­tween it­er­a­tions and pro­duce some­thing much richer in a shorter span. “In the same way a South Park episode can be whipped out in six days and be rel­e­vant and hi­lar­i­ous and packed with jokes, I think we had that same phi­los­o­phy,” D’An­gelo says. “If we have these sim­ple graph­ics, we can get the boss up and run­ning in a day, and pro­gram all of its at­tacks and see if it’s fun. If you look at a

Mega Man or a Zelda, of­ten­times they have those scrolling screens like Shovel Knight does, when you see one room of the level at a time – and be­cause of that, [the de­vel­oper] is more con­scious about mak­ing sure ev­ery square of the screen has some­thing fun in it, and is dif­fer­ent than the last room you saw.”

So how do you make a mod­ern game that feels like it’s been ripped from the NES era? By re­liv­ing the clas­sics, of course. YouTube was a

use­ful re­source, but it didn’t com­pare to the ex­pe­ri­ence of boot­ing up these old games to find out what made them tick. One key dis­cov­ery was the gap be­tween the hard­ware’s early years and the games that came much later. “Some of the NES games are re­ally ad­vanced,” D’An­gelo says. “They might have par­al­lax [scrolling], for ex­am­ple. When you go from Mario Bros bat­tle mode on the NES… I mean, that game looks sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent to Su­per Mario Bros 3. It felt re­ally im­por­tant to go back and look at those games just to see if we were push­ing things too far – even if it was still within the NES lim­i­ta­tions.”

D’An­gelo and his col­leagues al­ready had huge re­spect for genre clas­sics, but through this process they gained a new kind of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the pi­o­neers of the 8bit era – not least given the tech­no­log­i­cal gap be­tween then and now. The level-de­sign tools Yacht Club was us­ing alone were, af­ter all, far in ad­vance of any­thing avail­able in the ’80s. “When you look at these games, there’s al­ready mind-blow­ing in­ven­tive­ness there,” D’An­gelo says. “I mean, Mega Man 5 has grav­ity-flip­ping in it – it’s crazy that a game that early is al­ready go­ing re­ally far out in terms of plat­form­ing wack­i­ness. But mak­ing Shovel

Knight on mod­ern com­put­ers made me won­der how they were able to make bril­liant games so quickly with such prim­i­tive hard­ware. I imag­ine most of those NES games were drawn on paper and one pro­gram­mer spent like a week fig­ur­ing out press­ing in text where ev­ery­thing should go.”

To stay true to the 8bit feel, Yacht Club es­tab­lished a se­ries of ground rules for what was and wasn’t al­lowed; where the bound­aries could be re­laxed, and where they shouldn’t be pushed. The music, for ex­am­ple, would use the equiv­a­lent of the sound chip adopted by Castl­e­va­nia III, chiefly thanks to the pres­ence of ad­di­tional voice chan­nels. “That way, it still sounded NES enough, and it didn’t have the lim­i­ta­tions of when a sound ef­fect was play­ing and a music chan­nel would drop out, which sounded lame,” D’An­gelo ex­plains. “It was just a mat­ter of find­ing the things that we thought would make it as fun as pos­si­ble and still feel like a NES game.”

Weren’t there a few com­plaints from purists, though? D’An­gelo laughs. “We didn’t get a ton, ac­tu­ally, which is sort of a sur­prise. We def­i­nitely had peo­ple who said, ‘This doesn’t feel like a NES [game] to me’, and that’s prob­a­bly be­cause they played ear­lier games on the sys­tem or they just can’t han­dle any­thing break­ing the lim­i­ta­tions at all. I mean, if you see a widescreen game, it’s def­i­nitely not a NES game – there’s way too much real es­tate on the screen. But, yeah, we didn’t have too many peo­ple harp­ing on about specifics, like, ’How dare you not keep this sprite inside of a tile bound­ary – it’s un­just!’”

The ef­fort in­vested in get­ting Shovel Knight to run on 3DS (the team’s big­gest tech­ni­cal chal­lenge, D’An­gelo says) paid off hand­somely: only the PC ver­sion ended up out­selling it. The NES con­nec­tion ob­vi­ously helped, with the Wii U ver­sion also out­per­form­ing its home con­sole ri­vals. But D’An­gelo doesn’t see any ver­sion as be­ing su­pe­rior to the oth­ers. Each one has exclusive fea­tures, from the StreetPass arena mode on the 3DS game to the use of PS4’s light bar and cross-save func­tion­al­ity, through to an exclusive Bat­tle­toads boss fight in the Xbox One game. That is, he says, down to the team’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for games be­ing specif­i­cally tai­lored to­wards their host hard­ware. “We spent a lot of time try­ing to make sure that when you played it on a con­sole, it felt like you could play it on that con­sole and then say, ‘Oh, it’s on another sys­tem? No way!’ Mak­ing it feel su­per-spe­cial on [each in­di­vid­ual] sys­tem was re­ally im­por­tant to us. That’s some­thing we love when we play old games, so we wanted to do the same thing.” In­ter­nal sales es­ti­mates for the game came out at around 50,000 copies – the bench­mark that would al­low Yacht Club to make another ti­tle. Across all for­mats, Shovel Knight has since sur­passed 1.2 mil­lion copies, a fig­ure that con­tin­ues to climb. That’s partly down to the ad­di­tion of free down­load­able ex­pan­sions, which are keep­ing the game in the pub­lic eye: last year’s Plague Of Shad­ows will be fol­lowed by Specter Of Tor­ment, which is set to launch in the spring. De­vel­op­ment of that episode con­tin­ues in tan­dem with another as-yet-un­ti­tled episode star­ring King Knight.

These ad­dons were among the orig­i­nal stretch goals, but have ex­panded well be­yond their orig­i­nal re­mit. “We pitched it to every­one on the Kick­starter as like a Mega Man powerup where you play as the other bosses and you go through ex­actly the same lev­els, with very slight text changes,” D’An­gelo tells us. “But when Shovel Knight be­came so suc­cess­ful, we all wanted to make some­thing big­ger and cooler and unique.” Even so, the stu­dio has gone above and be­yond what any backer could rea­son­ably have ex­pected. “I would say at this point, they’re al­most com­plete full games. That’s how big they are in terms of con­tent. And Specter Knight’s go­ing to be even big­ger than Plague Knight, too, which I hope peo­ple will think is very cool.”

With cameo ap­pear­ances al­ready se­cured in fel­low crowd­fund­ing suc­cesses such as YookaLaylee and Blood­stained, Shovel Knight is clearly not go­ing any­where any­time soon. And its maker is ev­i­dently de­lighted to have es­tab­lished a new breed of hor­ti­cul­tural hero. “We couldn’t be more grate­ful that every­one bought it and loved it and told every­one else to buy it,” D’An­gelo says. “It’s blown us away how suc­cess­ful it’s been.”

You don’t have to fin­ish Shovel Knight’s story in or­der to play PlagueOfShad­ows – there’s also a cheat code that gives you im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the free ex­pan­sion

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