Shovel Knight and the promising future of Yacht Club

By Steve Watts and Ozzie Mejia, Apr 16, 2013 12:00pm PDT

WayForward (Contra 4, Double Dragon Neon) has become widely recognized for their ability to modernize aging franchises, while simultaneously paying homage the retro themes and mechanics that makes those games so revered even decades later. Several members of the studio recently set off to forge their own path in the indie space, with the formation of Yacht Club Games. The studio recently debuted its first game, Shovel Knight, and paired it with a Kickstarter campaign that has exceeded all expectations and surpassed its highest stretch goal target.

According to Yacht Club designer Sean Velasco, Shovel Knight represents a throwback to those simpler days of 8-bit bliss. "It's the sum total of our youth in front of the NES," he told Shacknews. "It's getting up in the morning to eat cereal and play games before school. But more than that, it's pixel-perfect jumps. It's chiptune music. It's an adventure -- a challenge to overcome, characters to love, and a story to absorb. With Shovel Knight, we want to take everything that was great about the 8-bit era, refresh it, and give it a new spin for gamers young and old."

Velasco calls himself the "Captain" of Yacht Club, straying from an official managerial title. He says the studio culture is "very flat" and "deeply collaborative," stressing that no one person has the final say at the studio. He still has a soft spot for his WayForward brethren, of course. "WayForward has become a very large company over the years, so we decided it was time to break off and do our own thing. Leaving WayForward was very emotional, but we hope that now we can have twice the greatness in the game industry."

Shovel Knight tells the story of a knight trained in the art of the ShovelBlade, having ventured to the valley of shadow to find his lost love and defeat the Evil Enchantress. Standing in his way is the Order of No Quarter, a legion of evil knights serving the Enchantress. Velasco is keeping story details beyond that under wraps, but notes that more about the Shovel Knight and his world will be revealed in time. He also hopes to reveal more of the game's minor characters and situations that give the game's world a true adventure feel.

Shovel Knight

Beyond making Shovel Knight resemble an old-school adventure, Yacht Club is seeking to make it feel like an NES classic, from the visual style to its gameplay mechanics. "We mention Mega Man, Castlevania, Dark Souls, and more on our Kickstarter page," said Velasco, when talking about Shovel Knight's influences. "We love the mobility, gameplay, and graphical details of each of those games--the screen transitions and art style of Mega Man, the sub-weapons and pacing of Castlevania, the brilliant combat and tension of Dark Souls." Even though Shovel Knight does borrow ideas from these games, Velasco wants to emphasize that the game is looking to craft its own identity. "We are really trying to do our own thing rather than be simply an homage."

The game certainly feels nostalgic. In a hands-on session at PAX East, its similarities to the classics like were immediately apparent. The sense of movement and stage layouts were reminiscent of Mega Man 2, right down to the placement of ladders and disappearing blocks. Though the shovel served as the main attack, the knight eventually received a magic attack that allowed for ranged shots. The shovel served to dig for treasure, swipe projectiles back at enemies, and bounce off the ground.

That last mechanic has drawn comparisons to DuckTales, particularly because of WayForward's work on DuckTales Remastered for Capcom. Velasco assured us this was pure coincidence. "Honestly, the down thrust from Shovel Knight is much more inspired by the down thrust from Zelda 2. There are definitely shades of McDuck in there, but you won't see Shovel Knight pogoing around everywhere he goes. Shovel Knight's down-thrust attack is mainly a combat move occasionally used for platforming, as opposed to a mobility move occasionally used for combat." His point was driven home when, playing the game, trying to bounce on certain terrain types would damage Shovel Knight instead of allowing him to pass by unscathed.

For Velasco, nailing the NES aesthetic was about more than simply mimicking the hardware specifications. This will be a game that appears, for all intents and purposes, to be an NES game, but Yacht Club is aiming to make subtle improvements above what the 8-bit system could handle. He mentioned many more layers of parallax scrolling than we'd find in a true 8-bit game, and peppering in extra sound channels or colors when needed. "It feels authentic, but it has a lot of modern touches," he said.

However, the game isn't just the sum of its influences. The retro aesthetic is only part of the formula for Shovel Knight. Part of what makes WayForward's titles appealing is their ability to seamlessly blend in modern ideas. Shovel Knight is no different, only in this case, Yacht Club doesn’t need to adhere to an established mythos. "With Shovel Knight, we have a blank slate, which is both freeing but dizzying in terms of directions we could go," Velasco explained. "To keep ourselves focused, we are adhering to the NES aesthetic and the gameplay philosophy of games of that era. As far as new sensibilities go, we are taking a very close look at death states, failure, and character progression--we think that lives and continues are maybe a bit outmoded. We also are focusing on unifying the whole game thematically through gameplay, story, audio and visuals working in concert, which is something that NES games rarely accomplished."

While Shovel Knight was originally slated for PC, the game's Kickstarter drew some additional attention after revealing that it would also be coming to Wii U and 3DS. Expect the game to take advantage of each platform's unique features. "We're excited about playing Shovel Knight on our Wii U gamepads in bed, so we definitely want offscreen play supported," said Velasco. "The 3DS version will be in stereoscopic 3D, so you can see all the depth of parallax we're doing. We haven't settled on the uses for the secondary screens of the Wii U or 3DS, but we want to do something cooler and more involved than simply displaying a map or inventory." Though it'll take advantage of platform features, don’t expect too much variation between the different versions of the game. Velasco added, "We are trying to keep the features of each version as uniform as possible, so players can have similar experiences."

After the successful Kickstarter campaign, Shovel Knight is on track for a September release on PC, Wii U, and 3DS. Having blown past its original $75,000 goal, Yacht Club has had to constantly introduce new stretch goals. It ended on Saturday night with a grand total of $311,502--enough to include a music player, playable boss knights, New Game +, Gender Swap mode, Challenge Mode and more.

Next, the hard work begins: finishing the game. As of PAX East, Velasco told us the game was 10-15 percent complete, and that Yacht Club would be relying on the community to help flesh out the details as it enters the home stretch. The mechanics and world-building are done, he said, but the team was still working through ideas like implementing an upgrade system or imbuing the shovel with elemental properties. Whatever comes next for Shovel Knight, it's off to a strong start. Now Yacht Club just needs to dig deep and come back up with a treasure.

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