Speedy Shovelry: How the Speedrunning Community Embraced Shovel Knight

In an exclusive chapter from David L. Craddock's 'Shovel Knight' by Boss Fight Books, two of Shovel Knight's top speedrunners discuss how they approached and dissected Yacht Club Games' modern-day classic.

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Shovel Knight by David L. Craddock is the 19th book in publisher Boss Fight Books’ series of nonfiction titles about game development and gaming culture, and is available now in paperback and digital editions. Due to concerns over page count, a chapter on speedrunning was left on the cutting-room floor. Shacknews presents that chapter in full below. (Disclaimer: Author David L. Craddock is an editor at Shacknews. This chapter is not considered an endorsement of his book.)


For every Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3, droves of NES sequels failed to capture the spirit of what had made their predecessors fun. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, for instance, had a suitably creepy atmosphere and haunting soundtrack. In retrospect, its gameplay involved tedious item gathering, and its progression is considered esoteric and capricious at best. The third game, however, is considered a classic for improving on the original's central conceits of action and platforming.

Konami and other developers can be forgiven for missing the mark on one sequel only to stick the landing on the next. They had no way to measure what fans liked and what they condemned in an original title until reviews were published weeks or months after release, by which time studios had already committed significant time and resources to a plan for the follow-up. Today, the universality of direct and near instantaneous methods of interaction such as social media and Twitch let developers keep a finger on the pulse of their communities, and plan development of sequels accordingly.

Inviting Kickstarter backers to watch as David D'Angelo programmed Tinker Knight was only one example of how Yacht Club bridged the narrowing gulf between creator and consumer. Their frequent communication with pro players such as Smaugy and MunchaKoopas, two of the fastest Shovel Knight speedrunners around, is another, one that continues to send a ripple effect throughout the design of the game's add-on packs. "I think I got under an hour on the original Shovel Knight when it launched, or maybe right around an hour. They're running at like forty minutes," D'Angelo said of speedrunners. "They're god tier compared to me. There's no question about it."

Tailoring Shovel Knight to speedrunners as well as to casual players was a priority for Yacht Club, for personal and professional reasons. "We try to engage with that speedrunner community because those are the people we are," Velasco said. "I grew up speedrunning Mega Man 2 and Super Metroid, so [speedrunning is] near and dear to me."

"Even if you're not speedrunning it per se, people do try to go through the game quickly," explained D'Angelo. "Say you're replaying it. You say, 'I'm just going to run through this room at full speed because I know this room.' If it isn't fun to run through that room at full speed, it's going to be crappy for someone. I think an average player runs into that a lot, actually. I'm going at full clip in Mega Man, and the [enemy] spawns and hits me if I'm going full clip. That ruins the experience. I'm playing the game a lot from that point of view for sure."

Markus "Smaugy" Sundqvist, his online handle adapted from the avaricious dragon Smaug in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, is one of the Shovel Knight community's most well-known speedrunners. He had a background playing competitive e-sports games such as Counter-Strike 1.6 and Quake Live before looking for another type of game on which to leave his mark. "I wanted to get back into something that is both fun and competitive," Smaugy explained. "I had already been watching speed runs from time to time and I loved the amount of time you had to put into it in, how much practice, passion, and dedication you needed to become good. I saw it as a challenge and figured I would try it out and see how good I could become."

Fortuitously, Smaugy developed an interest in speedrunning a few days out from the 2015 Summer Games Done Quick. Known as SGDQ, the annual event is a week-long gathering where the best speedrunners in the world blaze through games new and old to raise money for charity. Watching over Twitch, Smaugy happened to catch a speedrunner known as MunchaKoopas playing a retro-style platformer called Shovel Knight. MunchaKoopas was playing in the Low% category, a type of race where the player skips optional content in favor of the fastest possible route to the end. Smaugy's eyes widened as he watched MunchaKoopas sprint through the Order of No Quarter and defeat the Enchantress in just shy of 50 minutes.

"Shovel Knight reminded me of older games such as Castlevania, DuckTales, Mega Man, Super Mario, and Zelda," Smaugy said. "So I picked it up, started learning, and I was hooked."

MunchaKoopas followed a similar path to speedrunning, tuning into SGDQs and AGDQs (Awesome Games Done Quick, a winter event) and staring in amazement as donations poured in. "I was amazed that this was a hobby in the first place, and that people were using it to do some good in the world," he said.

MunchaKoopas remained a spectator until 2014, when Shovel Knight's launch on PC and Nintendo's Wii U and 3DS systems coincided with the start of SGDQ. "I had the week off work and played while I watched the stream, and I decided it would be my first speed game. I fell in love with the way the game played and all the clever uses the items had. Even the basic shovel can be used to great effect."

MunchaKoopas and Smaugy take different approaches to perfecting their techniques. For MunchaKoopas, practice makes perfect. "People ask me often, 'How long does it take to learn Shovel Knight?' I never have an answer because for me it's been an ongoing process of almost three years now," he said.

Smaugy has never played Shovel Knight the way casual players do—exploring, returning to the Village to talk to the NPCs, watching the Troupple King and his fishy brigade perform their dance routine. "I wanted to play as much as possible so I could get used to the game, the mechanics of items, physics of jumping, the shovel attacks and the behavior of the enemies," he said. "So I picked up a few new tricks every day and after every personal best I pretty much looked at two to three of my biggest problems at the time and fixed those problems, and then I repeat that cycle."

Speedrunners tend to focus on honing their techniques for certain categories, such as shovel-only runs or 100% competition—meaning no relics left behind, no levels skipped, no bosses unchallenged. Even after three years and countless speedruns, MunchaKoopas is still amazed at just how much can be done with the game's default weapon. "I started running Low%, or shovel only, as my first category," he said. "I worked hard with friends to find techniques to beat the game with only the shovel in under forty-eight minutes. It will forever be my favorite category. The way the shovel interacts with the world around Shovel Knight is beautifully crafted."

Smaugy and MunchaKoopas usually stream the game while they play, providing a running commentary that gives viewers insight into their strategies and practice sessions. Before long, both runners noticed one viewer who stood out from the rest.

"One of the members of Yacht Club Games started watching me on a daily basis when I streamed my Shovel Knight speed runs, and still [watches]," said Smaugy. "We developed a friendship, and that's how I realized YCG appreciates us speedrunners as we are the ones who know a huge amount of the game and how things work."

"Shane [Calimlim] from YCG has been hanging around Shovel Knight speedrun channels since late 2014," added MunchaKoopas. "He has been an amazing friend to me, and I am eternally thankful for everything he has done not only for me but for the community. He has been our voice to the rest of the development team."

Yacht Club's developers appreciated both runners' enthusiasm for the game and extended offers to let them play early builds of patches and expansion packs, such as 2015's Plague of Shadows and 2017's Specter of Torment, in exchange for providing feedback—on bugs they find, on glitches they exploit, and on the techniques they employ. "When I play an early build, I try to simply enjoy the experience of playing that character or mode for the first time," explained MunchaKoopas. "If I am doing actual testing, I am looking for bugs and small changes. It's mostly to make sure that speedruns still function the same way."

"I'm making sure mechanics are working as usual," said Smaugy. "Items doing what they're supposed to do, looking at if there is any changed behavior in enemies, bosses, or physics. I've been mostly confirming that things are working as intended, what feels good when playing."

Smaugy and MunchaKoopas report bugs or glitches they find while testing. Yacht Club's developers evaluate each one. Some they consider too detrimental to the game's structure and squelch. Others are deemed fun enough to stick around, or so esoteric that casual players have little chance of stumbling over them and botching their progress. Smaugy is credited with discovering a technique that he and the community have coined "Bubble Wrap." It can be performed in the Plains of Passage, and saves three to four seconds of time if executed correctly.

"The trick is to do a specific setup to make two bubbles from a dragon shoot up into the sky, and you pogo up on them at a specific moment," Smaugy explained, "and you touch the loading screen of the screen above at the same time as you are touching the screen transition to your left. This trick teleports you up to the screen above which enables you to skip going around the long way."

Some of the glitches that speedrunners report surprise Yacht Club Games. Jump-cancelling was one such. "You could hit an enemy with the shovel drop or with your regular Shovel Blade attack, and then you can go into another attack right after that," Velasco said. "So when an enemy's flashing state is over, your shovel could be inside the enemy, and as long as your hit box is valid they will take another hit. They will use that to do a one-two combo, as it were."

Yacht Club felt compelled to correct jump-cancelling, foreseeing scenarios where the player could intentionally get wedged between the topmost screen border and a tall enemy. If players cannot fall, Shovel Knight's sprite interlocks with the enemy's sprite. Both hit boxes are valid, enabling players to drill the enemy with shovel drops until it dies or the player get pushed onto the next screen over. Speedrunners urged the team to reconsider. "We tried to make adjustments to hit boxes in some cases," Velasco added, "but they said, 'No, leave it in; this is a cool, extra technique.'"

Yacht Club knew about damage boosting, but left it in the code because they saw it as a technique that savvy players would want to exploit. "I think we just deal with [glitches] on a case-by-case basis," Velasco stated. "If one would make the game look extremely broken, we would take it out. If it's one that only a speed runner would encounter, or has an extremely small chance of being able to happen, we might leave it."

Propeller Knight has a reputation as one of the most difficult bosses for casual players and speedrunners alike. He's quick, spends much of the fight hovering in the air out of reach, and calls in an airship to fire cannonballs. Even MunchaKoopas feared the winged knight—until he figured out a way to defeat him in 19 seconds flat.

For his opening salvo, Propeller Knight lunges back and forth, trying to impale players on his rapier. MunchaKoopas counters by pulling off a series of jump-cancels to score hits on the boss every time he lunges. If employed correctly, Propeller Knight's health bar will be reduced by half. "To make this work the player has to use jump to cancel their ground attack and then face the other direction to hit propeller again," he said. It's a tough trick to learn but it makes the fight incredibly easy."

MunchaKoopas and Smaugy dig into their bag of tricks every time they attempt a speedrun. Early in 2017, the two friends and friendly rivals got a chance to pit their skills against one another in a race at AGDQ. The goal: be the first to finish the game in the Low%, shovel-only category.

Both players took seats before monitors at the front of an auditorium packed with fans and peers. Smaugy and MunchaKoopas were there to have fun and raise money for charity, but Smaugy confessed to feeling pressure. Not only were they in a room full of people, tens of thousands of viewers tune in on Twitch at any given time during the week-long event.

"In races you want to be somewhat safe in the route you are taking to ensure if you die, you won't lose as much time if it does happen," said Smaugy.

Both runners took their time getting settled. MunchaKoopas got a wave of laughter when he removed his headphones to put on a beanie in the shape of Shovel Knight's helmet, then slipped his headset on overtop it. One of the commentators initiated a countdown. "Three, two, one, go!" Cheers and applause broke out as two Shovel Knights on two screens broke into a run across the Plains of Passage. While they played, another speedrunner versed in Shovel Knight provided commentary to explain tricks they performed. MunchaKoopas and Smaugy shut out comments and cheers. They sat forward, eyes glued to their screens. They were in the zone.

MunchaKoopas falls into his zone by treating solo runs at home no differently than live events like AGDQ. "I practice full game runs, individual levels, spots I have trouble with."

"The most important thing to do is get into the mindset of 'I can never stop, no matter what mistakes happen. I have to keep going,'" MunchaKoopas said. "I try to approach it like a musical instrument."

By the time they finished the boss rush and headed into the first of two battles against the Enchantress, Smaugy held the lead by three seconds. Entering the villainess's room, both players threw a chaos orb and batted the Enchantress's projectiles back at her. Both Smaugy and MunchaKoopas took her down within a second of one another. Spectators exploded in applause. Smaugy grinned and wiped sweaty palms on his pants. MunchaKoopas gave a quick nod, not looking away from his screen.

"Coming down to final Enchantress, man," the commentator said, voice shaky. "This is... I'm excited. That's all I can say." He gave a giddy laugh. "That's all I can say."

Smaugy put his game face back on. MunchaKoopas shifted in his chair, sitting up straighter. Shield Knight fell from the top of the screen in dramatic slow-mo. Both players leaped to catch her, as much as to speed things up as out of concern for her wellbeing. In the background, the towering form of the Remnant of Fate faded into view. Her life meter filled. The fight began. As Remnant of Fate unleashed glowing orbs that bounced around the screen, Shield Knight's AI kicked in. She commenced pacing back and forth, leaping up and down the disjointed ground and looking for an opportunity to hold her shield aloft so that players could shovel-drop against it, pogo into the air and clock Fate's head. When and how often Shield Knight raises her shield depends on RNG, or random-number generation, speedrunner shorthand for an action or event out of their control.

After pogoing against Shield Knight's shield, the trick to beating Remnant of Fate quickly is to bludgeon her head with a series of jump-cancels and shovel drops. Both players encountered difficulty at first; Shield Knight seemed dead set against being helpful, wandering back and forth when both players desperately needed her to jump. Smaugy got lucky when his computer-controlled partner cooperated sooner. He boosted off her shield and carved down the boss's life bar. When the Remnant of Fate scooted to the side—a preprogrammed reflex to prevent players from defeating her too easily—Smaugy took flight after her using the Propeller Dagger and continued his onslaught. His screen began to flash. The Remnant of Fate was down. Smaugy was victorious at 46:10.

 "Mentality comes into play as well," explained Smaugy. "If you start doubting a trick you're about to do, you start to think," Oh, no, I might mess this up, don't mess this up. So usually the best thing to do [is to play] as you would in your normal speedrun attempts."

Smaugy tried to stand but got tangled in his headset. "Yeah, but, the cord," he protested.

"Don't worry about it," MunchaKoopas said. Smaugy heeded his mentor and disentangled himself. The two friends embraced, clapping each other on the back and thanking one another for a nail-biter of a race.

The crowd began to break up. MunchaKoopas held up a finger and asked for a few extra moments. He held down buttons to scrub through the game's ending. On the credits screen, he pointed out his name and the names of other speedrunners listed in the special-thanks section, then initiated another round of applause for Smaugy, whose name was given a special shout out.

CURRENT ANY% SPEEDRUN RECORD

SHOVEL KNIGHT

SMAUGY

00:43:51

Sharing the memory still elicits a grin. "It has been an incredible journey throughout my speedrunning and streaming it live to countless people watching me," Smaugy said. "I feel like speedrunning is my home; it has given me much practice and development in my mentality and personality. Spending so many hours playing this has given me an insanely amount of joy and seeing other people coming to ask me [for] advice about the game is a very good feeling. Shovel Knight is and will be for a long time one of my favorite games to play and speedrun. For Shovelry!"

MunchaKoopas has won his fair share of races, and lost others. His record does not matter to him. He's just along for the ride.

"After so much time spent playing Shovel Knight, I can honestly say that it has become part of my identity," MunchaKoopas said. "My friends outside of speedrunning joke that I lead a double life. I am a shy, reserved person most of the time. At speedrun events I try to be more outgoing and friendly to people. Shovel Knight has given me chances to travel the country, raise money for charity, make amazing friends, and even led me to a lovely lady I am rather fond of! I am not sure I will ever stop playing Shovel Knight. If I could go back in time and tell fifteen-year-old me he would be working with a game developer one day, I am certain he would demand a high five. This game has given me a new lease on life and I cannot imagine life without it."


Notes and Citations

  1. I wanted to get back into something that is both fun: Interview with "Smaugy." Unless noted otherwise, all quotes from "Smaugy" come from interviews conducted over 2017.
  2. Smaugy's eyes widened as he watched MunchaKoopas: Games Done Quick. "Shovel Knight (shovel only) by MunchaKoopas in 49:36 - Summer Games Done Quick 2015 - Part 108." YouTube video. Posted on [September 6, 2015]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY3rhMv5IuI.
  3. I was amazed that this was a hobby in the first place: Interview with "MunchaKoopas." Unless noted otherwise, all quotes from "MunchaKoopas" come from interviews conducted over 2017.
  4. Even MunchaKoopas feared the winged knight: "Fastest Low% Propeller Knight Kill." YouTube video. Posted on [March 5, 2015]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5afSQSLJ60.
  5. MunchaKoopas and Smaugy dig into their bag: "Shovel Knight by Smaugy and MunchaKoopas in 46:16 - Awesome Games Done Quick 2017 - Part 5." YouTube video. Posted on [January 8, 2017]. https://youtu.be/vgg7TS3MWwk?t=21m17s.
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