The 2014 indie hit Shovel Knight paid homage to the Nintendo Entertainment System’s pixel art and game design, but its developers also wanted to polish up the harsh edges of 1980s platform games.
In this excerpt from Boss Fight Books’ new book Shovel Knight, out today, author David L. Craddock speaks to the four co-founders of Yacht Club games about the process.
With Shovel Knight, Yacht Club intended to evoke the spirit of NES games by refining or expanding on retro tropes rather than copying them wholesale. Shovel Knight’s map screen exemplifies that approach. The map is displayed from an overhead view, a tribute to Super Mario Bros. 3's board game-style of navigation.
Unlike Mario 3, Shovel Knight’s map spans several screens. Heavy fog shrouds the right side of the map. Players start on the far left move their character along a grid that connects tiles representing levels, each inhabited by a knight in the Order of No Quarter.
Only two stages are open to players early on. Conquering them causes the fog to recede, revealing more paths and levels.
Parceling out levels enabled Yacht Club to sand down a rough edge in Capcom’s nonlinear progression. Every Mega Man game begins at a stage select screen. Players can choose where to go first, second, and so on. While that approach empowered players to tackle levels in any order, the downside was that they might wind up attempting the hardest stage before becoming grounded in the game’s mechanics.
“We didn’t want to overwhelm players and risk them making bad choices,” said Ian Flood. “So we present two levels, then three levels. You can choose based on preference, but it’s not so bad that you end up at the easiest stage last.”
Yacht Club circumvented peaks and valleys by gradually ratcheting up challenge in each set of Shovel Knight’s levels. Over each successive stage, players develop their skill with the Shovel Blade. By the time they move on to the next set, no challenge feels too formidable or elementary.
“By the time you’ve finished the tower, if you go back to the [intro level], it should be cool because you’re so much better than you used to be,” Sean Velasco said.
“When a new Mega Man game comes out, I’m already a pro at it before I even pick it up. The only thing I need to do is learn the new weapons and new boss patterns, but my Mega Man skill is something that’s been cultivated in the same way your Shovel Knight skill has been cultivated. Being able to achieve mastery in a game like that is very rewarding.”
“The cool thing about Mega Man is that it’s a really difficult game,” David D’Angelo added. “Since you can go to any level in the game, you’re way more likely to experience more of the content and invest in the game just because you can see it all. Choosing your own path, we liked. The world map came up as a split between doing that, and trying to teach the player difficult skills over the course of the game.”
Each of Shovel Knight’s swings, stabs, and jumps is a lesson in offence. The game’s levels are classrooms. Yacht Club’s designers fleshed out their lesson plans, appropriately enough, on two giant whiteboards. One was reserved for business concerns like schedules and marketing ideas.
The second was a window into their collective imagination. That window opened widest during brainstorming sessions.
“Usually one person is leading, like Sean writing down ideas, or we’re all playing the game and someone’s writing stuff down on the whiteboard,” said Nick “Woz” Wozniak.
“A lot of times that idea isn’t necessarily a thing that we’ll do, but it’s a spark that leads to another idea. Open communication is important to us.”
When the time came to spitball level themes, everyone swivelled their chairs toward the whiteboard and lobbed suggestions at Velasco, whose marker squeaked as he sketched and scribbled. Fire and ice were staples of Mega Man games, so they needed levels grounded in those elements.
Shovel Knight was a game about knights and sorceresses, so a castle seemed obvious. Someone proposed a clock tower as an homage to Castlevania III.
Velasco decorated nearly every inch of the whiteboard with coloured marker. Any and every idea for a level that seemed like it would fit Shovel Knight’s world was given equal consideration.
Environments were their first concern. Bosses came later, after a stage was far enough along that the team felt comfortable extrapolating a character from an area’s theme.
Pridemore Keep, the domain of King Knight, was the first stage the team designed. By virtue of being made first, Pridemore became the proof of concept they took to their first PAX appearance during Shovel Knight’s Kickstarter campaign.
“I think that was the one where we were testing out what we should and shouldn’t do, what looked appropriate and what didn’t, how big a character could be, how many colours could be in the background,” Velasco said.
“King Knight was pretty basic,” said Woz. “We wanted a castle that’s gilded: Every room has gold, the environment feels really shiny and garish. That’s how that started. We had other colours for the sky, but pink was what we gravitated toward. We have blue and purple skies saved somewhere, but they didn’t look as fun.”
Players disappear behind the keep’s elaborate red-and-gold banners when they walk past, an interaction that permitted Yacht Club to treat banner-covered areas as puzzles. On one screen with a series of platforms and pillars, banners droop from one platform to the next. Some banners hide objects such as dirt blocks that Shovel Knight can dig through, and holes that players must hop over to reach clusters of gems.
Though they appear simple, those banners would not have worked on an NES. “The whole thing is far outside of NES restrictions,” Velasco said of Shovel Knight as a whole. Nintendo’s 8-bit hardware permitted a single background layer. Pridemore Keep consists of multiple background layers: the sky, made up of purple-tinged or peach-coloured clouds, is one layer; the green walls and columns of the Keep against which Shovel Knight runs and jumps is another.
Subsequent levels were even more elaborate. By the end of development, Yacht Club had to double back to King Knight’s stage and add extra frills so the level did not appear too rudimentary compared to others.
Staying true to how NES games looked was one challenge. To David D’Angelo, differentiating the stages was an even taller hurdle to jump. “When you’re building a game based on Shovel Knight, which is based on one mechanic—a down-thrust—being able to build something that makes you say, ‘I’m doing something different here,’ is difficult to do,” he explained.
“Like, does getting blown around by wind in Propeller Knight’s stage actually feel more fun? I don’t know. But if you line it up with these objects, then, yeah, it’s more exciting than what you’ve done previously.”
Every Mega Man game had 25 screens per level, so Yacht Club followed that formula, tweaking it where needed. “There are 26 screens for every level, give or take a screen or two,” Velasco explained.
“In addition to that, there are six secret screens. So you knock out a wall, go to the left. We tried hard to stick to that number of screens because Mega Man’s stage lengths feel perfect.”
Yacht Club constructed levels screen by screen, room by room. “We would lay out the stages and come up with the ups and downs, the ebb and flow,” said D’Angelo.
“We’d say, ‘What’s going to be on this screen? It’s going to be combat. What about this screen? This will be platforming. This screen? It’ll be a mix of both.’ We won’t be super scientific about [striking a balance].”
Building rooms is where level design becomes more art than science. “Working in a room-by-room system is just a higher-level tile set,” Flood said.
“Just like you’re thinking about how ice tiles connect to make an ice bridge, now you’re thinking about how these rooms connect to make a level.”
Propeller Knight’s Flying Machine is in many ways the inverse of Pridemore Keep. The second stage Yacht Club created, Flying Machine is an airborne galleon that belongs to the world map’s third set of levels. “Propeller Knight’s was originally going to be one of the easiest stages,” D’Angelo said. “After putting the initial level design in there, we realised, oh, this is really hard.”
Aboard the Flying Machine, players battle the elements as well as enemies. Gusts of wind blow in from every direction, interfering with the player’s control over Shovel Knight as they make jumps. Industrial fans generate currents that players can ride to unreachable terrain.
Other fans point toward pits, forcing players to either run against their currents or use them to amplify the arc and distance of their jump. Flying Machine’s trickiest yet most rewarding areas are wide chasms that cannot be crossed by jumping or riding current. Mounted artillery fire lines of cannonballs over the pits in timed intervals.
Cannonballs are equidistant from one another, just close enough together for players to pogo from one to the next.
“In terms of setting up stages so it [all] works, it’s a lot of maths, honestly,” D’Angelo explained. “What’s the speed of Shovel Knight? It’s around three miles per hour. If we’re going to have you bouncing off cannonballs so that you can do it perfectly, but it still feels stressful, maybe in this scenario [his movement] should be 6km an hour [as you bounce on cannonballs]. It’s just pushing the limit of what you’re able to do.”
Yacht Club took steps to make sure players were ready for the Flying Machine’s platforming challenges. By the time players reach it, they’ve become proficient at pulling off shovel drops and other maneuvers, and the two-button control scheme makes those maneuvers easy to perform.
Perhaps most importantly, Shovel Knight never asks players to overcome an obstacle they have never seen before. “You present new gameplay ideas in a safe situation where players have room to experiment,” said Velasco.
“Then they understand what the gameplay object is, what the enemy is, what the situation is. You continue to ramp it up: You teach A, then you teach B, then you put A and B together. It’s a deeply satisfying formula. We didn’t invent it; we just tried to follow it as closely as we could to try and make [gameplay concepts] simple enough for people to understand.”
Stage components such as cannonballs, industrial fans, pits, and enemy placement coalesce into obstacle courses. Assembling those obstacle courses remains D’Angelo’s favourite aspect of designing Shovel Knight. “The gameplay per square inch of the game,” he said, referring to the process of building levels inch by inch, pixel by pixel.
“I’ve made a lot of games, and I’ve played a lot of games where the space between enemies, objects, and new things to see, the amount of gameplay per inch of the real estate on the screen, is so tiny and so pathetic. That’s something we noticed in NES games.” But for D’Angelo, one NES game in particular packs in plenty of gameplay.
“In Super Mario Bros. 3, every stage has new mechanics in it, they’re crazy different, you’re doing something you’ve never done before every second, and it’s so exciting and fun and surprising.”
Once taught, players can apply what they’ve learned to move through arrays of obstacles. Flowing perfectly through enemies, over pits, and across objects is a point of pride for old-school players, one which Yacht Club’s team hoped new players would enjoy. “I think that’s what we loved about NES platformers,” D’Angelo added.
“That joy of leaping from ledge to ledge, bouncing from enemy to enemy, is really enjoyable. Capturing that feel was important to us.”