When I first met the co-founders of Yacht Club Games in October of 2016, at their sleek, ocean-adjacent offices in Marina del Rey, California, they told me they were shocked to still be working on Shovel Knight. After all, it had been three and a half years since they’d quit their day jobs to make their dream video game. Over barbecue rice bowls at a lunch spot nearby, they confessed to feeling burnt out and dreaming about being done with their horned blue hero.
What they didn’t know then was that they’d be working on Shovel Knight for another three years.
“It has been so hard at times, and it’s been dark at times, but overall it’s just been—what an incredible ride,” said Sean Velasco, the game’s director and one of the founding members, in a phone interview last week. “I’m so lucky that I got to do this.”
This week, Yacht Club Games launched Shovel Knight: King of Cards and Shovel Knight: Showdown, the final two entries in what’s become a five-game saga. As part of a now-finished compilation, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, they mark the end to an odyssey that started nearly seven years ago.
Velasco and his co-founders, all former colleagues at a studio called Wayforward Games, had first pitched Shovel Knight as a Kickstarter in March of 2013. They promised a tight, NES-style platformer that crossed the iconic structure of Mega Man with the tight design of Mario and the tactile downward thrusts of Zelda II. They also promised stretch goals, as was common practice on Kickstarter—if they surpassed their initial funding target of $US75,000 ($109,152), they’d commit to features like a Mac version and an in-game music player. At $US115,000 ($167,367), they’d turn one of the game’s villains into a playable character, allowing a player to go through all of Shovel Knight with a whole new set of abilities. If they were lucky enough to raise $US250,000 ($363,841), they said, they’d make three of these villainous boss knights playable.
Thanks to an impressive PAX East showing and some last-minute help from streamers, the Shovel Knight Kickstarter raised over $US311,000 ($452,618), which meant that Velasco and crew were on the hook for all of their stretch goals. That meant they had to create not one but three playable boss knights. Once the game shipped, in June 2014, they started planning out what the first of those playable villains—Plague Knight—would look like.
That’s when things started getting out of hand.
Huddled together in a hotel room in late 2014, the Yacht Club team started brainstorming ideas for what it could be like to play as Plague Knight. In Shovel Knight, Plague Knight had been characterised as an alchemical genius, with a black cloak and neon plague doctor’s mask. He was agile, bouncing around the screen and hurling bombs as you fought him. If you played as him, you’d have to be able to do similar things.
“We wanted him to explode, and jump through the air, and maybe he’s an eight-way directional guy, maybe he bounces off walls,” Yacht Club co-founder Nick Wozniak told me in 2016. “We just had no idea. And so when you start talking about a game you get excited, and you feel that fervor again like, ‘Oh, this could be fun.’ It could be really fun to make a character that has a high skill ceiling that’s all about charging and releasing and concocting and mixing potions and being an alchemist.”
Soon enough, the stretch goal had evolved. Instead of just replaying the levels of Shovel Knight as Plague Knight, you’d get to play through brand new versions of each level that had been remixed to accommodate Plague Knight’s unique abilities. Then the developers started adding secrets, and new abilities, and challenges, and of course they had to add a whole new story to the mix. By the time it came out, in September 2015, what was initially a character swap had transformed into something far bigger: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, which was released as free downloadable content to anyone who owned Shovel Knight. A cursory look at Plague of Shadows might have led one to think it was just more Shovel Knight—and it certainly had a more muted launch than the original game—but it felt brand-new. You’d still hop your way through the same icy tundras and underwater treasure ships as Shovel Knight, but the design of each stage was very different, with new obstacles, enemy placements, and boss fights.
By the end of 2015, the Yacht Club team was burnt out. They’d gone through brutal, never-ending overtime to finish Plague of Shadows, not long after going through brutal, never-ending overtime to finish Shovel Knight, and they were promising themselves that they wouldn’t go through that kind of crunch again. Months and months of late nights and weekends had pushed all of them close to their breaking points. The September 2015 deadline for Plague Knight’s campaign had been particularly tight because it was tied to a physical release, which meant they couldn’t push it back to get some relief from their schedules.
The good news was that Shovel Knight was selling well, getting strong sales bumps every time they put out a promotion or released it on a new platform, and generating enough consistent revenue to keep Yacht Club stable. The bad news was that in order to fulfil their Kickstarter promises, the developers still had two playable knights to finish. And they’d set a new bar for themselves with Plague of Shadows—they couldn’t just swap out Plague Knight with Specter Knight or King Knight and call it a day. They’d need to give each character his own moveset, then thoughtfully re-examine all of the game’s levels, then inevitably watch their ambitions get out of hand.
As they entered 2016, Sean Velasco and crew came up with a plan to finish the next two campaigns more quickly. They knew they couldn’t just recycle the same set of levels again and keep players interested. It was clear that they’d need to make some brand-new levels for Specter Knight and King Knight, but maybe they could get away with using the same set of levels for both new campaigns.
“Since we’re going to redo the levels for Specter Knight, and we know that’s a big huge investment, we’ll make sure that Specter Knight and King Knight can both go through them,” Velasco said. To be as efficient as possible, Yacht Club decided to develop both games concurrently, working on levels and mechanics for both playable villains as they progressed. “We were trying to do the path where we were essentially filming both at once,” Velasco said. “Back to the Future 2 and 3-style, where we were making Specter Knight and King Knight at the same time.”
But games aren’t movies, and Yacht Club wasn’t a huge team. By this point there were around a dozen people at the company. Specter Knight, a mysterious, armour-clad villain with a giant scythe, wound up dominating more and more of their time. They’d come up with some cool ideas and move sets for him. Plague Knight had received criticism for feeling too weighty and tough to manoeuvre, so they made Specter Knight feel more intuitive. He’d get an extra jump after slashing objects in the air, allowing for all sorts of acrobatic manoeuvres. The developers also came up with an elaborate, morose story full of black-and-white flashbacks, not the type of thing you’d expect to see in a 2D pixel-art throwback.
The results were excellent, and Specter of Torment was received well when it came out in March of 2017, but King Knight had fallen behind schedule. “At some point we said, ‘OK, we’re going to have to put the brakes on King Knight, put all our focus into Specter Knight,’” Velasco said. “Then we can do King Knight after.”
The developers also quickly realised that their initial dreams of reusing the meaty, elaborate levels they’d built for Specter Knight’s campaign weren’t going to come to fruition. Specter Knight’s levels were full of puzzles designed solely for him, like walls that could only be hurdled by jumping in the air, slashing a carefully placed lantern, and then double-jumping to safety. It was hard to conceive of those same paths working for King Knight.
“As Specter Knight progressed, we realised his unique mobility set was just too specific, Velasco said. “Tonally, Specter Knight and King Knight were gonna be so different, it just didn’t make sense anymore.”
“We went back to the drawing board and said, ‘OK, well, if we’re going to do all this extra stuff for King Knight, what are we talking about doing?’” Velasco said. “And so we ended up making all new levels. There’s a whole new world map system. … The scope of that got crazy.”
One thing that allowed King Knight’s scope to keep growing was that Yacht Club Games now had the kind of financial freedom they’d never had before. Shovel Knight was a launch game for the Nintendo Switch, which became an instant success. New Switch owners, hungry for games to play, discovered Shovel Knight in droves, with the game selling 110,000 copies in its first month. By April of 2018, Yacht Club had sold a mind-boggling two million copies of Shovel Knight, including 370,000 on Switch.
In other words, the developers could take their time with the fourth and final Shovel Knight campaign, stuffing as many ideas into it as they possibly could. What emerged was King of Cards, the fourth and final Shovel Knight campaign, which launched on December 10, 2019. It’s the most ambitious game in the saga yet, and it took the longest to make, coming out a whopping two and a half years after the previous game. “It’s a brand new game, really,” said Velasco. “It has art and elements and story stuff from the other games, but it all really ties together.”
It may also be the best of the four Shovel Knight campaigns. King Knight is a spoiled, petulant protagonist who’s fun to laugh at and even more fun to play. His signature move, a shoulder bash that sends the tiny monarch pirouetting into the air when he makes contact with an enemy or a wall, allows for all sorts of cool platforming challenges. King of Cards’ levels are shorter than previous campaigns’, but there are many more of them. And they’re packed full of secrets, including tons of hidden exits, like a cross between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. And there’s an entire card game, Joustus, that starts out a little disorienting but soon reveals itself to be almost as deep and addictive as Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad, the mini-game that inspired it.
Alongside King of Cards, Yacht Club released Shovel Knight: Showdown, the multiplayer party game that also grew and grew in scope during its development, picking up new characters and an entire story mode over the past few years’ worth of work.
With less pressure to ship, they’ve been able to crunch less. “After Plague of Shadows, we definitely stopped crunching for long durations of time,” said Velasco. Overtime is now a matter of a weekend or a couple of weeks, rather than months straight, he said.
And now, in December of 2019, Shovel Knight is finally complete. The compilation, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, contains all four campaigns and the multiplayer mode. It’s over. Done. No more widening the scope, no more adding just a few more levels here and there. “We promised ourselves: Nothing after this,” said Velasco. “We’ve gotta be done, move on to something else.”
Velasco compares it to a book trilogy, or a Star Wars saga. He says the company is planning to lock themselves in a room soon to figure out what their next project will be, and that it’ll probably be something small, fast, and completely unrelated to Shovel Knight—a palate cleanser for a team that’s been working on the same project since 2013.
Yet Velasco and the rest of Yacht Club Games also see the character Shovel Knight as their Mario, the type of protagonist who they could stick into any type of game without much issue. They’re publishing Shovel Knight Dig, a spinoff by another developer in which the eponymous hero shovels his way down through tunnels of dirt, not unlike the old classic Dig Dug. Velasco can imagine Shovel Knight fitting nicely into just about any genre they choose to make next. He’s even an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
They also really want to make a three-dimensional game, perhaps the Super Mario 64 to Shovel Knight’s Super Mario Bros. “Not next, but in the future, definitely,” Velasco said. “It’d be so much fun to explore more into Shovel Knight’s story. It’d be so much fun to make a 3D game, like I’ve said a million times. It’d be so much fun to do something that has more of a multiplayer element.”
Not long into Shovel Knight: King of Cards, King Knight is given his own airship, the Glidewing. It’s his base of operations, and as you play through the game, you’ll bring more and more of the world’s non-player characters on board. Some of these NPCs will sell you items, or say funny things, or challenge you to Joustus matches. If you’re new to Shovel Knight, they might strike you as charming and quirky, but if you’ve played the previous games, you’ll initially recognise a few of them. Then you might start to recognise more than a few of them. There’s Mona, the loveable alchemist whose unrequited love for Plague Knight plays a large role in Plague of Shadows. There’s the goofy recurring shopkeeper, Chester, who always seems to be hiding in chests. There’s the Bard, and Grandma Swamp, and whoa, is that another anthropomorphic hedgehog?
Walking through the Glidewing is more than just exploring a base—it’s a reminder of how big and ambitious the world of Shovel Knight has become. In 2013, when the developers of Yacht Club Games first started sketching out the horns and shovel that would soon become their studio’s pride and joy, they envisioned Shovel Knight becoming a video game icon, with a massive fanbase and a universe of his very own. It might have taken them a few extra years to finish the saga, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
“Who gets to work on the same creative thing for this amount of time and be able to contribute to and make something like this?” said Velasco. “It feels epic to me, like a Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter, a big, full, completed idea that not only me but an entire team of people just labored on and poured our hearts and souls into for years and years. It feels amazing.”
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