There were several retro-styled projects on the PAX East 2013 show floor. A.N.N.E. and Mercenary Kings are just two examples. But one stood above the rest, the setting sun at its back with its arm outstretched, shovel to the sky. Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight was playable and I’m going to be honest with you: I think I’m in love.
Yacht Club was founded when a small group at Wayforward decided it was time to strike out and make their own way in the world. Their goal is to craft the kinds of games they want to play, or as they put it on their website, “original games that fuse modern and retro sensibilities.” These guys have worked on Contra 4 and Double Dragon Neon, so one might imagine they’ve got an idea or two about how to hit the mark they’ve set. One look at Shovel Knight confirms it.
If the phrase “Would be right at home on the original Nintendo” doesn’t fill you with glee then turn away — Shovel Knight is not for you. Everything about Yacht Club’s first project screams 8-bit, from the pixel graphics, limited color palette and chiptune soundtrack by Jake “Virt” Kaufman. Even the control scheme is tied to just two buttons and the D-pad. There’s a jump, an attack and the ability to move. Of course, the Shovel Blade is a little bit more versatile than this basic setup would first imply.
Swinging the shovel counts as a melee attack, which is your primary means for interacting with the game. Enemies will need to be smacked into oblivion, or at least out of the way. Projectile attacks can be deflected in the same manner with proper timing. There are also piles of dirt on the ground which gems can be dug out of. Giant blocks of dirt that impede your progress can be dispatched with a thrust of your weapon. Also, enemies can be bounced off of Ducktales-style with a convenient downward-slash.
Yacht Club has definitely provided a decent amount of functionality with the limited control options, but the level design is where these elements will need to shine. Lucky for us they seem to be aware of this. All of the standard tropes of old-school level design are here, like jumping over pits and climbing ladders. But there are all kinds of little details that made exploring exciting. Hidden areas can be accessed by walking off screen in an odd direction, and secrets are accessible only by bouncing up the heads a few enemies. Speaking of, there was a surprisingly diverse amount of foes in the demo. We saw helicoptor rats that die with a single strike and knights that require you to alter your tactics to avoid their shield by attacking with both your normal swipe and your pogo-stick move. There are wizards that shoot energy balls and giant griffins that breathe fire.
Yacht Club said the game is nearing the end of pre-production so full development will soon begin. There’s no release date for Shovel Knight just yet, but you can help it come out on more than just the Wii U, 3DS and PC by donating to its Kickstarter campaign.