David D’Angelo and the six-person team at Yacht Club Games are sometimes accused of living in the past. The past, after all, has been very good to Yacht Club Games.
“There are people who think we’re using nostalgia as a weapon to make you buy this,” says D’Angelo of “Shovel Knight,” the company’s breakout independent video game.
It’s true the game is inspired by the 8-bit titles released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, complete with an absurdist story and easy-to-grasp controls. And at first glance, “Shovel Knight” does look and play like a product of the late 1980s. The titular hero, armed with a shovel, of course, swings, digs and pounces his way through ghostly kingdoms with the occasional exploding rat.
“We were playing all these modern games that were so unbelievably complicated,” says D’Angelo, 29. “We just felt like building a game off of simple mechanics, like ‘Shovel Knight.’”
So are D’Angelo and his fellow Yacht Club developers really trying to forever hold onto a childhood experience?
No…. Well, probably not.
“There’s no one saying, ‘Grow up, dude!’” D’Angelo says. “Like Peter Pan syndrome? We do have that, and we should probably be accused of that.”
It seems to be working for them. Since “Shovel Knight’s” release this summer, the game has sold more than 300,000 copies. And at the Game Awards in Las Vegas in early December, it was named independent game of the year.
The bulk of “Shovel Knight’s” downloads have been sold on Nintendo’s hand-held 3DS platform. It’s also available for the Wii U and home computers and will further expand its 8-bit empire in 2015 when it arrives on Sony’s consoles.
The key to the game’s success? A completely unironic approach to retro gaming. “Shovel Knight” makes like the last 25 years in interactive media never happened.
In doing so, the game captures the anything-goes unfussy aesthetics of the games of yore. “Shovel Knight” is filled with personality in the form of a near-endless supply of zany characters — a bard who will perform songs on request, a half-trout/half-apple king who can help adventurers and an evil Maleficent-like Enchantress.
Vintage-looking games are relatively common in the independent sphere. There’s the old-school role-playing game “Pier Solar and the Great Architects,” the brazen shoot-em-up “Hotline Miami” and the “Grand Theft Auto”-inspired “Retro City Rampage,” among many others. They’re more affordable to design, for one, and no doubt nostalgia is a big pull for audiences and creators.
But D’Angelo also believes there are lessons to be learned in the game design philosophies of old. He brings up Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, the man responsible for “Super Mario Bros” and “Donkey Kong,” among others, and the artist still guiding the Nintendo game empire today. Miyamoto’s games, D’Angelo theorizes, have a timeless appeal because they assume a player has never played a game before.
The questions designers once grappled with were not how challenging a game could be but instead how fun it could be for someone who had never held a controller.
“Games are built on a lot of heritage now,” D’Angelo says. “They’re very complicated. A good example is a ‘Madden NFL’ game. You don’t go into that game expecting that game to teach you the rules of football. That would take forever. How long does it take to learn the rules of football? Years of watching it and playing it. That game is built on heritage and expects you to know it and figure it out. That’s sort of how a lot of video games operate now.”
“Shovel Knight” is intuitive — if a player thinks the cute frog may be helpful, bump into it and find out. Chances are it will turn into some electrified animal, sending a shock down Shovel Knight’s body armor. Lesson learned. A player won’t bump into the frog again.
Yacht Club gambled that others were looking for such an experience. D’Angelo and his partners met while working at Valencia-based WayForward Games, where they were paired together on the design team for “Double Dragon Neon,” itself a retro title.
Wanting control of their own project, they formed Yacht Club and “Shovel Knight” was placed on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Yacht Club asked for $75,000, hoping to eventually sell 150,000 copies of the game. The company raised more than $311,000 by summer 2013, and Yacht Club has been operating out of a three-room, 500-square foot office in Valencia since.
For now, Yacht Club will be all “Shovel Knight,” all the time. The team is working on the Sony editions of the game and still doling out Kickstarter rewards, including the promise to make a female Shovel Knight. (D’Angelo expects she’ll look similar to the male Shovel Knight, since the character is somewhat gender neutral.)
Fans have some of their own requests, including wanting Yacht Club to include blatant references to older “Zelda” games. But that’s exactly the kind of nostalgia the company wants to avoid.
“We get a lot of requests for references to old games, and one of the things we wanted to do with this is make sure this game was not referential. That’s the way those old games were. They weren’t referencing anything because there weren’t previous games to reference,” D’Angelo says.
“We wanted this to be an experience that lives on its own,” he continues. “We don’t want there to be anything else you’d need to know to enjoy it.”
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