How a Kickstarter Sensation Sold Nintendo on Indie Games

Shovel Knight found an audience beyond first-party fandom.

Key art showcasing the Shovel Knight roster
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Discoverability is underrated. Digital storefronts have turned the gaming industry into a web of algorithmically curated lists and recommendations. So it’s easy to forget that a decade ago a plucky shovel-wielding knight dominated Nintendo’s audience based almost entirely on word-of-mouth.

Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove released on the Nintendo eShop June 26, 2014. A retro-style platformer with a familiar story, players take the eponymous Shovel Knight on a journey to rescue Shield Knight, a princess-esque love interest. You hack and smash your way through breathtaking 8-bit dungeons, crypts, and keeps while unlocking new gear, moves, and stats. It doesn’t just look like games you’ve played before, it plays like them, too.

Shovel Knight came with a built-in fan base thanks to a wildly successful Kickstarter that saw the team at Yacht Club Games raise more than $300,000 against a goal of $75k. A strong showing at various cons, particularly PAX East 2013, also helped fan the flames of hype. A decade later later, Shovel Knight sits as the lone third-party game amidst the top 10 best selling 3DS titles of all-time, and it's easy to see why.

Shovel Knight wears its love for retro gaming on its sleeve, so it's little surprise it found success with Nintendo fans. A big part of that success is how its nostalgia goes beyond its aesthetics. Yacht Club Games co-founder David D’Angelo detailed in a blog post how the guiding philosophy for the game was rooted in reimagining 8-bit games, not just celebrating their looks:

“Instead of emulating the NES exactly, we would create a rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game. What if development for the NES never stopped? How would an 8-bit game feel and play if developed today?”

The concept was rooted in cartridge technology. The evolution of the NES cartridge includes numerous hardware improvements. Play Super Mario Bros. and then Super Mario Bros. 3 and its obvious how much more was going on inside that little gray square. The Shovel Knight team endeavored to keep gameplay decisions consistent with what could theoretically be possible. It feels akin to method acting, a mindset shift that informs your perspective whenever decisions arise.

Rules were meant to be broken.

Yacht Club Games

This isn’t to say they were purists. Superseding their thirst for authenticity was an understanding that Shovel Knight needed the absolute best gameplay possible. D’Angelo cites about a dozen development strategies — ranging from color palettes to sprite flickering to background parallax scrolling — that wouldn’t have been possible on NES. The most surprising of these for hardcore fans was learning that it’s not possible to put Shovel Knight onto a homebrew NES cartridge. For all the benefits of digital downloads, you don’t get the satisfaction of blowing the dust out of them to make them work better.

If Shovel Knight had been an actual NES game, it probably would have received the same reception then as it did today: virtual perfection. It carries a 9.1 average on Metacritic for the Switch release, and a look through the 3DS era reviews shows heaps of 9s and 10s. Shovel Knight now appears in 36 other games, mostly guest spots in indie titles, he has his own Amiibo, and a chorus of Smash Bros. fans who want him on the roster.

This robust roster of characters will appear in the upcoming Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope DX.

Yacht Club Games

Why are we so head-over-heels for Shovel Knight? It’s the rare game that does everything right. Not a single move, design, or note of music feels like the wrong decision. Many argue it’s a perfect platformer and the rags-to-riches story behind it gives fans even more to cheer about. A sequel was teased earlier this month, and a revamped ultimate version of the game, Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope DX will release soon.

Financial success and sequels aside, Shovel Knight’s real legacy is opening Nintendo’s eyes to the power of indie games. Within a year of its release, Nintendo launched a Humble Bundle as well as its branded “Nindies” events starting at E3 2015. So if you tuned in to the Indie World Showcase this past April to watch updates on Animal Well, Another Crab’s Treasure and Little Kitty, Big City then you’ve got a garden-tool-toting knight to thank.

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