Why Yacht Club is Handing Shovel Knight Dig to Nitrome

Here’s the dirt on the mobile dev's involvement in Shovel Knight Dig

“We wanted another Shovel Knight game,” says Alec Faulkner of Yacht Club Games, “but we didn’t want to make it. We’re sick of making Shovel Knight games. And we’re still making one of our own!” 

It’s safe to say that developing Shovel Knight has probably been exhausting. In 2014, the game launched after a successful Kickstarter campaign and subsequent development process. It became an instant indie darling, lauded by fans and critics alike. It has since released on 11 different platforms in the past five years, some of which have version-exclusive content. Beyond that, two DLC campaigns have been added to the game, with a third on the way, along with a platform-fighting party mode. Yacht Club has also added other tweaks, including the ability to play cooperatively and swap the genders of most main characters in the campaign.

That all adds up to a lot of work over half a decade, so it’s easy to see why the team might want to do something else for a while. Why, then, is the studio’s next full standalone title another Shovel Knight game, Shovel Knight Dig

It boils down to one sentiment. “We don’t want Shovel Knight to disappear,” Faulkner says. Even if Shovel Knight feels like old hat for now, Dig is still a treat for fans until Yacht Club is ready to even think about a proper sequel. But there’s one aspect of Dig that’s keeping Yacht Club’s Shovel Knight exhaustion at bay: browser and mobile developer Nitrome.

And so, they drafted a message for a studio they respected: a request for a talented retro-focused team to take the reigns of Shovel Knight, just for one game. 

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Dig Into the Classics

“Mostly our collective minds were blown,” Nitrome’s Marcus Heinel tells me, on receiving the pitch from Yacht Club. “Everybody knows Shovel Knight

“We wanted a Shovel Knight game where you’re always moving downwards,” says Faulkner, “and it’d be more arcade-y, and it could be like a side project. Then over the past year, it’s turned into its own thing. It started as more of a minigame… now it’s becoming a game in its own capacity.”

Heinel says that, when told Yacht Club wanted “Shovel Knight, going down,” the Nitrome team had a plethora of ideas. 

“There are a lot of games that are like this,” he points out, “but we wanted to… give it a sort of Nitrome flavor as well. A lot of people don’t know us, but here we drew a lot of inspiration from Downwell and Dig Dug. It makes sense; you’ve got a shovel. What do you do with a shovel? You dig! It seems so obvious.”

Faulker cites Downwell and Spelunky as planting the seeds for Dig on Yacht Club’s side. 

”Absolutely, [Downwell was an inspiration]. I think even before we sent that first email, we were thinking about a mixup of the two.”

That mixup digs its shovel into your heart; it truly feels a joy to play. A la Downwell, Dig sees players control our shovel-wielding warrior as he delves further and further into a hole of his own digging. Traps, enemies, and painful obstacles lie in wait, as do gems and treasure. This treasure can be spent in shops found periodically on the sides of the level. When death occurs (and it will occur a lot), half of the player’s gold is left behind in the form of floating bags, and can be recovered in future runs. This way, even a bad run doesn’t ruin the flow of Dig — it can instead contribute to a good run later.

At the end of each level, the player is rewarded with food and gold based on how many collectible gears they’ve found. Once the goodies are all collected, a branching path is presented: a left path to the next level in the game, and a right path that counts as a shortcut to an alternate level a player has unlocked in the past. Early on, that right path is usually closed off, but can give the player some agency and power over their later runs. These paths are themed (fire, mushroom, etc) and end in a climactic boss fight after two or three levels.

In the first Shovel Knight, these bosses were fan-favorite characters whose fights became easier with the use of specific items. Nitrome and Yacht Club were both unsure of how many familiar faces and items will return in Dig, though.

“We will see some [of his older items],” Heinel points out, “but we’re sort of working through what we’re going to be adding. It’s not concrete right now.”

New Uses for Old Treasures

Even with the significant gameplay changes, Dig controls almost exactly like the original Shovel Knight, despite being built on a completely different engine. 

“I don’t think [Nitrome] spent a lot of time with any of Shovel Knight’s source code,” Faulkner recalls, “but I don’t think they needed to. Because we [at Yacht Club] are always there and very receptive… that’s why collaborations like this work, both of us are really making sure everything’s the best that it could be. Interactions and classic arcade goodness come together.”

With a different engine comes a different style, as well. Shovel Knight was heralded as all that was right about NES games, and many fans assumed future installments would progress to SNES, Nintendo 64, and beyond. However, Shovel Knight Dig looks like a superpowered GameBoy Advance title. While a “Super Shovel Knight” isn’t exactly out of the question someday, Faulkner said that neither team walked into Dig with any specific console or look in mind.

“I think that when we just let Nitrome go, this is the beautiful example they came up with,” remembers Faulkner.

“Because we’ve been looking back and forth with Yacht Club,” starts Heinel, “we did some concepts, then we showed them. [They discussed] whether they liked it or not, they came back, and there’s been a lot of back and forth to improve. But they know what they want, we just have to fulfill that. As long as we’re both happy!”

From Pockets to Handhelds

“We have an established style,” Heinel says. “If you look back through [Nitrome’s] catalog, this is the style you’ll see. So you know what you’re going to get from this studio.” 

This goes for art and gameplay alike. While Nitrome has a history of making mostly browser and mobile games, in 2018 they launched Bomb Chicken, their first console puzzle-platformer. Nitrome tends to take retro-styled gameplay, give it a twist or extra interesting mechanic, and pop in a gorgeous art style and chiptune soundtrack. Although they usually come with a few ads, they’re also a treat to play.

Fortunately, Shovel Knight Dig counts as a premium product. Its price point means no ads will be included in the game: it’s just Dig here. Other than a change in gameplay style, that leaves almost no impact on the consumer. We see a new Shovel Knight game, Nitrome gets to develop one, and Yacht Club gets a break. Everyone wins.

Nitrome’s still developing Shovel Knight Dig, though we have no clue exactly when it will launch and which consoles it will hit. It’s currently a year into development, and as progress is made in one studio, Yacht Club say they pop in just once a week or so to make sure everything’s running smoothly. If we have to wait just a few years for a stellar game, I can dig it.

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