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How Shovel Knight Became The Stan Lee of Indie Game Cameos

Plus... why isn't Shovel Knight playable in Smash Ultimate?

Anyone who’s played enough indie games in the last six years has likely encountered Shovel Knight in some form or fashion. Maybe they shot the breeze with him in Yooka-Laylee. Perhaps they purchased his signature helmet in Crypt of the Necrodancer. They may have even thrown down with him in Rivals of Aether. Shortly after his 2014 debut, the practitioner of shovelry became as famous for his myriad of video game cameos as he was for his own beloved adventure. But how and why has the pixel art hero become gaming’s equivalent of a Marvel movie Stan Lee cameo?

From the beginning, developer Yacht Club Games envisioned Shovel Knight as a multimedia juggernaut akin to Mario’s mainstream explosion in the 1980’s. “Mario was just freaking everywhere,” says Sean Velasco, founder of Yacht Club and director of Shovel Knight. “There were products, and cereal, and bed sheets, and shampoo, and the show, and a comic. So [with] Shovel Knight we always wanted him to be a character that expands out beyond just the constraints of his own game, so having him be in a bunch of crossovers seemed like a really natural fit.”

Shovel Knight’s Kickstarter campaign planted the seeds for his guest character status. Many of the crowdfunded campaigns of that era cross-promoted with other games-to-be to help increase their visibility. Besides blowing up their own spot, Velasco said that lending Shovel Knight out to others also helped “pay it forward” in terms of using the character’s growing notoriety to attract eyeballs to lesser known projects. This cooperation along with positive pre-release buzz, helped make the character a popular mascot before his game even launched. When Shovel Knight (the game) launched in 2014 to critical acclaim, it didn’t take long for him to expand his reach. Within a year of release he popped up in titles such as Runbow, The Reward: Tails of Attrition, Cook, Serve, Delicious!, and more. He’s even an official, Nintendo-made Amiibo.

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So how exactly does Shovel Knight dig his way into another game? It begins with a pitch. Yacht Club regularly receives cameo proposals from developers. This can happen in person at conventions such as PAX, as a result of communication between mutual friends, or even as cold calls to the office. When asked what some of the more memorable/wacky pitches have been, Velasco points to the vehicular combat game Road Redemption as a particularly compelling sell:

“They sent us a pitch that was a few paragraphs explaining what the Shovel Knight trailer for Road Redemption would be. It’s like three thugs are driving through the desert and they’re at high speed, and then from behind comes Shovel Knight and he smacks one of them with a shovel. I don’t remember if they have guns, but it’s like they’re getting in a battle and Shovel Knight knocks another one of them into an oncoming logging truck and all the logs fall apart. So just in describing it they made all these cool moments. Even though it was totally out of the realm of what we would usually do we were like ‘okay, we gotta say yes. We wanna see the trailer, we wanna see it happen.’”

Once a pitch gets the greenlight, Yacht Club’s control over how Shovel Knight gets used varies — project to project. Some studios may largely be left to their own devices, while others require more back and forth collaboration. The specificity of the idea generally determines this; less concrete pitches require more feedback. Velasco described the process as relatively laid-back overall and not “lawyer-ly.” Yacht Club still has final approval on every appearance, though, regardless of how hands-on it is with the actual development — most of the time.

In and Out of Smash

“There’s been some times when we didn’t get the final approval or when somebody forgot to show us something […]” Velasco said. “The game just [comes] out and it’s like ‘wait a minute, we didn’t even get to give our feedback on this!’ But it’s never really been much of a problem. We just want to know about it more than anything.”

While fans have generally been pleased to see their chivalrous hero present in other titles, Shovel Knight’s role in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate ranks his most contentious cameo. The character appeared as an assist trophy that, while cool enough for some fans, left others frustrated that he wasn’t a full-fledged fighter. It certainly felt like an obvious layup; Shovel Knight debuted on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS before other non-PC platforms, after all. Surprisingly, Velasco claimed that, as far as he recalled, having Shovel Knight throw down with Mario and Link was “never really in the cards”. Though the studio internally spitballed hypothetical movesets for him, Nintendo seemingly only came to them with the idea of an assist trophy.

In his opinion, Velasco believes the reason for this simply stems from Shovel Knight not being A) a true, second party Nintendo figure (à la Shulk) or B) a decades-old industry icon (à la Cloud  Strife). Though Velaso still hopes that “maybe in the next Smash or in the Smash 10 years from now, when Shovel Knight’s like a grandfather figure in the game industry, maybe he can be a playable character” Playable or not, Velasco and Yacht Club consider it an “honor” for the series to be featured in the crossover game at all.

shovel knight rivals of aether

To Pay or Not to Pay

So… What about the money? Does Yacht Club get paid for all these guest spots? Again, it varies. If Shovel Knight appears as a paid add-on of some sort, then of course the studio receives some financial kickback. But the character usually acts as a free unlockable character or NPC, something Yacht Club allows developers to do equally free of charge.

Yacht Club loves seeing the creative ways developers implement Shovel Knight in its games: so much so that the company is generally open to almost any idea for a cameo. However, despite the running joke that Shovel Knight can (and will) appear in anything under the sun, Yacht Club does have a line. According to Velasco, games containing excessive violence and other mature content, for example, typically get a “no thanks” from the studio. Projects too early in development may get turned down as well (though Yacht Club welcomes follow-up pitches once said games get further along). Velasco revealed that Yacht Club has become more self-aware, and wants to dial back the number of guest appearances to ensure “he doesn’t get oversaturated.”

As of February 2020 Shovel Knight cameos have climbed to over two dozen in total (depending on the wiki you read) with more on the way. Yacht Club keeps its own master list of these appearances. Even so, Velasco admitted the team itself has a hard time keeping it up to date. For example, 2019’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night featured a noteworthy nod that Velasco said he completely forgot about — until he played the game himself. And with so many cameos to choose from, Velasco still considers Rivals of Aether’s “loving interpretation” of the character as his personal favorite.

bloodstained shovel knight

Where to Next, Shovel Knight?

Yacht Club may have others asking them for a piece of Shovel Knight, but that doesn’t mean the developers haven’t looked at games and thought “It’d be cool to see Shovel Knight in that.” When asked about what his dream cameo would be, Velasco, a big Spelunky fan, immediately cited the upcoming Spelunky 2. A crossover with the Mega Man series, Shovel Knight’s primary inspiration, would also be a dream come true for the studio.

There’s no denying that the Shovel Knight franchise possesses a potent combination of popularity and versatility. Even the game’s co-stars have made their presence known in other titles. Plague Knight appears in Creepy Castle, while Enchantress and Specter Knight trade blows in Brawlhalla. When Shovel Knight can’t officially invade a game, fan-made mods often pit him against the brutal trials of Dark Souls and even Bowser in Super Mario 64. Shovel Knight’s continued omnipresence has, in many ways, positioned him as the unofficial mascot of the indie gaming scene.

“We had always hoped but never expected or never imagined Shovel Knight would get big the way he is” Velasco concluded. “ We’d been very, very lucky and super fortunate to have as many cool cameos and for Shovel Knight to have had the success that it’s had. We’re going to keep on trying and keep on trying to make Shovel Knight as big as possible and get those bed sheets and that cereal.”

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