Interview: Nick Wozniak on the making of Shovel Knight

For its obvious debt to all things 8-bit and dusty (albeit without any of the cartridge-blowing – this is a digital download), Shovel Knight has several firsts to its name.

For one, it’s the debut project of Yacht Club Games, a group formed of developers who splintered off from WayForward, itself a keen purveyor of the 2D form. Secondly, it’s one of Kickstarter’s most exemplary successes; a project that clearly laid out its goals, won over the investing masses and has delivered on all its early promises. The team made it look easy, but as team ‘Artmancer’ – his term, not ours – Nick Wozniak explains, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes…

Click to view larger image ONM: Hello! Could you please introduce yourself. What did you do on Shovel Knight and how did you come to be doing it?

Nick Wozniak: My name is Nick Wozniak (most people in the office call me Woz) and I make pixel art. I first started doing pixel art years ago while at WayForward. When working on projects like Thor: God Of Thunder and Batman: The Brave And The Bold, I was given the unique opportunity to work with the top artists in the industry.

The best way to learn something, especially in art, is to emulate the masters, so I spent most of my time looking at what they did, mimicking it and doing what I could to contribute to the games. I have a background in animation, so applying those concepts to the pixel format was a really exciting challenge and I jumped at the opportunity to tackle it.

Later, when we all left to start Yacht Club Games, I knew that one of the best areas in which I could make a contribution, based on the experience I had gained, would be in pixel art/pixel animations. I was a little nervous at first, taking on the pixel art for an entire project, but I had a great team to help me, and with that assistance, we’ve all grown to understand what it takes to create pixel art that really shines. I hope that everyone who plays the game can see that and enjoys the pixels as much as we do.

ONM: Shovel Knight clearly owes a debt to a period of games. To help our readers prepare themselves, both physically and mentally, what games would you recommend every soon-to-be knight should play before picking it up?

NW: That list may be smaller than you think. There are a few games that directly inspired us, such as Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and Mega Man, but as we created Shovel Knight one of our main goals was to make the game as accessible as possible.

Obviously, Shovel Knight harks back to a simpler era in which games – limited in scope by hardware and production schedules – tended to focus on a single core mechanic and were built around that. That style of gameplay is something that was really easy for us to get into as kids: it was so simple, it almost demanded our attention.

However, that era also brings with it connotations of crippling difficulty and seemingly random deaths around every corner. I’m thinking of specific instances in Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man in which the players were thrown challenges that seemed random and unfair. The term used for those is ‘Nintendo Hard’ and, while we do love those games, we’ve done everything that we can to make things challenging without being Nintendo Hard.

Kids as young as five have played and enjoyed Shovel Knight, so hopefully anyone can pick up the controller and have a blast.

Click to view larger image ONM: A lot of 8-bit action game design was dictated by the technical limitations of the late 1980s. Would Shovel Knight have been feasible on the machines of that time? What would you have to sacrifice in order to make it work?

NW: One of the biggest things that would prevent Shovel Knight from running on the original NES, or Famicom, is its level design.

The core of the game is in how each room sets up a challenge for the player, but since it is displayed in a 16:9 aspect ratio we’d have to redesign every room. As a result, this would lead to rethinking many of the Relics – secondary weapons that enable Shovel Knight to do more than just shovel-slash – and how the enemies worked. All the art would have to be re-approached to conform to a more limited palette onscreen. Bosses would also need overhauls in their design… this whole process would make a very different game, I’d say.

However – and this is from someone who has zero experience making real NES games – I’d bet that the mobility of the character and the basic interactions that are a hallmark of the gameplay would remain intact. The ‘game feel’ would probably translate well, but this all sounds like a task meant for another team.