How Shovel Knight works? The proper way to do episodic DLC

The following is a script from the youtube video below, feel free to watch it, or read the script as you wish.

Hello, I’m Kinglink and today we’re going to talk about How Shovel Knight Works?

That is a pretty broad topic and Shovel Knight is a huge game that I probably could do a couple of videos on if I wanted. The story of their Kickstarter is equal parts problematic and joyous. The game design of the original game is unique and amazing, and worthy of a ton of praise, and the nostalgia that the game evokes and yet improves on is close to perfection.

For today, as the title says, we’re going to focus on the episodic nature of the DLC for Shovel Knight. It’s well done, impressive, and is a perfect set of blueprints of how this type of content can work. Yacht Club Games created something new and special with their original game Shovel Knight and has done the same for each of the DLCs of what was eventually named the Shovel Knight Treasure Trove.

But before we get into those topics, allow me to explain Shovel Knight to those who haven’t experienced this game yet. Shovel Knight, at least the first game is about a Knight who has a shovel, it’s as simple as that. The game was offered on Kickstarter and was a mix of Castlevania, Ducktales, Zelda 2, and Mega Man, with a little Dark Souls added in.

I see a lot of Zelda 2, and Mega Man 2 in Shovel Knight and I can believe that was their primary influences. There are 8 different levels each with a boss ending in Knight, so Plague Knight, King Knight, Specter Knight, and so on. Is that different than Flash Man, Quick Man, and Metal Man? Of course not. The level design too is very reminiscent of how Capcom created Mega Man’s levels. The normal knights in the game are modeled as a version of the knights from Zelda 2.

Each boss has attack patterns and specific abilities, and while Shovel Knight doesn’t gain abilities from defeated bosses, he gains items from the stages while he’s exploring. These items have a similar energy system to Castlevania, and while Shovel Knight looks like Megaman, he is limited to swinging his shovel for most of the game, so you have a melee attack, very similar to Zelda 2, as well as a down attack from that game that allows Shovel Knight to pogo similar to Ducktales

The Dark Souls comparison is truthfully weaker but they brought it up in the Kickstarter. You drop money when you die. The game isn’t overly brutal, there is no break your controller parts for the most part, and the experience is a simple platformer, but yes you drop money which is the primary currency when you die.

I mostly wanted to give a baseline for what the original game of Shovel Knight contained so we can start to explore how each piece of DLC expanded, extended and changed the Shovel Knight Universe forever.

The DLC was originally promised as a backer goal to people who kickstarted the game and eventually became free DLC for anyone who owned the game. I do want to say this is an extremely generous move on Yacht Club Games’ part and it’s one of the reasons I own two or three copies of this game. It’s also a problematic approach, but I’m going to save that for the end.

Each of the three DLCs was going to be based on three bosses of the game, and backers were able to vote as you’ll see on the screen. Admittedly, some of these ideas promised in this list were stripped from the DLCs before release and instead, we got three unique and interesting DLCs, so let’s see what happened.

In fact, by the time each DLC was released, they were no longer true DLC, but instead, full-fledged games on their own that could be bought individually but also given to people who initially bought Shovel Knight or eventually would buy the Treasure Trove. I still will treat each as an expansion as they all expand the world of Shovel Knight.

Plague of Shadows is the first DLC and this introduces us to our second character, Plague Knight. I’m going to leave the story of all the DLC alone for players to discover on their own.

Plague of Shadows shows a look at the original idea of what the DLC could be. Players can play as a new character, however, the world and game are the same. Plague of Shadows ends up being a harder version of the original game but it’s still quite recognizable though with a focus on mobility as a primary characteristic of Plague Knight.

I could talk for a while on Plague Knight’s character, but I think to keep this video moving I’ll just enumerate some features of his playstyle. The first is the level system is the same as the original Shovel Knight with almost all the same bosses, with the same attack patterns. There are two exceptions, the final boss, and the boss you fight at the end of Plague Knight’s level. I’ll let you figure those out yourself.

Plague Knight also has a customizable weapon which is rather unique for this series. The weapon is a thrown bomb that acts as the main attack which is also unique as the only ranged main attack of the games. There’s a new version of the town as well for new shops and finally, where Shovel Knight has a downward thrust that also is a pogo, Plague Knight has a mid-air explosion that can propel him further similar to Splosion Man.

That’s a very quick introduction to Plague Knight, but what is important is that Plague Knight plays very differently, however, there were some changes to the levels in the game to accommodate these style choices. While Plague Knight sees the same levels, some jumps are farther, there are different layouts in different rooms, and certain areas are made easier or harder to reach. Ultimately though, Plague of Shadows acts as a hard mode for the game. One where players will likely have to tackle the new game after beating the original Shovel Knight.

I don’t want to get into talking about which expansion is the best or worst, that’s going to depend on the player and the expansion, but to put it simply, Plague of Shadows is not well-loved. It’s called repetitive, too derivative of the base game. It also can be significantly harder, especially the opening hour or so is significantly harder than the original game. Though I would say Plague Of Shadows has an inverse curve to difficulty, that by the end of the game, much of Plague of Shadows is pretty easy. That’s a testament to how well the upgrade and customizable weapon works.

There is a reason for many of these complaints about Plague of Shadows which is due to the development time. Yacht Club Games had just over a year not counting support for the original game which was likely necessary after the original game shipped.

A short development cycle probably limited the scope of the DLC but at the same time, the scope of Plague of Shadows is massive, and yet the experience is almost as if it’s a sequel instead of a DLC bonus.

Though it did have some flaws. Every game made has some flaw, there’s always something that isn’t perfect, and the fact is perfection in gaming is probably unobtainable, but what is important is how developers react to their releases.

Yacht Club Games had promised three DLCs, and with Plague of Shadows they released a game that might have been too hard, a worry of theirs in hindsight at the very least, with no new levels, and a game that didn’t stand out as much as the original title, and they also had promised two more playable characters after this point.

At the same time, they also produced one of the best DLCs of all time. Consider that Plague of Shadow doesn’t just add to the original game, but doubles the length of the original release in just one piece of DLC. They also gave this DLC away to everyone for free, so while there were faults of Plague of Shadows, it is still a unique and impressive first DLC. Shockingly this was only the beginning of what Yacht Club Games would do to take their next two DLCs to the next level.

When they started on Specter of Torment, they didn’t just redo what worked before but instead clearly took feedback from fans, as well as focused on delivering another new experience that will change the game. There’s a clear understanding that while Plague of Shadows worked, fans were already tired of the original levels and something had to be done.

There is an excellent five-part developer discussion that will be posted in the description along with other videos related to Shovel Knight on its design. The developer blog has a lot of information on the level design of Specter of Torment and is worth reading for fans of my content, Shovel Knight, or game developers.

Yacht Club Games says they wanted to have 50 percent of each level in Specter of Torment to be new content and 50 percent to be old, and while this sounds about right, they had to fundamentally change the levels for Specter of Torment to keep them fresh. A big move to accomplish this was adding new tilesets for each level so that while players may have seen a level before, there will be new enemies and new pieces of every level.

One thing that was attempted for Specter of Torment was that the levels were designed to be reused for King of Cards, and King Knight’s abilities, it appears this idea was mostly scrapped, but clearly, it was attempted at one point.

When players get to Specter of Torment, it is a refreshing change to play after the Plague of Shadows. While the world map is now gone, each level has been changed, and since any level can be chosen, each level was made to be about equal in difficulty which means the early levels were made more challenging, and the later levels were made easier.

The lack of a world map also meant that wandering monsters couldn’t be directly attacked and instead became pieces of the story mostly in the form of NPCs who stormed Specter Knight’s base. There also was a couple of additional levels added as flashback levels that added to the story of Shovel Knight universe especially focused on really fleshing out key characters

The gameplay though is the biggest thing. Where Plague Knight threw bombs around him, Specter Knight again returns to a simple melee weapon, however, he’s given a new ability, a dash attack. Where Shovel Knight could pogo, Plague Knight could explode and move vertically, Specter Knight gains the ability to dash through enemies and slash them. This creates a more horizontal style to his gameplay, but that attack changes the type of levels he can tackle.

Also, Specter Knight gets a simple but effective ability to climb walls as needed, and while it’s not an infinite climb, it does allow for interesting levels and designs related to it.

There’s also Specter Knight’s ability to grind rails and while I heavily like the concept of sliding on the rail, it never felt like it is an integral part of Specter Knights persona and instead feels more like a gimmick the game threw in on a couple of levels.

All of this only is the tip of the iceberg of course. A huge change in Specter of Torment involves enemies, where almost every enemy has a new version that has not been seen before. Even bosses who are familiar to players by this point each have new versions, which ranges from a more advanced fight, like Propeller Knights’ boss, or a multi-screen arena, as in the case of the Polar Knight.

Though I do want to say that perhaps Specter Knight is a little too easy, his abilities are fine, but I found that his dashing downward slash could be exploited and spammed on almost every boss. Many boss battles were trivialized by his abilities, and while that makes the character feel more powerful, it made the new unique boss fights a little less exciting.

Still, where Plague of Shadows felt like a rerelease with a new character, and changes to the game, Specter of Torment feels like a brand new game and worthy of a new wave of praise. Specter of Torment is a more interesting game that was designed to feel different and while it expands on the world this feels it could be a stand-alone game.

Again a piece of this is the time to develop this expansion. Plague of Shadows may have had about a year of direct development, but Specter of Torment came out about 18 months later, and while some of that time may also be related to patching again, it’s more likely that Specter of Torment had more time to be expanded and was developed with some overlapping development time alongside Plague of Shadows.

Still as great as Specter of Torment is, there was one more DLC package, and boy it’s a doozy.

King of Cards is the final DLC we’ll dive into and it was the final release of Shovel Knight. Well, kind of. King of Cards was in the final DLC but so was Showdown, so let’s go through these one at a time.

First the King of Cards, this is the King Knight DLC. What kind of Knight just adds King to the beginning of their name, sounds like an attempt to make them feel self important. This thought was brought to you by Kinglink. With it being the final DLC, players may not be expecting too much but if the first two DLCs were impressive, King of Cards blows everything out of the water. We have a new character, with a new moveset of course. King Knight uses a bashing and then twirling attack, it’s odd, and after playing it, I think it might be my least favorite style out of the main characters, but there’s a lot more.

The biggest change is the map system once again. Specter of Torment started to investigate a lack of a map, King of Cards redesigns the map from the ground up. Taking influences from Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World, King of Cards added in alternate paths and a progressive system where not every level had to be played.

The levels are also shorter allowing players to quickly speed through levels when possible but also giving a harder challenge to some levels.

And yet that’s not even everything. King of Cards has more than three new bosses, the majority being characters that fans will recognize in some fashion, but also have never been fought before, and again that’s before we talk about the final boss who is given a new form again. Each boss is harder than the previous games, and while I think Plague Of Shadows is still a harder game, the bosses in King of Cards produced an excellent finale for this game and the series of DLCs.

A new change for King of Cards is that enemies will drop hearts as you attack them. If an enemy takes three or more hits, every three hits has them drop a heart to help you recover, which is a huge help on many bosses and creates a risk vs reward structure.

But we’re not even done with King of Cards, King of Cards as it hints in the name contains Joustus a new card game heavily influenced by Triple Triad. It is equally addictive and if you have never played Triple Triad, consider it somewhat like Gwent on the Witcher.

The good news is that if a player doesn’t want to ever touch Joustus, they’re able to beat King of Cards without playing a single hand. On the other hand, Joustus is big enough with a deck of 135 possible cards, that it could have been its own game, and in the tradition of Triple Triad and Gwent, Joustus becomes a huge time sink for fans.

Ultimately King of Cards is the biggest DLC for the series and as mentioned it’s a perfect finale. It has the most content, and a new style while still retaining what made Shovel Knight stand out, but it also clearly has grown building on what has come before it.

Before I summarize the DLC I feel that I have to make some mention of Showdown. This is the fighting mode of Shovel Knight, it’s well worth playing, as any other part of Shovel Knight is, and creates a version of the game that could be comparable to Smash Brothers. It could be but it would be incorrect as this is just a sub-mode of a bigger game.

At the same time, Showdown is an incredible addition. Not only do you get to play as each of the four characters in each game, but every Knight appears. Not even just the 8 knights of the original group of baddies or the additional bosses we have barely touched upon. Showdown is even bigger game and ends up having 20 characters available after unlocking everything, and this is just chock full of content.

Realize that each character here had to get a move set and design. While many of these characters are using attacks from the main game, they are now playable for the first time. How can Polar Knights imposing attacks work? how can Tinker Knight fight on the same battlefield as the other larger more powerful knights? The end result of Showdown is a very compelling game that allows players to wonder what if some of these characters got their own spinoffs.

Showdown is also packed to the gills with content. There are 53 achievements each with a single piece of unlockable content, with everything from stages to characters to palette sets and more.

And there’s more, I could probably talk further about the challenge mode in the base game and each expansion, the gender swap mode and more. The point though is that Shovel Knight is extremely packed with content.

But it’s more than that. Each DLC is a clear step on a path. While almost every piece of content except for Joustus was promised in the Kickstarter, each release refined what Shovel Knight was and what fans should expect.

The original Shovel Knight was an impressive game filled to the brim with great design. It’s easy to see why it alone became popular and impressive. Though looking back at the original Kickstarter images and videos, fans can see a lot of changes were made between the original designs and the final level designs. That’s a sign of a great developer to always be improving.

Then when we reach Plague Knight, we start to see what Yacht Club saw their DLC as. They were made to be expansions both to the world and the game, and while Plague of Shadows is a massive undertaking it’s a glorified second quest, reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, or the true Super Mario Brothers 2.

Specter of Torment ups the ante, and creates what could have been a sequel. It changes the move set again, adds new attacks to the enemy, and creates an excellent new experience. It also seems to question how else we can view the world, adding in new mini-games, flashbacks and an attempt to recontextualize the game and bosses.

Finally, we see King of Cards and get the boldest move of all. We finally have a different stage length but now an amazing world map, additional paths in the levels, major new bosses for the first time, and an entire mini-game that can be considered separately but is firmly part of this DLC.

Each of these pieces of DLC is a step on the path of what Shovel Knight has become but I find it hard to imagine reaching the finale that is King of Cards, without Plague of Shadows’ first release, or Specter of Torment’s attempts to move away from the original game.

Each DLC is substantial but what was promised could have been as simple as a single character model that got anything from a single level to the same game with similar moves as Shovel Knight, instead Shovel Knight presented five different games over 5 years and has broken what we think of as episodic content.

Each DLC also learns from the pieces before it and fixes issues that fans may already have or will have in the future. Changing to a harder game, then to brand new levels and an easier mode, and then to giving everything they can in a final release allows each DLC to feel part of a continuum instead of just four stand-alone titles, and that’s what stuck with me after playing each release.

These games aren’t just in the same universe, but a single lineage, similar to how Assassin’s Creed 2 and it’s two sequels felt. Games that will evolve, but still retain what you love about the original.

I initially approached this video with a desire to compare Shovel Knight to Resident Evil 6’s varied styles in the four modes found in that game, or a desire to show that this is what Telltale always promised the player but never delivered. I even wanted to suggest that Bloodstained Ritual of the Night’s DLC couldn’t live up to Shovel Knight, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

Shovel Knight itself is worthy of a primary focus, because it has presented multiple unique looks at its universe, and while they all might be platformers, I find it hard to believe any fan could see each of the four primary DLCs as the same game, not to even mention Showdown.

But sadly there is a downside to Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games has released potentially one of the best Kickstarter games of all time, and probably the best series of DLC. They released the entire game for ten dollars to the initial Kickstarters, and slowly raised the price. The price today is 40 bucks for all the games discussed here, but I wonder if they could or would ever try to recreate the success of Shovel Knight.

There’s an inherent problem with Shovel Knight. Fans who bought the initial game for cheap, or as part of the Kickstarter were promised far too much content. Granted this appears to have worked out for Yacht Club Games, but I can’t imagine the next game getting five years of continuous updates, and fanbases aren’t exactly known for a complete understanding of the game development process. Yacht Club Games is now synonymous with both Shovel Knight and the wealth of DLC that Shovel Knight received, and, as such, the next game is likely to disappoint on one of those two points and probably both.

It’s a shame because. if anything. Yacht Club Games have proven themselves as masters of proper nostalgic gameplay, level design, game design and more, and whatever comes next from them should get the full support of the fan base. I just foresee some level of unnecessary backlash.

Still, that’s what I have to say about Shovel Knight and all it’s DLC. I hope I didn’t disappoint by focusing only on one series this time, next time I’ll be back to combine more games side by side.

If you enjoyed this, consider subscribing, I’d appreciate it, and ring that bell. Also, let me know what you think of Shovel Knight or what you think their next game will be like. Will they stick with platformers, try to create a second Shovel Knight or go for something unique?

I’ll be popping up both my Stardew Valley look and my Void Bastards video, they also go over the game design of those games a bit more and I hope you’ll give them a shot.

Until next time I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.