Best Of 2022: “Shovel Knight Feels Like Our ‘Mario’, But We Kept Wondering What Our ‘Zelda’ Might Be”
Over the holidays we’re republishing some choice features from the last 12 months. A mix of talking points, interviews, opinion pieces and more from NL staff and contributors, you’ll find our usual blend of thoughtfulness, expertise, frivolity, retro nostalgia, and — of course — enthusiasm for all things Nintendo. Happy holidays!
Yacht Club Games is a company that needs little introduction, particularly thanks to the huge success and acclaim for Shovel Knight, a title that had multiple major expansions and campaigns over a number of years. The company has been busy beyond that too; last year it published Cyber Shadow and collaborated with Vine on Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. For fans of the core development team’s output, though, this year has already brought exciting news with the announcement of Mina The Hollower.
It currently has a Kickstarter campaign that’s both raising funds and engaging with an enthusiastic community, having already smashed its goal. It’s not expected until December 2023, but we also got to go hands-on with an early PC build, having a jolly time in the process. It’s challenging, nails the Game Boy Color aesthetic, and combines classic gameplay ideas with new touches and clever design.
Fortunately for us, we’ve had the chance to pose some questions to the game’s Director, Alec Faulkner, discussing the game’s design, focus, that music by Jake Kaufman and more.
Nintendo Life: Can you talk us through the early creative process for Mina the Hollower, as the team devised the broad style and gameplay approach?
Alec Faulkner, Director: We thought a lot about what kind of games we want to make, what kind of games our fans would want us to make, and what kind of games we could feasibly make. A top-down action-adventure game checked all those boxes, and we’ve actually been thinking about adding one to our stable of franchises for years now! Shovel Knight feels like our “Mario”, but we kept wondering what our “Zelda” might look like.
Artistically, the GBC aesthetic interested us because it’s not one we see often, and as dedicated handheld game consoles like the 3DS and Vita fade into memory, we found ourselves drawn toward a project that could celebrate the heyday of portable gaming. I think the strict limitations and small screen size were also appealing as a means of keeping our ambitions in check as we tackle developing a more expansive genre of game. When there’s only 8 tiles of space on a screen, you’ve gotta design very deliberately to make ‘em all count.
As for Mina’s design, we wanted something that would give our character lineup some good variety. We already got a blue guy, so how ‘bout a red girl? Maybe she could be an animal? Maybe she shouldn’t wear a big suit of armor?
Weirdly enough, at no point did we consciously realize that we were making another game about “digging”. I guess that’s just where our brains go!
From there we started thinking of all the things we’d want to see from our take on the genre. More deliberate, tense combat would be interesting for us to tackle. And interesting character mobility was a must – we knew the moment-to-moment action of the game would need more to it than just having your character walk around. We thought it’d be good if that action ended up being useful for other types of gameplay too, like evading enemies or jumping across gaps. That line of thinking eventually led to the burrow mechanic, a single mechanic which has utility for traversal, combat, and platforming, with plenty of room for nuance and mastery! I’d say at that point, the game’s core mechanics and creative identity had solidified, and Mina the Hollower was born.
Weirdly enough, at no point did we consciously realize that we were making another game about “digging”. I guess that’s just where our brains go! I wonder if the next franchise will be dirt-themed too.
After a sustained period working on the Shovel Knight IP, how has the shift to something entirely new been for the development team?
We’ve been in the Shovel Knight headspace for a long time now, so it’s definitely been a breath of fresh air to be able to tackle something totally new! We’ve had a lot of fun thinking through all the ways the world of Mina should set itself apart from that of Shovel Knight, defining the tone and the rules and the boundaries of her world. Maybe things could be a little darker? Maybe things are less about magic here and more about science? What kinds of conflicts and stories can we play within the world of Victorian gothic fiction? It’s also been fun to explore a new environmental aesthetic, new character design languages, and everything else that comes with starting a whole universe from scratch.
Having said that, I gotta say, it was such a cool opportunity to be able to craft an entire saga of games with Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, one with tons of interconnected stories and characters. By the end, it had become something way bigger than any of us had ever imagined… this epic collection of games that we were able to pour our hearts into for years and years. I never thought I’d get to contribute to something of that scale, it’s incredible.
Were any particular retro games or franchises in mind as you began work on the game, and in what ways have they been an influence?
The most basic form of the idea, before any work had started, went something like “what would a top-down Castlevania game for Game Boy look like, in the style of a Zelda”, so right from the get-go, there’s a ton of Link’s Awakening and classic Castlevania in its DNA.
The feeling of adventure you get from old Zelda’s is so strong – diving into one means internalizing the layout of an intricately designed world, getting to know this big cast of weird characters, collecting these creative items that make you look at the world of the game a little differently. We love all that stuff. And we also love the platforming/combat dynamic of old Castlevania games. The strict limitations on all of your abilities creates so much tension, that even just a couple of enemies and a staircase can create some really exhilarating encounters when layered together.
But we play all sorts of games at the Yacht Club, and it’s hard not to get inspired by good game design, whether it’s retro or modern. And we started to realize that when you take the more deliberate combat of games like Castlevania I-III into a top-down perspective with open-ended exploration and secrets… you get something that almost feels like a 2D version of a Souls game. We’ve been taking inspiration from both the world and action of Bloodborne especially, when it comes to stuff like crafting memorable environmental details, or visually telegraphing the attack patterns of our bigger, more beastly enemies.
Much like any Yacht Club game, I hope the end product will end up feeling equal parts bold, fresh, warm, familiar, and delicious.
We also made sure to play a ton of handheld games in general for our research. Beyond the obvious influences you might recognize a bit of Final Fantasy Adventure, some Dark Arms: Beast Buster, or maybe a little Mole Mania!
Making a game feels like cooking a soup. We throw a bunch of our favorite ingredients in there, and after simmering for a while it starts to take on its own unique flavor. Those references are a good way to describe the initial broad strokes of the game, but once the Yacht Club Spice starts getting thrown in, it inevitably morphs into a recipe all its own. What we’ve shown should give a sense of the taste thus far, but it’s always evolving as we tweak and iterate on each part of the game. Much like any Yacht Club game, I hope the end product will end up feeling equal parts bold, fresh, warm, familiar, and delicious.
Though retro in look, there are some modern ideas and approaches here such as the Spirit Orbs; can you talk about them in particular, and their role in the gameplay loop?
Mina can carry something called a Spark of Life. Upon death, that Spark will get absorbed by whatever killed her. There’s no penalty for dying so long as you have remaining Sparks to revive you, and by making your way back to the enemy that felled you, you can defeat them and reclaim your lost Spark. But if you die with no remaining Sparks, you’ll lose some of your resources.
Like Shovel Knight’s gold bag recovery system, it raises the stakes and encourages more careful play when retrying a section, but the specific quirks of the Spark System make it fertile ground for all sorts of fun, clever, new ideas. Since Sparks are stored in slots on the health bar, an enemy can’t take more Sparks than they’ve got slots for. An enemy with one spark slot can’t take more than one Spark from you, so as long as you’ve got an extra Spark, you can safely rematch them and practice that encounter as many times as you need. If you’ve got enough Sparks, it lets you pick your battles – after all, you only need one to survive! But a single boss with multiple Spark slots could potentially eat up all your Sparks after a few rematches. Perhaps you could even utilize a Spark outside of combat? Maybe you could even willingly give your Spark away to revive an ailing NPC? Who knows what other shocking surprises the Spark System has in store!
Combat seems varied too with the standard whip, sidearms and strategies when jumping and burrowing; has balancing the mechanics and difficulty been a particular challenge, and is it important that the player has flexibility and creativity in how they tackle enemies and screens? Balance has definitely been tricky, and testing has been even trickier! Once you start stacking trinkets, sidearm preferences, and player leveling, it gets harder for us to predict the loadout or playstyle of any given player in an area, but I think that’s also the fun of it. Having so many player actions that can interact with one another creates so much opportunity for creativity in how players can choose to tackle the game.
I think this approach also helps us mitigate some issues with game difficulty. If you’re having problems with platforming, you can try equipping a trinket that lets you walk over pits temporarily. If you’re having issues with combat, try out some different weapons or sidearms or loadouts and find one that works for you. I think players looking for the intense, focused challenge of a Shovel Knight stage will totally still be able to find it in Mina, but the added player freedom means it’ll likely end up as a more well-rounded game that more people can get through and enjoy, as well as a more replayable game for skilled players in search of extra challenge.
It seems like a game with a broad potential scope for storytelling, too, with NPCs and the wider world to explore; is the story going to be a major part of the experience, and if so in what way?
I think it’d be difficult to imagine the charm of a Yacht Club game without the intensity and intricacy of one of Jake’s soundtracks.
Most of our storytelling goals remain the same as they were for Shovel Knight’s development. We want to tell stories that tug at your heartstrings, and we maintain a penchant for conveying those stories through gameplay, specifically. But the new structure and perspective of Mina gives us a lot of new tools for getting story across, tools that we’re excited to play with. Being able to walk up to and inspect stuff like signposts, tombstones, or bookshelves lets us play a bit more with environmental storytelling. And the more open structure means there’s more opportunities to meet NPC’s or resolve quest lines while out adventuring, whereas that type of stuff would usually be more restrained to a handful of specific areas in a Shovel Knight game.
Jake Kaufman returns to work on the soundtrack, how important is his work in setting the tone and atmosphere of the game?
It’s so important, I think it’d be difficult to imagine the charm of a Yacht Club game without the intensity and intricacy of one of Jake’s soundtracks.
When game developers work on a game, we usually play with sound and music off, since it’ll drive you mad listening to the same stuff on loop for hours a day. Wrapping up a piece of content and finally adding in the music and sound effects always brings so much life to each area, it amazes me every time. It’s really comforting as a designer to know that I can rely on Jake’s contribution to always add that extra bit of magic that’ll really make any given scene or the moment shine.
Not many know this, but Jake’s collaboration is also instrumental to much of our games’ writing. Many characters’ personalities and so many of our favorite lines are penned by none other than our resident “virt”-uoso!
The Kickstarter campaign has already flown past its goal, and you’ve emphasized that the campaign is more for community engagement than a necessity for funding the game. With that in mind, will you be carefully managing stretch goals and expectations, after the success of the Shovel Knight campaign and the many expansions that were funded through stretch goals?
I’ll admit we went a little overboard with Shovel Knight’s stretch goals… We worked on it for so long that the $10 game that backers pledged toward ended up turning into a $40 game by the time we were done with it! We spent millions and millions of our own dollars developing those stretch goals as we watched our ambitions rapidly outpace our better judgment, but the results speak for themselves. I’m incredibly proud of everything little thing that went into Treasure Trove, and I think we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Though to be honest… it was always a bummer knowing in the back of our minds that few would play each additional free game. We struggled a lot with conveying the value of all of those additions to Treasure Trove. Being an “update” to a game, as opposed to paid DLC, means that entire games of ours were getting sorted into the same categories as patch notes and bug fixes. An “update” can’t be highlighted on a storefront because there’s no product page to point to. It’s harder for media to review a free update as opposed to a traditional product with a price tag. People expected there to be a catch, because there usually is one, and despite our best efforts we couldn’t overcome that perception. Even to this day, I think a lot of our fans don’t understand how amazing and unique all those campaigns are, or that they even exist.
This time we’re trying to make sure that any extra content we want to explore can be considered and planned during the main development phase of the game. The goal is that by having all that content there on day one, we can avoid fighting the uphill battle of trying to recirculate the game when additions are made. Rather than letting ourselves sign up for loads of post-launch development, we’re making sure all additional money pledged will go toward making the main game even better!
Do you have a final message for our readers?
Congratulations for making it all the way to the bottom of the interview!
If Mina sounds like something you might enjoy, please check out our Kickstarter campaign at MinaTheHollower.com! We think this game will be very special, and we would love to have you join us on the development journey. And a huge thank you to everybody who has shared their thoughts on the game, drawn fan art, or backed the Kickstarter already – we are constantly amazed and humbled by your generous support!
Now off I go… burrowing my head back into work on Mina the Hollower!
We’d like to thank Alec Faulkner for his time!