Shovel Knight is one of video game crowdfunding's biggest success stories. A retro platformer developed by ex-WayForward staff at fledgling studio Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight raised more than quadruple its $75k Kickstarter goal in spring 2013. Upon finally launching in summer 2014 (on Steam and the North American 3DS and Wii U eShop), the game surpassed the developer's lifetime sales estimate of 150k copies by shifting 180k copies in its first month on sale. And that was before it was ported to PlayStation platforms, Xbox One, and the European Wii U and 3DS eShops.
So what did Yacht Club decide to do with this smashing success? Rather than roll around in a big pile of money like Scrooge McDuck or invest all that capital into its next game, the developer decided to honour those who made the company a success by adding what might be gaming's most expansive free DLC to date with the Plague of Shadows expansion.
And what an expansion it is! Rather than simply adding a palette swap so players could go through the campaign as fan-favourite villain Plague Knight, Yacht Club decided to instead rework the entire campaign, nearly creating an entire sequel in the process.
The most obvious change is your character model, but Plague Knight doesn't just look different than Shovel Knight; he plays very, very differently. Where Shovel Knight's simple, refined controls hearkened back to the minimalist pleasures of Mario or Mega Man, Plague Knight turns the usual platforming blueprint on its head with intentionally awkward mobility. Most platformers stick to two fundamental buttons: jump and shoot. It's quite common then that holding down the attack button will result in a charge shot. That's not the case in Plague of Shadows, where holding down the attack button allows for a charge jump instead. This isn't just some fancy pro-trick either, but the entire cornerstone of how the game is designed. You can't even get past the first obstacle five seconds into the game without relying on it.
It's awkward. And strange. And maybe even uncomfortable at first. But it becomes apparent very early on that wrapping your head around this new system is a key part of what makes Plague of Shadows so darn captivating. Not since Bionic Commando's Nathan "Rad" Spencer decided to eschew jumping in favour of robotic arm swinging has unusual 2D platforming mobility been so delightfully demanding.
Yacht Club knew how much Plague Knight's jumping mechanics would change the game, so the developer went through and altered the geometry of each level to account for its new protagonist's move set. The general level themes remain the same, but the individual challenges feel almost entirely fresh.
Outside of mobility, Plague Knight attacks differently too. Where Shovel Knight used his spade like a sword, Plague Knight's projectile attacks are customisable in deep and exciting ways. They all revolve around throwing flasks of potions, but there are various properties you can alter. Do you want your projectiles to go up in an arch, or get an underhand toss toward the ground? Do you want your bombs to explode right away, or be remotely triggered? Should they bounce around, or home in on enemies? Do you prefer your charge jump makes you float, or shoots off a projectile every time you use it? Plague of Shadows is basically a Mega Man game where you craft your own guns rather than simply choosing a preset one. Deciding how to tweak your Plague Knight adds substantially more depth to this DLC than the original game ever had.
Plague of Shadows even hosts a completely reworked storyline. Shovel Knight isn't the talkiest game, but there's still a fair bit of prose and chatty NPCs. That's all been entirely rewritten for this new campaign. To wit, Plague Knight isn't allowed to wander the village (on account of being a creepy-looking villain and all), but he gets his own underground black market right beneath the original game's hub. There's even sections where you see Shovel Knight's quest being played out concurrently to your own. And yes, you get to fight him in your domain, just as he battled with you during the main campaign. How Yacht Club determines who the victor was in the Rashomon-like setup is equal parts cutesy and clever.
Plague of Shadows, despite being free and reusing a lot of the same assets as its parent game, feels more different to Shovel Knight than any of the Assassin's Creed games feel different to each other. The fact that it's a free update is nothing short of astounding. It's easy to be cynical of crowdfunded games when projects like Mighty No. 9 see changes and delays - or worse, when games like Godus may never come to fruition the way they were pitched - but in the right circumstances these things can exceed our wildest expectations. The community scratched Yacht Club's back and now Yacht Club is scratching back. And boy oh boy does it feel good.