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How Cyber Shadow is Benefiting From the Expertise of Shovel Knight's Developers

We check out Yacht Club's first publishing venture, and talk to its developer, Aarne "Mekaskull" Hunziker.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Cyber Shadow's debut at PAX East this weekend was a first in more ways than one. It was also the first opportunity for its designer, Aarne Hunziker, to meet his publishing partners at Yacht Club Games in person.

The Shovel Knight designers have been working closely with Hunziker on his gorgeous new 8-bit platformer, but all of the collaboration to this point has been remote. With Cyber Shadow appearing for the first time at PAX East, Hunziker was encouraged to make the journey from Finland to show off his game to the public for the first time. Yacht Club Games co-founder Sean Velasco told USG, "We told him it was a huge deal and he had to come out. He's been down there running that demo the whole time."

In the run-up to Hunziker's journey to PAX East, Yacht Club has been mainly lending its expertise to the level design. "There's lots of back and forth with level design," Hunziker says. "They have this thing where they say level design teaches players about the game. Enemies should be placed in ways that complicate a situation and gradually increase the difficulty."

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Velasco says Yacht Clubt Games has mainly been advising Hunziker on elements like enemy placement, jumps, and other balance issues. "When you're working alone, you can really have tunnel vision. So just working with other people can be enormously helpful. Even those two levels in the demo, we just honed them and improved them."

Velasco stresses, "[Cyber Shadow] itself is cool. It was cool before we got to it. So I don't want to say Yacht Clubt made it cool, because we didn't."

Yacht Club originally discovered Hunziker on Twitter, where he tweets under the handle of "Mekaskull." It's easy to see why it was so impressed with his work. His feed is filled with elaborate animated gifs chronicling his ongoing work on Cyber Shadow. Working almost entirely alone, he's managed to crank out some very impressive pixel art.

In December 2017, Hunziker tweeted, "This milestone event means Cyber Shadow is 60% complete. What it does? Only the ninja master knows." The gif he included showed his cybernetic ninja meditating at a dragon statue and the screen fading to black."

Fast forward to March 2019, and Cyber Shadow is looking extremely impressive. With a darker and edgier vibe, Velasco says Cyber Shadow is the Ninja Gaiden or Batman NES to Yacht Club's Mega Man. It features a character who is killed in a nuclear apocalypse, only to rise again as a cybernetic ninja.

Though frequently compared to Ninja Gaiden, it has only superficial similarities to Tecmo's classic platformer. Cyber Shadow focuses far more on combat than the platforming that defined the legendarily difficult Ninja Gaiden, and includes many more abilities. The main hero takes up more space on the screen, carries multiple permanent abilities that can be accessed via the d-pad, and is unable to crouch.

It's also far more forgiving than Ninja Gaiden, at least so far. While I certainly died more than once, I had no trouble clearing both of Cyber Shadow's demo stages. Health potions are sprinkled liberally through both stages, and Hunziker says he plans to ramp up the difficulty much more slowly than Ninja Gaiden, which features a famously nasty difficulty spike in its second stage.

Cyber Shadow was a pixel art darling before Yacht Club Games picked it up. | Yacht Club Games

It goes without saying that Cyber Shadow is gorgeous. With its large, detailed sprites and detailed stages, it measures up nicely to the other ninja-themed indie platformer at the show, The Messenger. Hunziker approaches his design with the eye of an artist, at one point observing that the boss of the second demo stage utilizes the Mega Man color palette.

It's a unique opportunity for both Hunziker and Yacht Club. For Hunziker, it's a chance to break into the upper tier of indie development and win real notice from the industry. For Yacht Club, it's an opportunity to truly break into indie publishing and become known for being more than just The Studio That Makes Shovel Knight.

The results are looking very promising. The two sides may have only just met in real life for the first time, but it's already been a fruitful relationship, as the media is already proclaiming Cyber Shadow "the new Shovel Knight." No release date has been announced yet, but Cyber Shadow is pretty far along, so expect it sooner rather than later on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

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