Review: Shovel Knight: King of Cards & Showdown

Okay guys, this opening is going to be longer than usual, so buckle yourselves in! If you’re a fan of retro-styled platformers, you’re all but guaranteed to be familiar with Shovel Knight. Originally released in 2014 to critical acclaim, it was an example of how awesome an 8-bit-styled game can look, play, and sound, with gameplay that resembled well-known games from the NES era like the Mega Man franchise. It would go on to offer multiple add-on experiences, spawned a line of Amiibo figures, and made cameo appearances in a bunch of games, even Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I myself fell in love with it pretty darn quickly, long before I would come to do reviews on this site.

A couple years ago, the final add-ons – and the subject of this review – were announced: Shovel Knight: King of Cards and Shovel Knight: Showdown (Available on countless platforms; the Steam version was played for this review). A set of three new Amiibo were also announced around that time, which I pre-ordered on the spot. Little did I know how long it was going to take…

I attended PAX East in the spring of 2018 and found Yacht Club Games’ booth there. They were demoing the new King of Cards expansion, and even had the Amiibo on display. I tried and enjoyed the brief demo and availed myself of most of their merchandise. No final release date was given at the time, but the folks in the booth suggested it was coming “soon,” though 2018 came and went with not much news to speak of.

I then attended PAX East 2019, and again Yacht Club Games was there, and they were demoing the new Showdown multiplayer experience. They cited Showdown (which wasn’t announced at the same time as King of Cards) as the reason for the delays, and said it was coming this year. I helped myself to more of the stuff they were selling and waited for the release with bated breath. I kept watching my Amiibo pre-order on Amazon on an almost daily basis, hoping to see it ship out, meaning the expansion was finally coming.

Fast forward a bit more to…now, and it’s finally here? With the last expansion’s release seemingly stuck in development hell and causing a buildup of hype like Duke Nukem Forever did so long ago, I began to wonder if the game could possibly live up to the fan hype, which I certainly had built up within. Today, we can finally answer that question!

Note that Showdown and King of Cards are functionally separate from each other, so we will discuss each in its own section.

King of Cards

Shovel Knight: King of Cards is actually a prequel to the three previous stories, before King Knight became who he was in Shovel of Hope (the original game). In a few words, it chronicles King Knight’s rise to “power.” One day whilst planning how he will come to rule the land, he discovers a tournament for a card game called Joustus which has swept the land, and that whomever can defeat the three Joustus Judges will be named “King of Cards.” King Knight sees this as his opportunity to be recognized as the true king of the land he sees himself as (despite his apparent apathy toward any of the responsibility associated with being an actual king), and so he sets out on an adventure to achieve that goal.

The King of Cards expansion is structured much like the original game, with a world map with branching paths and many levels and special locations to explore. However, it is loosely broken down into “worlds,” with many shorter levels versus fewer longer ones as in the original. The world map has even more of a Super Mario Bros. 3 vibe than the original as a result. Not every stage has a boss, making it also a bit less Mega Man-like than the original, but the overall gameplay still remains true to the original game.

King Knight has a feel much closer to Shovel Knight himself, with some differences. He runs, jumps, and uses items with much the same style, although King Knight lacks an actual weapon and shoulder-tackles enemies with his pauldrons instead (This just SCREAMS Wario from Wario Land on Game Boy, especially since he needs to do this to collect treasure). Doing so will send him into a spin, allowing him to damage enemies and break blocks from above, similar to how Shovel Knight can pogo-jump with his shovel.

His life mechanics are a little different from the other characters, having hearts instead of life orbs. Each heart is only one hit of damage, unlike the two hits per orb the other characters can take. However, enemies sometimes drop hearts (Yes, just like the Zelda franchise – look at all those references!), so while he effectively has less HP, his survivability ends up being similar (although a bit easier overall). All in all, it has all the flavor, feel, and style of Shovel of Hope, but manages to even be a little bit better, which honestly astounds me, given how much I loved Shovel of Hope.

But of course, even though it almost goes without saying, the biggest new feature in King of Cards is the card game Joustus. It seems like every good game has to have a card game now, and you might expect it to be nothing more than a lame plot gimmick (Yes, the card game is important to the plot, in case it wasn’t obvious already). However, I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable with a surprising amount of strategy.

Here’s the gist of it: You have a 2×2 or 3×3 grid, with additional spaces at the ends of each row/column and gems placed on certain squares. Players can see the top 3 cards of each other’s deck and take turns placing cards on the board. The goal is to capture more gems than your opponent by having your cards on the gem tiles. However, you can’t place your cards on them directly. You have to play a card to an adjoining space and then use another card (with an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction) to push your cards onto the gem tiles. Of course, the opponent can also push your cards around, so you have to plan out how to position your cards and their arrows so that you can claim the gems and prevent the opponent from doing so, since cards can’t be pushed if any other cards in the row/column have an arrow pointing in the opposite direction.

The game ends when all of the main grid tiles have been filled in. It’s simpler than other well known card names like Final Fantasy VIII‘s Triple Triad, Final Fantasy IX‘s Tetra Master, or Gwent in The Witcher III. Cards don’t really have stats, other than which of their four sides have arrows. But this is only a good thing, as it makes the strategy all about positioning your cards and predicting the opponent’s moves (and there are a deceptively large number of possible moves in each game).

As you play you can win and lose cards from your opponents, and you can also buy cards with your gold earned during the levels. If you’re having a hard time winning, you can also buy powerups to cheat at the card game (Man of integrity, King Knight ain’t). You can also play through a series of puzzles to develop your knowledge of the mechanics.

It’s too bad there’s no multiplayer for Joustus, as I would argue the card game is almost good enough to stand on its own. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about it. It’s a great addition to a great campaign. As an aside, the update to Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove which adds the new expansions also adds local co-op to the original Shovel of Hope campaign. This feature was previously exclusive to the Nintendo versions of the game, but now can be enjoyed by everyone. If you haven’t previously had the chance to try that, I do recommend it as it changes the dynamic of the original game a lot, almost like a new game.

Showdown

Right alongside King of Cards, the game also recieved a new local multiplayer game in Shovel Knight: Showdown. This is essentially a fighting game with a very strong Super Smash Bros. vibe, with similar rules, game modes, stages, and a range of items, hazards, and powerups.

This was something that I was never expecting before it was announced and, admittedly, it was not something I was initially excited about because it wasn’t going to have online play. But when I played the demo at PAX East, I became a bit more interested after finding out it would have a single player mode, as well as AI bots for the regular modes.

And then, recently, prior to the release of this expansion, the Steam platform in particular offered a great new feature: Remote Play Together. This new feature of Steam allows you to play local multiplayer games (like Showdown) online with friends, and I took advantage of this on release day to bring you additional perspective that would not have been possible on any other platform, as I don’t have anyone locally to play with. I became really excited to be able to try Showdown with real people!

First, I’ll briefly touch on the story for Story mode. I use the word “story” rather loosely; there is an introductory cutscene, where all the characters at the Tower of Fate are trying to do something about the Enchantress, and decide to attempt to seal her inside a mirror. They build a contraption to carry out this goal, but it doesn’t work, causing the mirror to shatter, with the various shards reflecting all the cast of the game.

This simply sets the stage for the mode, which is basically your standard fighting game single player tournament mode (Beat a gauntlet of fighters to get to the last boss and win). However, it is a little different with each character you play as, and when each character meats certain other ones, you do get additional dialogue offering up more lore bits for the cast of the game. You can choose any unlocked character and a difficulty setting. It’s a very standard formula, but it does the job well and is a great way to learn the mechanics of the game before you start thrashing your friends. It’s also not too long and you can do any one character in a single sitting.

Of course, beating up your friends is the real reason you’re playing this, and thanks to Steam’s Remote Play Together, that’s now easy to do even without built-in online play. All of the major characters from across Shovel Knight‘s four single player campaigns can be found in Showdown, each with their own basic attacks, special attacks, and parries.

While the controls are more basic than, say… Smash Bros., they are very fluid; everything works the way you expect. It just feels great: when you kill someone and when you die, you feel like it was you and not the mechanics/controls getting in the way.

Like in Smash Bros. (I feel like I should say here that Showdown may well be the result of people asking for Shovel Knight to be featured as a fighter in a Smash title), there are lots of options. You can choose between Stock and Treasure Hunt modes; toggle items, stage hazards etc. on and off; choose a number of lives/points; add or remove CPU players at will; and so on.

For a multiplayer add-on to what was almost entirely a single-player game, it is absolutely exceptional and goes way beyond what I thought it would be, even having played the PAX demo. It feels like a proper game in its own right that could have been sold on its own. There’s tons of levels and characters, they all feel polished, and it all just works great. I only hit one tiny snag my entire time playing, and that was my swapping the confirm and cancel buttons (to be like Nintendo controllers) seemed to confuse the character select screen a bit and I ended up having to turn that option off to know what buttons to press. But that’s super minor and about the only stumble across the entirety of Shovel Knight that I can name.

Music To My Ears

So let’s talk about the presentation. This is actually going to be short, because there is little I can say that hasn’t already been said about Shovel Knight since its original release. The graphics are some of the best retro style art I’ve seen. While the game definitely would not run on a NES, the art looks amazing while almost making you believe it could have been made for it, with fading effects using limited colors and such.

Musically, Shovel Knight is classic, and nothing about that changes here. The game has some of my favorite 8-bit tunes that legitimately sound like something the NES could have produced. It’s right up there with a lot of classic games like Mega Man, as well as moden retro-style games such as Crypt of the Necrodancer. The soundtrack for this game is worth owning for your music library.

King of Cards and Showdown both largely revisit locations of the game seen previously, but they do add in some of their own, and the new levels also mean new assets that are all made with the same care and love as before. The same goes for the music, with KoC/Showdown both leveraging the best tracks from the game and adding new ones, and it all simply sounds great. I really, really want to find something critical to say about the audiovisual experience, but I simply can’t. And the new expansions keep everything that was great about the game and adds just a bit more to really bring it home.

Sharpen Thy Shovel

Okay, it’s final thoughts time. King of Cards was seemingly stuck in development hell for a while. The delays kept piling up, and this again resulted in a situation where some players might have their expectations for a free expansion to a now five-year old game so high that that no developer would be able to fulfill them. Despite the eternally long wait, Yacht Club Games has brought us an expansion that took an already classic game I’ve played the crap out of and cranked it up yet another notch.

I will say that if this wasn’t the Steam version, I’d have considered docking a point for the lack of online multiplayer for Showdown, but Steam solves that problem for me with Remote Play Together. I played Showdown with a friend and even though we live pretty far apart, it was totally playable with this feature and tons of fun. I do not do this lightly, but King of Cards/Showdown gets the first ’10’ I’ve ever given, and may in fact bring Shovel Knight another peg up on my shortlist of games I think everyone should buy and play if they like video games in any way shape or form.


~ Final Score: 10/10 ~


Early Access to the Shovel Knight update provided by Yacht Club Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.