Among numerous games in the now thriving indie game industry, what title sparks as much reverence and influence than the Shovel Knight franchise? A rousing Kickstarter success, their first game, Shovel of Hope – through sheer tenacity and good timing – has graced and dominated the market. Through their understanding of retro games, developer Yacht Club Games have produced a product that not only aesthetically nails the 8-bit look, but captures the simple, yet challenging gameplay mentality of that era while upgrading dated mechanics with modern functions. What it resulted in was an exceptionally balanced game; a superb, timeless platformer that never loses its edge years later.
Envisioned as something of a Mario-like franchise, Shovel Knight has starred and guest starred in numerous video games, most notably as an Assist Trophy in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. They even have their own set of amiibos, a claim no other indie game has yet to achieve! Over the six year period since the release of its first game, Yacht Club Games has produced additional campaigns, each fully realized games in their own right. The first is the chaotic Plague of Shadows starring the titular mad scientist, Plague Knight. Then came the grim and tragic Specter of Torment, starring the moody Specter Knight. It feels like there’s no end in sight for the Blue Burrower and though Yacht Club Games has no plans to give up on the franchise, the series finally comes to a close with their latest and final releases: the solo campaign, King of Cards, starring the Dimwitted Dandy, King Knight, and the multiplayer fighting game, Shovel Knight Showdown.
There’s no feigning surprise when it comes to King of Cards, the game is as excellent as it comes. Every single Shovel Knight game has taken influence and references from the best of video gaming of yesteryear, molding and modernizing them into something uniquely their own. Shovel of Hope, for example, takes cues from Legend of Zelda II and Super Mario Bros 3. Specter of Torment meanwhile, dedicates their gaming structure on the Mega Man games. In King of Cards‘ case, the game is Super Mario World. Reflected heavily in its shorter level designs and emphasis on secret exits and Easter Eggs, King of Cards revises the familiar levels we’ve known and love into a platforming hunt for hidden routes and obscure puzzles. While by now most of the environmental backgrounds and characters are well-worn and familiar territory, King of Cards never feels tedious. Each level has a new gimmick or engaging platforming challenge that always feels fresh. A couple of the Easter Eggs or optional events surprised me for how out of left field they were, yet I always ended it with a pleasant smile.
Much of this is helped by Shovel Knight’s lighthearted tone. The games have always retained their charms through tongue-in-cheek humor without ever diving into cynicism or relying on cheap, dated gags. But it’s also genuinely moving and sincere with its emotional beats. In sharp contrast to the last campaign, Specter of Torment, and its somber tale of woe, King of Cards is notoriously comical, more so than previous Shovel Knight games. Much of the hilarity is fortunately tied to the central character, King Knight, a selfish buffoon who is so bent on achieving monarchy that he fails to grasp the bigger picture even if it slaps him straight on his golden face. His selfish antics is counter-intuitive to his Hero’s Journey and the affectionate lampshading provide both the laughs and a surprisingly depth into his character.
I noticed King Knight was a bit clunky to handle at first. This is coming after Specter of Torment where Specter Knight controlled like a swift, graceful ninja. King of Cards instead replaces him with a brute who shoulder bashes his way past obstacles. Thankfully, the bash is easy to pick up and surprisingly versatile. Every attack against a wall or an enemy causes King Knight to spin. This in turn can be weaponized to use against your foes or to dig through blocks and open new paths. Sometimes that shoulder bash can save your life from a bottomless pit; time it right and you can dash your way to a platform before you fall to your death. It’s a classic Nintendo-like gameplay mechanic: a dominant Action Command that can be used in numerous ways with levels designed to take full advantage of it.
Neatly wrapping the whole package is their crown jewel of a mini-game, the card game, Joustus. As someone who spent hours playing Tetra Master in Final Fantasy IX, I have always loved card-based mini-games. Joustus was right up my alley the moment I heard of its existence. Your goal is to collect the most gems in the in-game place mat. To do so, you must strategically push cards until you’ve achieved your goal, all the while countering your opponent. Joustus is hard, and a lot of it is reliant on gaining stronger cards (usually loaded with gimmicks to give you an edge) as it is trying to figure out where to place them. It’s a huge change of pace from platforming, but for those who can’t stand card games will be happy to know it’s completely optional in spite of the game’s plot relying heavily on Joustus’ existence. For people like me though, Joustus will give you a terrible addiction. I’ve since finished King of Cards, but I’ve been playing for hours trying to get all the cards!
King of Cards can be a bit overwhelming with its content. The game is loaded with characters, items, secrets, and Joustus cards to meet and collect. Because it’s the final campaign in the series, Yacht Club Games ambitiously squeezed in as much as they could. It’s a bit daunting to keep track of everything at first, but for those striving for 100%, worry not, as it is easy to settle yourselves in over time.
Regardless, King of Cards serves as nice capper to the greater Shovel Knight franchise. It is at once cleverly constructed, endlessly charming, and a bountiful labor of love. Considering this is their current swan song, Yacht Club Games gracefully bows off-stage.
So it is incredulous to me that they poured as much energy into the spin-off fighting game: Shovel Knight Showdown. Inevitable comparisons to the Smash franchise feels dishonest because the game was never intended to take on that behemoth. Showdown was merely a multiplayer fighting game that went way beyond what Yacht Club Games expected, creating not just playable versions of numerous Shovel Knight characters, but overtime adding different gameplay modes and a story mode to give it versatility and length.
It’s staggering how many different modes there are. It can be as simple as players beating each other up, swiping gems, or Sudden Death. But it can also be a Fairy Only Mode where you duel while in fairy form. Or you can fight gigantic versions of yourself, or win battles while dodging falling beetles. Further enhancing the chaos is Chester’s Choice, a function that lets the game randomize different modes for you to beat your opponents with. And if that all sounds too much, Showdown offers you a menu where you can optimize what modes, items, time limits, and lives you want to your heart’s content. Arguably, I’d consider Showdown feel less of a fighting game than it is a party game.
I played Showdown alone, so the game did feel repetitive by my lonesome self. No doubt this is a campaign meant to be played alongside friends. As a whole, Showdown isn’t going to thrive long in a fighting game community. It’s best suited as a quick, fun gathering with pals, the kind you get into shouting matches like the best of Mario Party games. It’s a humble bit of self-indulgence where you get the chance to play as your favorite Shovel Knight character. And with its Story Mode, you might even get a few insights into some of the cast members. Each of the characters have a “rival” they must contend with, oftentimes unexpectedly so. Story Mode is vanilla, but for the characters who didn’t get the chance to be the stars of their own campaign, it offers a simple consolation prize for your personal favorite to briefly have their moment in the spotlight.
Both games are finely crafted gems with King of Cards slightly edging out Showdown with its meatier package. Neither of them are a waste of your time though. If you have any love for Shovel Knight, either of these games will be high up your list. Now with them both out, Shovel Knight’s six-year long saga comes to a close. It’s been an incredible journey; I’ve been a fan of these games for years and it’ll be thrilling to see what Yacht Club Games will move on to next. Hopefully one day, they will return to the threshold for a brand new Shovel Knight. Until then, we have the upcoming spin-off, Shovel Knight Dig (developed by Nitrome) to look forward to as well as the five main games, now collected under the Treasure Trove bundle, to replay non-stop. Each of them are a different and rewarding experience and worth every Gem in the world.