Shovel Knight: King of Cards is the perfect reason to jump back into Yacht Club Games’ ever-expanding shovel-verse. The game’s terrific platforming and treasure hunting are back, but there’s also a great new mini-game now, and it’s all a blast to play.
I wish every great indie game received the DLC treatment Shovel Knight has. Nearly five years since it released, Shovel Knight is still getting new content, this time in the form of a story expansion, King of Cards, and a new fighting game spin-off, Shovel Knight Showdown, both out December 10 on almost every platform you can think of (except for 3DS and Vita which are only getting the former). The base game’s great level design, crisp side-scrolling controls, and exemplary mining of ideas from the best 8-bit classics would have been wasted on a single one-and-done release. Whether Yacht Club knew that from the beginning or simply over-delivered on their Kickstarter rewards, we are all richer for it.
In King of Cards you play as King Knight, the gold-armored, scepter-carrying, self-proclaimed monarch who’s on a quest to become the king of Joustus, a card game that’s sort of like a combination of Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad and a sliding tile puzzle. Whenever King finds a pub, he must face all of the players inside, working his way up the ladder to the area’s strongest competitor. It’s a new sort of boss fight and it’s a fun break from the usual combat and platforming puzzles Shovel Knight specializes in.
Matches take place on a large board with center squares and out-of-bounds squares. On the center ones are an odd number of gems, and whichever player controls the most gems by having one of their cards on it by the time all the spaces are filled wins. But you can’t place cards directly on top of a gem square. Instead you need to push them on to it. Cards have arrows on various sides and can push other cards that are missing arrows on that side. So for example, a Boneclang card has arrows on the left and right. That means it can push another in either of those directions, but in turn it can only be pushed up or down, since its arrows act like shields on the other sides.
Cards can also be pushed out-of-bounds, but only once. Once that square is filled up with a card, that row will get locked up in that direction. Adding another wrinkle are some players’ abilities to use special powers like, say, the Black Knight’s fireball attack that will destroy an entire row of cards within two turns. King can also acquire unique abilities like this, though, adding a fun meta-level to strategizing and deck building. When King beats someone, he gets to choose one of their cards too keep, although the same will happen to his opponent if he loses. The game seemed straightforward enough at first, but some of the later opponents really broke my brain. The rules are simple, but there’s still a lot of room for trickery and pulling off cool combos.
Elsewhere, King of Cards will be recognizable to anyone who’s played previous expansions or the base game. Maps are laid out Super Mario Bros. 3-style with big bosses at the end of them. Levels also feel familiar, but reworked around King’s unique move set. His shield bash works as both an attack and a dash, and when it connects with an enemy or particular parts of the environment, he does a spin-hop that can be used to reach ledges or drill down on enemies heads. King is a heavy lug and at first glance not the most fun to control compared to Specter of Torment’s Specter Knight, but I quickly found myself getting the hang of things and appreciating the more deliberate approach his inertia requires. He also gets a number of other abilities and upgrades along the way, like exploding rats and an iron robe that lets him charge his jump. I’m only a few hours into what Yacht Club says is the biggest Shovel Knight expansion yet, and already all I don’t want to play anything else until it’s finished.
I’ve spent less time with Shovel Knight Showdown, and while I appreciate it as a victory lap of sorts, letting you play as all the different Knights in a platform fighter with friends, it didn’t immediately win me over. It has a story mode which strings together a number of battles, some of which revolve around alternative objectives like collecting the most gems, and a regular arcade versus mode. The characters control well and I’m sure I’d have more fun playing against another human (the computer AI seemed to get a little confused sometimes), but it doesn’t focus as much on platforming as I’d like to have seen given the strengths of Shovel Knight’s level design. At times it feels more like a side-scrolling brawler than something with the sprawl and flow of TowerFall. There’s no sign Showdown will get a mini-expansion of its own to build out some of the stages, but I can’t say I’d be sad if I still had a reason to keep bouncing around as Shovel Knight four more years from now.