It’s not often that you see a preview for a four-year-old game, but in the years following Shovel Knight’s original release, Yacht Club has kept busy introducing add-ons to the popular retro platformer, each as good as - if not better than - the last. We already deemed the game a must-have, and if the time we spent playing the upcoming King of Cards and Showdown expansions is any indication, that package is about to get a lot more attractive.
King of Cards and Showdown represent the final chapters in the Shovel Knight saga. The first is a standalone campaign, similar to those released for Spectre Knight and Plague Knight. Showdown is a multiplayer free-for-all - think 8-bit Smash Bros. and you’ll be on the right track. Best of all, if you already own Shovel Knight, both of these modes are completely free.
King of Cards sees you in the role of King Knight, the familiar villain from the original Shovel Knight on his quest to become a true king. King Knight’s main attack is his shoulder bash, but it behaves much differently when you control him than it did when you were his adversary. Using the shoulder bash sends him hurtling forward very quickly, and upon contact with just about anything, he’ll do a spinning jump which will propel him into the air on a straight vertical trajectory. If you land on something, you’ll deal damage to it, bounce in the air again, and be able to reuse your shoulder bash to continue the cycle and reach even greater heights.
This shoulder bash, bounce, repeat cycle is the core of Cards’ gameplay, and it feels immensely satisfying. In the section of the game we played, all of the challenges faced centred around this mechanic. The four years’ worth of experience Yacht Club has built up changing up the Shovel Knight formula really shines in Cards, showing that you can do a whole lot with one simple move. In one section, we had King Knight bouncing between lanterns outside of a pub to reach a secret area full of treasure and a secret card, while another had us riding a dragon over a pool of lava and using the shoulder bash to keep ourselves out of harm’s way as the dragon took frequent dips into the blazing depths.
Speaking of cards, the other half of King of Cards’ gameplay is, well, a card game. Throughout the world, there are several spots you can get to play Joustus against a series of opponents, including some of the franchise’s most well-recognised faces. In the demo, we found a pub with a setup similar to a Pokémon gym. In it, you had to defeat four players to face the leader of the pub, Black Knight. The rules of Joustus are simple: lay cards on a three-by-three grid and capture the gems set on the board by making sure your cards are on top of them at the end of the match.
Each card has a picture of a monster and a number of arrows on it. The arrows indicate which directions it can both push and resist being pushed from. For instance, if you lay down a card with an 'up' arrow on it, and your opponent lays a card with a down arrow on it above you, your card won’t budge. Conversely, if you lay down a card with a 'left' arrow on it to the right of a card with no right arrow on it to push back, you’ll bump that card over a space, or off the board entirely if it’s on the edge - providing you haven’t already pushed a card over the edge in that direction.
You can’t lay a card directly on a gem and instead have to push them to reach their goal. While it seems simple at first, the strategy involved lends it a surprising amount of depth; we just wish we could play Joustus online, which does not seem to be in the cards (no pun intended). You can fully customise your deck and there are cards of varying rarity scattered about the world for you to collect; they can be found hidden in chests or given to you as rewards by NPCs. You can also buy certain rare cards by finding merchants around towns, similarly to how you could purchase relics from Chester in the original campaign.
Finally, we had an opportunity to try out Shovel Knight’s newly-announced multiplayer mode, Showdown. On its own, Showdown is enough to be a game on its own. Four players battle to capture a set amount of gems each round, and while that’s enough for a short party game with mild replayability, Yacht Club decided instead to go all-out and offer a ruleset deep enough to keep us coming back for more.
While Showdown isn’t on the same level as Smash Bros., it’s still quite adaptable and complex. If you’d rather battle for lives than gems, you can do that. Team Battle? It’s there, too. There are more game types in Showdown, but Yacht Club wasn’t yet ready to demo them for us. Each stage has a set number of gems you must collect to emerge victorious; if nobody gets them all, the player with the highest number of gems at the end of the match wins.
We thoroughly enjoyed playing Showdown, especially as some of the characters that fans of the series have never had a chance to use before, such as Shield Knight and Goldarmor. In the demo build not all of the 12-character roster was yet available, but that’s understandable as we’re still more than six months away from launch as of this writing.
The penultimate chapter of Shovel Knight is nearly here, and as we prepare to bid farewell to our spectacular spadester and his cadre of comrades, both good and evil, we can’t help to feel incredulous that we’re still looking forward to playing a four-year-old game thanks to the tireless efforts of Yacht Club to make good on their promises. We have faith that when we do get our hands on the finished product next Spring, the final version of Shovel Knight will be even better than the already stellar game that has come before.