After completing its record-breaking Kickstarter run for Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games had its work cut out in terms of keeping the promises it made with stretch goals. The much-lauded three additional campaigns were what drew the most reaction from press and fans, but one other mode was announced which didn’t seem to grab nearly as much attention: Battle Mode. Initially, it was expected that this would be a relatively simple add-on that would be fun to fool around with from time to time, but Yacht Club (of course) had set its sights on delivering something much more substantial.
In 2018, the lid was lifted on Shovel Knight Showdown, a four-player arena brawler that seemed to take some cues from the likes of games such as Super Smash Bros. and Towerfall. The brawler has been released alongside the new King of Cards expansion, and while it doesn’t quite hit the high bar set by the single-player side of Shovel Knight, it still proves to be a raucously enjoyable time if you’ve got some friends around to play with.
Shovel Knight Showdown primarily centers around quickfire multiplayer antics with friends on the couch next to you, as you battle with each other in a desperate struggle for survival and dominance. The main game mode is called “Treasure Clash”, which – true to the gold-hoarding madness of the main Shovel Knight games – centers around a victor being decided by whoever can acquire the target number of jewels the fastest.
After a short period of time, a new one will spawn somewhere on the map, and if you don’t feel like waiting around for the next one, you can just as easily kill one of your foes and grab the jewel that drops from their body. A standard match will take two minutes on the high side, and we especially appreciate how the relatively simple ruleset keeps Shovel Knight Showdown approachable and easy to grasp for newcomers. This is very much a go-to game for on the go, single Joy-Con play, and the ease in starting up a game and getting newcomers up to speed makes Shovel Knight Showdown a compelling release for showing off the Switch’s unique local multiplayer capabilities.
Several modifiers can be introduced to make things more interesting, such as a ruleset that spawns an inordinate amount of bomb items or another that turns everyone into relatively harmless flying fairies. Items can also be turned on to randomly spawn throughout a match, granting players that get them first helpful boons like temporary invincibility or a powerful magnetic field that pushes foes away. If you enable the “Chester’s Choice” option prior to beginning a match, you can guarantee that no two matches will be the same, as new rulesets, stages, and items will be chosen at random each time.
Though the central gameplay of Shovel Knight Showdown remains consistent and simple throughout, all these extra things combine to make for an experience that can have a surprisingly long tail. It’s very easy to fall into a cycle with your friends where you keep playing “one more match” because the combination of short matches and widely varying rulesets make each new run a fresh and interesting experience.
Part of that long tail is also due to the deep bench of characters; there are over sixteen fighters to play as, each with a move set that makes them feel truly distinct. Every character has a relatively simple assortment of moves, consisting of an attack, a special attack, an escape, and a parry, but each fighter feels suitably unique in how they employ those skills. Shovel Knight, for example, is easy to understand with his shovel swipe attacks and his flare wand, while a character like Phantom Striker is more technical as he focuses on positioning and teleportation attacks.
There’s a combatant for just about every playstyle you can imagine here, and the ability to play as familiar characters from across the other Shovel Knight games is something that offers up plenty of fan service. We may never get a playable campaign with Shield Knight or Polar Knight, for example, but playing as them here at least gives you a sort of peek at how they would perform in their own platforming adventures.
Special attention also needs to be paid to the wealth of unlocks available. Following on from the Super Smash Bros. series, new items, costumes, characters, and stages are all locked behind dozens of in-game achievements, some of which offer up quite a stiff challenge. At first, it feels like you’re unlocking something new every ten minutes or so, and we rather appreciate how this system offers up direct benefits and incentives for chasing after that daunting 100% goal. It will take several hours to see everything that Shovel Knight Showdown has to offer, adding some much-welcome replayability on top of the existing draw of multiplayer battles.
For those of you that prefer to play in single-player, there’s also a full-scale arcade-style gauntlet mode that offers up a unique story for every character you play through it as. Though the narrative proves to be rather thin, we appreciated the effort placed into making this solo offering a little more robust than a simple boss gauntlet. There’s even a mid-run “Break the Targets” mode that tasks you with some delightful challenges relative to your chosen character’s move set.
Our only real complaint with this single-player campaign is that the difficulty curve is a little too inconsistent, with many stages being massively easier (or harder) than the ones that came before. It can be a little disappointing when a particularly tough battle is followed by several that you can steamroll, and the same feeling applies for when you’re cruising through and suddenly hit a brick wall with an especially nasty boss fight. Also, to a lesser extent, this single-player mode proves to be the most repetitive, offering up few surprises as you come at it time and time again with new characters. As an addition to this primarily multiplayer-focused title, the story mode is perfectly serviceable, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the wonderful, in-depth adventures of the other single-player focused Shovel Knight releases.
As far as presentation goes, Shovel Knight Showdown is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a new release in the Shovel Knight line. Plenty of stages and sprites are recycled from their past appearances, although that’s not to say that any of it looks bad. On the contrary, this is some of the best 8-bit sprite work on the Switch, and it’s all backed up by a suitably high-intensity soundtrack that mixes in a few catchy new tracks with several remixes of fan favourite tunes. Though there wasn’t anything here that particularly wowed us, Yacht Club Games has proven yet again that it still rightfully remains one of the best retro developers in the business.
Shovel Knight Showdown proves that Yacht Club Games is capable of making more than just platformers, as it’s delivered an entertaining and content-rich multiplayer brawler that’s sure to be a house favourite to many. Plenty of game modes, a long cast of characters, and a bevvy of unlockables ensure that this is a release that you’ll be playing for quite some time – although we would add that it’s a game which is best enjoyed with others on hand. Though single-player options are present, they fail to provide enough of a reason to justify this release as a standalone product, and we’d sooner direct you to one of the other Shovel Knight campaigns if you intend on mostly playing alone. Either way, Yacht Club Games continues to impress with its support for Shovel Knight, and we’d highly recommend you experience Shovel Knight Showdown one way or another.