Advancements in technology have made video games better as a whole (duh), but not just in terms of polygon counts and fancy controllers: They have also allowed serious game-making (and game-releasing) to be an accessible art for just about anybody. This has made the past decade a golden age for indie games.
Titles like Stardew Valley, Celeste, Undertale, and Dead Cells can each present viable cases for why they might be the best indie titles of the decade. No matter which game comes out on top, though, one that is always in the conversation is Shovel Knight. Part of the reason for this is that Shovel Knight is a living document, and the game has greatly expanded since its initial 2014 release.
Yacht Club Games has taken an approach to the franchise that blends old and new practices of the video game industry. More campaigns have been released as additional downloadable content (DLC being a distinctly modern idea), but they’re really full-fledged sequels. More specifically, though, they’re sequels that are similar in nature to games like Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels and the NES Mega Man sequels: The core game shares many elements with its predecessor, down to the game engines and basic mechanics, but with remixed elements that add enough newness and still honor what made the source material great.
When the original game is that awesome, there’s no need to reinvent the pixel art wheel. So, with its new campaigns, Shovel Knight instead takes its existing wheels and puts them on a new car. The latest, King Of Cards, is the most tricked-out Shovel Knight ride yet.
For the uninitiated, each campaign replaces the titular shoveled knight with a new playable character that previously existed in Shovel Knight’s journey as an NPC. These newly controllable characters move, attack, and otherwise interact with their environments in novel new ways, which necessitates changes to level design, narrative plot points, and other game elements.
Like those who came before him, King Knight is a delight to control. His movements and attacks are based on dashing and spinning, and while it might feel slightly limiting or alien at first, those fears melt away quickly — which is true with the previous new campaigns as well. Attacking an enemy or obstruction from the side is done easily enough with a simple dash. In order to do damage from up top, though, you have to first dash into a wall, which will be followed by King Knight riding up the wall and then spinning in the air, ready to attack anything below him.
It’s a mechanic that makes you think about the environment in new ways. Once you’ve attacked a baddie with a top-down spin, for example, you have to be careful that you don’t accidentally destroy the breakable floor beneath you, or otherwise do something that will send your Joy-Cons in a rage-induced flight across the room. As should be expected from Shovel Knight, however, the levels are designed well and in a way that teaches quick, intuitive lessons about playing as King Knight. Before you know it, you’ll be stringing together multiple attacks and expertly moving through levels (with your controller non-frustratingly in hand).
The story is also more lighthearted than previous installments, which adds cheer to Shovel Knight’s already jovial energy. Instead of questing to overcome evil forces, King Knight’s mission is to become a champion at Joustus, a new card game that has quickly become overwhelmingly popular in the valley. That brings me to the most pleasantly surprising part about King Of Cards: Joustus is a lot of fun, and could easily be spun off into its own game: it would be a great time-killer as a phone app.
The premise of Joustus is simple: When placed on the playing field, cards can push other cards in various directions, depending on the marked abilities of both cards. The goal is to push your cards onto more gem-containing spaces than your opponent by the time the field of play is filled with cards. Different cards interact with each other in different ways, so there are a lot of factors to keep in mind with each turn.
It’s easy to learn, but it takes some time to master (I haven’t done it yet). Games lasting for less than a minute aren’t anomalous, so Joustus isn’t an overly long slog that’s an annoying roadblock in the story. In fact, booting up the game and just getting into a few rounds of Joustus would be a fulfilling play session, something I’ve already done myself. Shovel Knight has introduced mini games with new expansions before (like the also-fun tower-climbing challenge from Specter Of Torment), but Joustus is far more than a diversion: It’s a game mode that stands proudly alongside the platforming levels, a new and substantial part of the growing Shovel Knight world.
That’s really what Shovel Knight feels like at this point: a complete world. Minor characters from previous games can be spotted in various areas. Dialogue, whether theirs or King Knight’s own, is colorful and entertaining. There are cute easter eggs that encourage interaction with everything and everybody. Things like these make it feel like King Knight isn’t the only important person in this universe, just the hero of this particular story. It’s not easy for games to make it seem like you’re going to a place instead of just playing a game, but the world of Shovel Knight is an endearing destination that’s never short on fun to be had.
All that said, prior experience with the Shovel Knight canon isn’t at all necessary in order to enjoy King Of Cards. Really, any of the Shovel Knight expansions (and the original game) could serve as an effective introduction to the series, as they all feel like full games, not afterthought add-ons that assume or demand prerequisite experience or knowledge.
Yacht Club Games’ passion for the Shovel Knight franchise is clear. It’s the only series they’ve developed so far, and King Of Cards proves there’s no need for them to branch out just yet. They day they should move on to something else may come at some point, but it doesn’t appear to be soon.
Heck, they could probably base a game entirely on the little green Blorbs and find a way to make it excellent. They still have plenty of material to work with here. As long as Yacht Club continues to flesh out the world of Shovel Knight in ways that are both as fresh and familiar like King Of Cards is, I encourage them to pick up their shovels and keep digging into this deep and special treasure trove that has helped define this golden age.