Shovel Knight: King of Cards and Shovel Knight: Showdown are the final additions to the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove: a collection of five games in the Shovel Knight universe. This assembly of platforming perfection, five years in the making, contains some of the best 2D platforming accessible on any platform, from the Playstation Vita to the Xbox One. With the addition of these two new games in the franchise, does King of Cards stick to the formula or stray to uncharted territory?
Honestly, the answer is both. Shovel Knight: King of Cards tells the story of King Knight and his quest to win a tournament against three other kings in order to be the greatest king of them all. You play as the gilded knight himself in all his glory and in the same way that the other two games — Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment — introduced new characters with unique movement sets that required you to change the way you moved, attacked and even thought about platforming within each game; King of Cards takes a ‘best of’ approach, mixing some of the combat styles of the other knights into one of the most refreshingly controlled characters I’ve ever played.
As you move through a level as King Knight, you will often find yourself in a situation where you need to move upwards vertically, as a platform is out of reach. Serving as both his primary weapon and an effective means of transportation, the King’s shoulder bash launches him up in the air after hitting either an enemy, causing him to spin, which you can then use to bounce off a conveniently placed set piece or a designated wall surface and bounce up to that previously unreachable path. While he’s in the air after a bash, you can also continue his ‘spinning strike’ by landing on another enemy — or set piece — to continue to bounce across the screen and eventually land on a platform. Once a spin-strike is completed, you regain your ability to dash again, providing multiple options and nuances to your trajectory. There’s a lot of mental calculations to carry out when you are attempting to maneuver your spinning hero to solid ground, and with you constantly doing all of these acrobatics over open chasms, it takes the simple ‘A to B’ destination formula and makes each screen its own puzzle.
While there are a bunch of recycled enemies from previous entries in the series, and only a handful of new ones, it doesn’t matter. The movement patterns in King of Cards changes the way that you have to think about all of them, and some of the best secrets hidden within marked walls require clever use of those enemies to reach seemingly unreachable areas. You can use abilities found throughout the land to assist you with defeating baddies, ranging from exploding rats to a dash that zooms you forward, eliminating any simple enemies in your path. The use of these tools requires Vigor, with each ability requiring its own amount to activate. Conveniently, there are vials and potion jars that restore your Vigor, provided liberally around levels and dropped from enemies, so while you can’t just spam these skills in succession, you at least have a means to replenish.
Easily the most challenging of the adversaries are ones that fly. Quick reflexes are required to ensure you are both bashing into and bouncing off of airborne enemies, maintaining a combo of hits — all while concerning yourself with what to do when your foe explodes into a shower of gold and gems, and there’s nothing between you and the certain doom of an open floor below you. Dropping to your doom can, and will, happen often, but instead of losing lives, you lose precious gold on each one of your follies, releasing into the air as bags of money adorned with wings. If you can get back to the same spot without dying, you can collect your money and continue on, but if you do perish before reclaiming it, that bundle of bullion is lost forever.
Your collective gold count or worth, since gems are involved, is used to buy things from the many vendors on the Glidewing — an airship owned by a rooster named Cooper, who is working to help you on your quest to gain the Joustus Crown. You can buy meals from your mom on board in order to upgrade your health and vigor, which is most useful, but there are other vendors you will meet on your travels that agree to ride with you on the airship that will sell abilities and other worthwhile trinkets. One of the biggest draws to adding people to your crew is an opportunity to earn an additional currency, Merit Medals, by playing the card game Joustus.
Joustus is actually written into the story of the main quest, as King Knight must defeat the three Joustus Judges in order to become the King of Cards. This wildly addictive card game is completely optional, however, but with an ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ set of rules, it’d be difficult to ignore just a taste of one match, and from there on, you’re hooked.
The mini-game of Joustus is played with cards, set on a playfield of squares, and the ultimate goal is to collect more gems than your opponent. You can’t put cards on to the gems on the playfield directly, which requires you to push your own cards on to the squares they occupy. Each card, which is adorned with friends and foes from the game, has a specific set of arrows lining their edges, indicating which direction they can push and be pushed, and when not pushing your cards onto gems or opponent’s cards off of them, can push cards off into a graveyard on the edge of the playing field. Additional card features such as double and triple arrows allow for stronger cards that can ignore other cards’ arrow rules. Abilities like Slam, which pushes cards away from it, or Grave, which lets you put cards off the play area and into the graveyard, can offer other means to push your cards to victory. You will be facing off against wily opponents who each have their own set of cards and personalities, and more often than not, will make anticipating their next move just as important as your own. Luckily, you are able to see both your hand of three cards and your opponents, so planning for the next move is a bit easier; it’s still a relatively difficult game as the AI tends to make the most out of each move, often thwarting your expertly planned card placements.
If you happen to win a game of Joustus, you will receive a Merit Medal, some gold and any card of your choosing from your opponents played cards on the playfield — three cards if you manage to get a gem sweep, meaning you were able to earn all the available gems on the board. If you lose, however, your opponent gets to choose one of your played cards from the field and keep it instead. Lost cards can be rebought from Chester, a spritely fellow who joins the Glidewing crew after finding one of his blue chests in one of the stages, but at a price. He will also sell you blind packs of cards at different levels, ranging from common to rarer offerings, allowing you to collect them all, eventually. You can edit your deck before or after a match, but not during, and can fill it from the cards in your library, but it ultimately must not exceed sixteen cards in total. It’s good to go into a match with the best of your best, and what’s convenient about the user interface is that it allows you to instantly go into deckbuilding after acquiring any card, saving precious time. Each match is a new chance to face something new, so it may take a couple of tries before you figure out what cards in your arsenal will help you defeat that Joustus player.
Joustus isn’t the only way you’ll be facing off against foes in King of Cards. You have to defeat them first before they will board your ship and provide you with the opportunity to throw down. Nearly every knight from the series can be found roaming the Super Mario Bros. 3 styled overworld map, waiting for you to stumble upon their icon and face them in a boss battle.
The battles themselves are mostly the same from the other games, but with King Knight’s unique moves, they feel fresh and new. Each one features the respective knight’s iconic music and it’s fun to put together everything you’ve learned from the game into a physical test of those abilities. There are other bosses faced in the game, but they honestly pale in comparison to the excitement of what these expertly designed fights offer you. While that might seem like a complaint, it’s a testament to how well crafted the game is, as the King of Cards offers nostalgia in revisiting these knights in combat, and that’s hard to compete with.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards does an excellent job at excelling at both story and combat, with some amazingly fun platforming thrown in, which will undoubtedly both frustrate and delight players. The nostalgic aesthetic of a lost 8-bit era game works wonderfully each and every time Shovel Knight and his pals set off on an adventure, and King Knight’s campaign delivers that same quality that the series is known for, with the dangerously addictive addition of Joustus to top it off like a shiny cherry on a deliciously decadent dessert. Virt’s soundtrack as per usual is a delightful mix of old tracks and new mixes that effectively set the tone for each area’s theme and bring some rocking tunes along to bash enemies into smithereens to. Treasure Trove is a perfect title, as this collection of games in this bundle showcase a rare, polished gem, worthy to relish at its splendor and hopefully will be cherished and lauded for generations to come.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is available now as a standalone title on Steam and Humble Bundle or free with an update to Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4, Steam and Humble Bundle.