In the five years since its original release, Shovel Knight has proven to be a durable concept. It's seen multiple DLC releases, tie-ins with games like Super Smash Bros., and even a gender swap add-on. But Shovel Knight Showdown, an arena fighting game that supports up to four players, might be the most ambitious of them all.
Originally conceived as a fairly straightforward fighting game—a stretch goal from the original Kickstarter—it has mutated into something more substantial over an extended development period. The final result supports 16 playable characters, more than half of which are unlockable, and a multitude of unique stages pulled from the games. All of the characters also get their own single-player mode, which includes brand new art and cutscenes.
Of the two big Shovel Knight releases out this week —the other is the King of Cards—Showdown has the most potential to hold my attention over the long-term. It's a very fun little party game—one that's nearly on the level of Towerfall, which has been a favorite in my household for several years now. Like Towerfall, Shovel Knight strength is in its simplicity: your main goal is to collect gems without dying too much (you can also do a straightforward deathmatch, but the treasure hunt is more fun). But unlike Towerfall, Shovel Knight Showdown's characters have their own unique skillsets, giving it an added layer of depth.
The basic controls are relatively simple. Every character gets a basic attack, a special attack, a defensive move, and some kind of character-specific quirk. The eponymous Shovel Knight can stab downward with their shovel, for example, while Plague Knight throws their familiar bombs and potions. Some characters are easier to pick up than others, with Propeller Knight standing out as particularly powerful owing to their fantastic mobility, but pretty much all of them are accessible, fun to play, and most importantly, unique. For fans of the series, it's also an opportunity to play as many of Shovel Knight's familiar characters for the first time, which is a nice little bonus.
On its default settings, a typical Shovel Knight Showdown match will last barely a minute, giving it a pleasantly breezy pace. Because the default mode's goal is to collect gems, pretty much everyone will be playing until the very end, resulting in relatively few instances in which a player will be sitting idle. Every stage has its own properties and hazards, including wraparound screens, and most are quite small, heightening the sense of frenetic chaos as everyone battles for treasure.
I actually wasn't sure if I liked it at first. Being a platformer at heart, it lacks the physicality of a game like Super Smash Bros., meaning you don't get quite as much feedback in your attack. What's more, the levels are extremely busy—bombs rain from the sky, AI-controlled enemies get in your way, and you can easily find yourself stumbling into unexpected pits. Shovel Knight's platforming has always been a bit stiff—a product perhaps of being inspired by Mega Man—and you really feel it when battling in tight quarters.
But once I got used to the basics, I found myself really starting to enjoy it. With four players, the chaos almost becomes an asset, as you can more easily catch opponents unaware with traps and other hazards. The constant scramble for gems, combined with the relatively short duration of each match, makes it easy to get sucked into playing several matches in a row.
Worth noting is that I played Shovel Knight Showdown with several people who had never played the series before, but that didn't seem to be much of a barrier to entry. Shovel Knight has always benefited from its distinctive characters, and it wasn't long before everyone found someone they liked. As one of them told me afterward: "It's just fun to watch."
I have no idea whether it'll hold up over the long-term. It's natural to compare it to Super Smash Bros., but I don't see a competitive scene growing up around Shovel Knight Showdown or anything. It just happens to be one of those games that's fun to break out in group settings. Sometimes that's enough.
As I mentioned, Shovel Knight Showdown also has a single-player campaign for every character, though they aren't much more than a series of battles against A.I. characters with a big boss at the end. You won't find a new platforming adventure or anything here. Still, Yacht Club being Yacht Club, it's suitably fully-featured, with both multiplayer co-op and new cutscenes that will appeal to fans of the series.
Really though, you know how single-player campaigns are in games like Shovel Knight Showdown. In the end, they always take a backseat to the multiplayer. That's ultimately the rub with any game like this: if you don't have at least three friends to play with regularly, it's apt to wind up collecting dust. You can play one-on-one; but it lacks the energy of the bigger group battles, the skillsets are fairly limited, and the hazards are more of a nuisance than an asset in such settings. It is what it is, but just don't go in expecting a truly momentous solo experience.
All in all though, Shovel Knight Showdown is a brilliantly conceived and executed party game. It hasn't received as much attention as other games this year, being overshadowed by the better-known King of Cards among others, but it deserves to be seen as more than a bit of DLC. Yacht Club Games has poured into this entry the kind of love and attention to detail that has become the franchise's calling card. In that sense, it's more than just a companion to Shovel Knight's other platforming adventures—it's a terrific game in its own right.
Shovel Knight Showdown takes the popular indie platformer series and turns it into a four-player arena battler, with great results. With a large amount of unlockable content, in-game challenges, and solo modes, it's a deceptively robust package that has the potential to be a long-term party staple. Shovel Knight Showdown is great even if you've never played the original games.