Review: Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
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Normally, when a game takes over five years from its initial release to be considered complete, that’s a very bad sign. But Yacht Club Games took a very different approach with Shovel Knight that didn’t route through the roiling Early Access hells at all. They released the original Shovel Knight, one of the few truly great retro platformers on Steam, and then pledged to continue adding new modes to it. And add they did, eventually cramming four additional full-sized games into what’s now known as the Treasure Trove. You’d think that some part of this plan would have fallen apart, that one of those many games and modes would be undercooked or poorly balanced or rushed or something. But you’d be wrong.
The heart of Shovel Knight is the titular shovel-wielding hero, and his quest to best the nefarious Enchantress. The lands surrounding her Tower of Fate have fallen onto dark times, thanks mainly to her Order of No Quarter carving the place up like a messy game of RISK. Despite the loss of his partner Shield Knight, Shovel Knight is determined to dig his way past the other charmingly-themed knights in the Order and restore peace to the land. That’s going to require a lot of running, jumping, and shovel-pogoing off of things to get through the many castles and dungeons on the way to the Enchantress’ tower. Fortunately there are plenty of friendly faces to help you out, trade with you, poke fun at you, and guide you towards the many abilities and upgrades and secrets sprinkled throughout this expansive adventure.
You will never run out of indie games that attempt retro trappings but there are precious few that actually pull it off as well as Shovel Knight. From the moment you drop into the very first stage, incredible soundtrack pumping and STRIKE THE EARTH blinking on the screen, you’ll feel the inspiration baked into every platform and button press. The developers took their cues from all across the NES library, starting with a basic Mega Man structure to levels and powers, a Ducktales pogo jump as a cornerstone of your moveset, and a Super Mario Bros. 3 world map to tie it all together. These and other inspirations are not thoughtless copies either, as they are made entirely Shovel Knight’s through clever interactions and expert art design. Thoughts of those ancient classics will soon fall away as you start contending with the many challenges and options the game hands you with how these elements are used.
There’s plenty I can gush about in Shovel Knight’s gameplay, tight controls and exciting powers among them, but it’s the levels themselves that really make this game what it is. Each of the game’s dozen-plus levels feels like a fully realized world centered around its theme, whether it be airships or golden castles or volatile laboratories. There are multiple gimmicks to every one of them that ties back to the theme in some way, while also offering a wildly different gameplay challenge to overcome. None of them become tedious, either, because we’re talking about exploding pot lids and sinking platforms with weighted skulls, not fiddling with switches or slogging through mazes. The only gimmick I didn’t completely love were the air gusts in Propeller Knight’s stage, but that’s because they’re a little more complicated than you might be expecting. Mastering these different themes will also help you access the dizzying array of secrets tucked into each stage, including treasure for buying upgrades, secret upgrades, extra powers, additional music tracks, and other collectibles. Add to that some wonderfully involved boss fights and some very unique side areas, and you’ve got a recipe for an all-time great platformer.
That’s all been true since Shovel Knight’s initial release in 2014, mind you. Since then, the developers have undertaken the immense task of turning three of the game’s bosses into their own playable characters. The first of these was Plague Knight, who gets his own parallel story running through the Shovel Knight world with a very different set of movement options and powers. I found Plague Knight to be very fun in very different ways, using his giant, explosive jumps to float past obstacles and pepper foes with all kinds of bombs. It was a great take on an alternate character mode, but somehow Yacht Club Games pressed past even this for the others. Specter Knight and King Knight didn’t just get their own move sets and progression systems, they got entirely new levels to explore in prequel stories. King Knight even got an optional card game in his campaign that has a surprising amount of depth to it! And they both play even more differently from Shovel Knight, with Specter using aerial dashes and strikes similar to The Messenger, and King focusing on a shoulder dash that chains into all sorts of spins, bounces, and further attacks.
So instead of one of the greatest retro-styled platformers of all time, Treasure Trove is four of them bundled together in an unparalleled cornucopia of platforming bliss. Each of the playable characters is entirely unique, missing none of the exploration, upgrades, or depth that Shovel Knight has, and the latter two practically have their own games to play through. As if that wasn’t enough, Yacht Club also created and included Showdown, a multiplayer brawler loosely in the vein of Smash Bros where the Shovel Knight cast can compete on single-screen stages to steal gems or beat each other up for victory. Even this is rich enough to stand as its own game, as it has a compelling story behind the single-player campaign of fights, a really cool final boss, and an utterly mind-boggling number of characters to unlock. I could go on about Showdown, or about the near-perfect NES-style graphics, or the incredible soundtrack, or the additional challenge modes outside of the five complete games you get here. But honestly, extolling the virtues of this one seems entirely unnecessary at this point. Where other games vie to be good or even just decent retro platformers, Treasure Trove is five of the best ever made all rolled together. If that’s not enough of a case for you, then platformers just might not be your thing.