The light blue spade man is back to dig more than he ever has before.
Nine years have passed since indie developer and 8-bit fanatic Sean Velasco and his Yacht Club Games raised money via crowdfunding to realise their vision of an NES-inspired, pixel-drenched, retro-mystical platform adventure starring a knight whose only weapon was a shovel. Eight years have passed since Shovel Knight was first released, and it's actually been eight years since I steered the bright blue, pint-sized little Shovel Knight around. But yes, it's that time again. Shovel Knight Dig was released recently on every platform worth its name, and I've been alternating between playing the Apple Arcade version on my 2021 iPad Pro and on Xbox Series X.
Shovel Knight Dig is not a classic platformer like the first game in the series is, but a so-called "roguelike" and works in the same way as Slay the Spire, Spelunky or why not Hades, and I will say this increasingly popular sub-genre is not something I'm hooked by, at least not right away. I enjoy progression much more than I enjoy grinding, training, bettering myself within specific frameworks and portions, and for me, these types of games tend to get a bit too monotonous. That said, I love the Shovel Knight franchise and jumped into the Yacht Club sequel with the hope of being converted. Now maybe that didn't quite happen, but Shovel Knight Dig is a high quality game that does the vast majority of things just right and for brief moments even manages to make me appreciate the wear and tear of permadeath only to be forced to start all over again. This is thanks in no small part to the ultra-glamorous design style, the super-smooth music, and all the upgrades I can buy on the surface before throwing my light blue knight down into the underworld for another go.
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Shovel Knight Dig opens with a small cutscene where Shovel Knight sleeps by a campfire in the woods, is awoken by an attacking gold knight on some sort of giant craft that steals all his gear, and then bores into the ground. It's a case of jumping into the same hole, shovel at the ready, to chase down this nefarious villain, and there are four different mines to shovel your way through, with three levels in each. Emeralds and diamonds are everywhere, which can be turned into items you can buy after you've died, lost everything you own except said gems, and been thrown back up to the campfire. The levels change slightly between attempts, but they are demonstrably not randomly generated, but involve a number of variations on each mine that you learn to recognise after a number of attempts.
It's very much all about the digging in this game, which suits the character and his abilities perfectly. To progress you have to go down, to the bottom level of the mine and no matter the path you're on it often ends in pixel chaos as enemies pop out, you're chased by deadly spiked wheels and monstrous giant worms with fangs bigger than the Shovel Knight himself and everything kind of runs on time as you'll be clawed to death if you stand still in one place for too long. There are three golden gears placed on each track and if you want to buy the coveted Red Knight's armour, you have to collect the golden gears, and that requires some skill. The pace is fast, the difficulty is ramped up, and for me, who doesn't play many roguelikes, the learning threshold was higher and tougher than I first thought when I installed the game.
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After all, the first Yacht Club game (released in 2014, as I said) was an extremely deliberate attempt to emulate an NES game, while Shovel Knight Dig looks more like a classic Mega Drive adventure on par with Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse or Quack Shot starring Donald Duck. The environments are detailed and super-colourful, with lots of animated elements and gorgeous sprites roaming around like there's no tomorrow. Everything from the menu graphics to the info signs, enemies, traps and the Shovel Knight himself are exquisitely designed and as a whole this is a ridiculously nicely packaged product.
Of course, if you loved the 2014 original or perhaps are a real roguelike junkie, there's nothing to wait for here. Shovel Knight Dig is a super-charming pixel adventure drenched in challenge and although it runs out of steam a little too quickly and gets a tad monotonous at times, I have zero problem handing out a "great" rating here.