An arcadey take on Shovel Knight that lives up to its origins.
Long ago, I remember being blown away by how different the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, Strider, or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was from the home console version. Seeing big chunky sprites roam the quarter-munching levels of Ninja Gaiden was a far cry from the cinematic-heavy presentation of Ninja Gaiden on Nintendo. That disparity came to mind when playing through the latest Shovel Knight game, Shovel Knight Dig. It feels like the arcade version of the original 2014 Yacht Club Games classic, taking the comparatively smaller 8-bit-inspired visuals of Shovel Knight and fitting them with more descriptive pixel art that feels similar in basic controls and gameplay but far different in execution and structure. In a way, Shovel Knight Dig (made with help from Bomb Chicken developer Nitrome) feels like the wholly different Genesis version of Shovel Knight’s Super Nintendo game.
At its heart, Shovel Knight Dig’s gameplay loop is most similar to the modern roguelike, where the levels are procedurally generated and you start more or less at square one whenever you die. As per the modern side of this, you do unlock a deeper roster of tools and boosts as well as shortcuts to later levels. An overworld exists where you can interact with characters to purchase those tools and boosts as well as participate in daily and weekly runs. The base difficulty is challenging but fair, though if you’re having specific trouble, a laundry list of difficulty tweaks are accessible, letting you increase your base health, slow down the game, or add more attack power. It’s a friendly game even if it’ll likely kick your teeth in sometimes in its intended format.
Dig calls to mind the likes of Downwell and Spelunky in its style, especially as you dive deeper into vertically focused caverns and uncover the oodles of secrets. Shovel Knight’s abilities are familiar, but it’s a little looser here than in the original game. You’re always cascading down through areas, making the downward thrust of the shovel that bounces off of obstacles an even more core part of the experience. Depending on how long you last, runs can last anywhere from a few minutes to upwards of an hour as you go through multiple areas, all filled with their unique enemies and obstacles. It lands the right balance for a repetitive roguelike where there is enough variety to keep you on your toes, but also enough similarities from run to run to make you feel like you’re learning the nuances of the world and making progress through your own understanding of the traps out to get you.
The first area you traverse through is a mushroom-themed set of caves where there are slimes and spores abound. The baseline minions that appear are relatively small potatoes, but sometimes you’ll come across a more challenging blockade in a level, whether its drill spikes that cross the screen horizontally forcing you to keep moving or burrowing snakes that can eat you or the precious gems you’re trying to collect. Each area you go through generally consists of three levels and then a boss fight. When you reach the end of a level, you have the choice between going down two different holes to determine your next challenge. One might look decidedly easier, or what might face a difficult challenge but hold a greater reward. Sometimes, if you have a key item with you, you can unlock a path that has a reward with less of a risk. It’s these constant choices that made the loop stay fresh for me over extended plays. Sometimes I’d want to survive as long as I could while not accruing as many abilities and boosts and other times I’d feel frisky, wanting to take on the harder challenges to try to get a greater roster of rewards.
After the first area, you might have the choice to pick between two different areas, which introduce more unique challenges. The fire area features explosions and fireballs, requiring you to be more aware of getting lit up. The water area, which evoked the water levels of Genesis Sonic games in the best way possible, has this endearing mechanic where you could create waterfalls and rivers that cause enemies and treasure to flow through the level in interesting ways. It’s an incredible way to mess around with the world around you, even if it becomes increasingly risky when electric frogs start making all of the water dangerous.
Your path gets more daunting as you reach the later areas, but that sense of playful challenge continues throughout the whole game. Finding a new area (or one of the game’s many secret rooms) is thrilling even if every trip to a new area has resulted in my hero’s swift death. Figuring out how to best maneuver through a level to collect gems and items while avoiding damage and death is enjoyable even in repetition. Shovel Knight Dig sticks the landing for one of the most paramount aspects of roguelikes.
This feels like a different flavor of Shovel Knight, but thankfully it never feels off-brand. Dig is not a sequel, but even calling it a spin-off doesn’t feel totally right. This is just the 2D side-scrolling adventures of Shovel Knight’s origins displayed through a different vertical lens with a dash of arcade roguelike design tossed in. Through it all, the bountiful creativity that Yacht Club has made their staple is everywhere throughout the experience.