Nine years have passed since indie developer and 8-bit fanatic Sean Velasco and his Yacht Club Games crowdfunded the money to realize his vision of an NES-inspired, pixel-drenched, retro-cosy platformer featuring a knight whose only weapon was a spade, in the leading role. Eight years have passed since Shovel Knight was first released and it was actually eight years since I steered around the light blue, cuddly little Shovel Knight. But yes, now is the time again. Shovel Knight Dig was released yesterday to every platform worth its name and I’ve been playing the Apple Arcade version on my 2021 Ipad Pro and Xbox Series X alternately during the day.
Shovel Knight Dig is not a classic platform party 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 for its own part this increasingly popular subgenre is nothing like I was hooked, immediately. I like progression much more than I appreciate grinding, training, getting better within specific frameworks and portions and for me these types of games tend to get a little too monotonous. That being said, I love the Shovel Knight original and jumped into the Yacht Club sequel hoping to be converted. Now, maybe it didn’t quite happen, but Shovel Knight Dig is a high-quality game that does most of the things right and for brief moments even manages to make me appreciate the grind of perma-dying and then being forced to start all over again. This is largely thanks to the ultra-cute design style, the super cozy midi music and all the upgrades I can buy on the surface before hurling my light blue knight down into the underworld for another try.
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Shovel Knight Dig opens with a small cutscene where Shovel Knight is sleeping by a campfire in the forest, is woken up by an attacking gold knight on some kind of giant craft that steals all his stuff and then burrows into the ground. For me as a player, it is of course necessary to jump down the same hole with the shovel at the highest point to catch up with this vile villain and there are four different mines to shoot your way through with three levels in each mine. Everywhere there are emeralds and diamonds, which translate into stuff you can buy after you die, get rid of everything you own except the aforementioned gems, and get thrown back on the campfire. The trajectories change slightly between the different attempts, but they are demonstrably not randomly generated, but rather a number of variations on each mine that you learn to recognize after a number of attempts.
It’s pretty much all about digging in this game, which suits the character and his abilities perfectly. To get further, you have to go down, to the bottom level of the mine, and regardless of which path you’re on, it often ends in pixel chaos as enemies shoot forward, you’re chased by deadly spike wheels and monstrous giant worms with fangs bigger than the spade knight himself, and everything seems to run on time when you are crushed to death if you stand still in the same place for too long. On each track, there are three golden gears deployed and if you want to buy that coveted red knight armor, the gold-colored gears must be collected, and that requires you to keep your tongue in your mouth. The pace is fast, the difficulty is cranked up, and for me who doesn’t play a lot of roguelikes, the learning curve was higher and tougher than I first thought when I installed the game last night.
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The first game from Yacht Club (released as I said in 2014) was a very conscious attempt to imitate an NES game, while Shovel Knight Dig looks more like a classic Mrega Drive adventure in the class of Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse or Quack Shot starring Donald Duck. The environments are detailed and super colorfully delicious with loads of animated moments and gorgeous sprites scrolling around like there was no tomorrow. Everything from menu graphics to info signs, enemies, traps and the Spade Knight himself is exquisitely designed and as a whole this is a very nicely packaged product.
Of course, if you loved the 2014 original or are a true roguelike junkie, there’s nothing to look forward to here. Shovel Knight Dig is a super charming pixel adventure steeped in challenge and while it ends a bit quickly and gets a little monotonous at times, I have zero problem giving it a ‘great’ rating here.