‘Shovel Knight Dig’ Turns an Excellent Platformer into an Awesome Roguelike

Not all games should be roguelikes, but in this case, 'Shovel Knight Dig' makes a strong case for its huge and successful pivot.
A screen shot from the video game Shovel Knight Dig.
Image courtesy of Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight is one of the great modern platformers. One of its many excellent expansions even turned Shovel Knight—a game released in 2014 that was getting massive updates until 2019—into a surprisingly good card game, too. And would you believe it’s now been spun off into excellent roguelike, as well? Shovel Knight Dig is not an expansion to Shovel Knight, but instead a brand-new game akin to last year’s puzzle-centric Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.

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Pocket Dungeon, sadly, wasn’t very good. But this is different. Shovel Knight Dig is excellent. 

Even though Spelunky is one of my favorites, as close to “perfect” as such an arbitrary and silly label can be applied, it didn’t turn me into a genre obsessive. I rarely play roguelikes. After the Souls games clicked, I’ve gone out of my way to try new Souls-adjacent games, merely to scratch the itch. Here, I’m more likely to give a new roguelike a few runs before the non-linear nature of progress in games like it start to grate and I move on. Sometimes, one of ‘em sticks. Dead Cells slaps, and Hades helped me get through the first year of COVID.

Shovel Knight Dig has now joined those ranks, a game I’ve feverishly returned to throughout the week, whenever I can time for a run. While my kids are finishing an episode of a TV show? Yep. While my wife is picking up the kids from daycare and I’ve got 15 minutes? Sure.

Nitrome, in collaboration with Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games, have expertly translated the platforming and action elements of the original game that already worked so well into an exciting new format. It’s perhaps no great shock the “dig” part is central to Shovel Knight Dig, as players must not only navigate and attack aggressive threats, but continually push through rock and soil, moving further and further from the surface. The sequencing of such sections are very puzzle-like in nature, constantly baiting players into haphazard situations that promise the rewards of money to spend on upgrades, or a chance to unlock a door that could lead to a powerful piece of magic. I always, always took the bait.

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I’ve also died a lot.

It’s a modern take on Dig Dug or Mr. Driller, and it’s continually satisfying to delicately navigate between enemies and objects as you navigate ever downward. Bop, bop, bop. Dig, dig, dig. Much like the original game, many elements of Shovel Knight Dig feel immediately familiar to anyone who's spent time in the genre, but the execution is, again, chef’s kiss. It was a joy to bounce like a pogo stick in Shovel Knight and arguably more so here, because while the platforming sections individually less challenging due to being quasi-randomized— games like this are usually pre-built chunks organized in ways that give a sense of true chaos and randomness—the surprise factor on every run forces players to act on instinct.

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Spelunky is a game where progress does not always feel like progress—like I said, non-linear. Everything in Spelunky is available at the jump, and what happens over time is the player coming to understand its rules. Shovel Knight Dig is more like Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells, in which players are unlocking new and more powerful skills and armor over time. There’s nothing actively presenting players from making it from start to finish with regular ol’ Shovel Knight, but for as much as I adore Spelunky, I’ll admit my aging bones are happy when there are reasons to feel satisfied on a loop that goes awry because there are things to do before going on another run. You’re never going to become all-powerful before going on a run, but there’s enough tinkering on the margins that might give you a real edge.

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The highest compliment I can give to Shovel Knight Dig is that I’m not resentful that it’s a roguelike. Because it’s not a genre I’m constantly seeking out, fairly often I will find myself sucked in by the setting and mechanics of a game, only to quickly sour on the experience because of its roguelike structure. The recent Cursed to Golf comes to mind. It’s a good golf game, and perhaps even a good roguelike! But I’d much rather play a version of Cursed to Golf that wasn’t a roguelike. That’s on me, but it’s all to underscore what it means when one of these games gets under my skin. Shovel Knight Dig is a roguelike, and I’m obsessed.

One thing worth pointing out: twice while playing I hit points where my character became permanently stuck, and the only option was to abandon my run. The second time this happened, I was in the middle of my best run yet—I’d bested the second boss, had a ton of health, and was ready to tackle the next world. Unfortunately, while clearing out the enemies in a side room, I was unable to make the jump to escape back to the main area. That one hurt. I’m told by the developers it’s being patched, and may be fixed when you read this.

Admittedly, I’m only four or so hours into my Shovel Knight Dig journey, a drop in the bucket for a roguelike, which can take any number of hours to fully reveal itself and give the player enough time to build a skill floor that lets them see what’s hiding at the end. Shovel Knight Dig doesn’t strike me as a game that’ll demand dozens of hours to see it through, but in a way, that’s part of the appeal. The game isn’t a pushover, but it’s not full of crap-your-pants moments that result in immediate and hair-pulling deaths like a Spelunky. It’s a lil’ gentler. 

But four hours or 40 hours, I’ll get there, because I need to see what’s at the bottom.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).