Shovel Knight first released a little over eight years ago, and thanks to a bevy of updates and cameos it feels like the character has never really left the spotlight. Still, if we count all of the updates to the main game as simply being part of that game, Shovel Knight Dig is just the third game in the series. This is also the first game in the series to hit mobile, which was roughly the last active platform on the planet without a Shovel Knight game on it. This comes to the platform through Apple Arcade, so if you want to play the game you know what you have to do.
The story is as simple as it gets. Well before the events of the original game, Shovel Knight is chilling out at his campsite. As he does. Suddenly, Drill Knight and his crew come crashing through and abscond with Shovel Knight’s loot, retreating underground. The absolute fools. Shovel Knight’s name has shovel in it, so he grabs his trusty weapon and digs after them. Will this prove to be a good idea, or will Shovel Knight regret it somewhere around his hundredth horrifying death? That, my friends, is up to you.
It’s an interesting game in a lot of ways. Sure, it’s basically Shovel Knight crossed with Downwell. I can describe it that way and I would hope that would be enough to catch the interest of many of you. You aren’t falling down a purely vertical shaft but rather digging down through one that is mostly vertical with the occasional kink. Since gravity isn’t pulling down on you as much, you’re given incentive to keep moving by a nasty machine that will catch up to you if you dawdle too long. Like in Downwell, there are rooms that branch off the shaft where you can get extra loot, items, or meet a variety of helpful characters. Just make sure you have the money, honey, because these characters give nothing for free.
There are actually a few different kinds of goodies to manage. You’ll collect gems that act as your main currency. They can be exchanged for goods and services. If you die, you’ll lose some of them but the rest will be funneled into a more permanent pile you can use for equally permanent upgrades. There are also Golden Gears scattered about, and you’ll want to make sure you grab them in each stage. When you reach the end of a stage, a machine appears and if you have enough Golden Gears for it you’ll be entitled to a very useful healing item or random goodie. Your choice.
There are various items you can find and use at your leisure, often taking the form of a helpful weapon that you can use a few times before exhausting its charges. Finally, there are keys and other assorted things that follow behind you. You’ll lose them if you get hit too often, so… try not to get hit. You’ll need those to open doors and receive various other rewards. At the start you can only have one of each of these at any given moment, but you’ll be able to expand your abilities as you go.
At the end of each set of stages, you’ll face off against a boss. These rejects may not have been fit for The Order of No Quarter, but they’ll give you a good run for your money. It’s in these fights where the game feels the most like the main Shovel Knight game. They’re refreshing and fun, and are one of the main ways the game digs out its own identity versus Downwell and its ilk. This is a game that can be completed, and while you’ll probably need a little luck for a winning run, it’s not as tough as it may initially seem. Don’t put down the shovel just because you’ve reached an ending, though. There’s more to dig up, and it’s going to take a lot more effort to conquer.
Shovel Knight is rather capable as heroes go. His shovel makes a handy weapon at enemies coming from any direction except above, and it’s particularly good at taking care of anything below our hero via his signature Shovel Drop. You can bounce from enemy to enemy with ease, and you’ll have to master this move to maximize your loot grabbing and navigate the many hazards you’ll find along the way. Shovel Knight can also jump, and it’s safe to say that in any situation where he isn’t being overwhelmed he can dispose of most enemies with that approach. Well hey, I’m sure the bad guys won’t think of ganging up on him.
How the heck did I get this far without saying the word ‘rogue’? Well, I’ve gone and done it now. This is a roguelite, in case you couldn’t figure it out from all those mechanics I’ve mentioned. That means you’re getting somewhat procedurally generated stages, though the chunks are obviously hand-designed and become very familiar after a few runs. As such affairs go, it’s a pretty good one. I think it has that problem a lot of games like this have where once you’ve got a few particular permanent upgrades there isn’t a lot of incentive to change things up, but what can you do? It’s a tough problem to get around. Humans: we find a pair of comfy shoes and we are very reluctant to give them up.
Anyway, sometimes this isn’t the best roguelite. There aren’t a ton of agonizing choices to make, and your skill as a player can make easier work of the bad bounces than we often see in this genre. It’s a lucky thing that this is also a Shovel Knight game through and through. In those moments where the roguelite part of the deal isn’t coming together as well as you might hope, the essential Shovel Knight-ness of the game keeps things fun. Digging up gems, hitting things with a shovel, and pogo bouncing off enemies again and again like Uncle Scrooge taught you to do as a wee bairn are things that are just fundamentally enjoyable, and they serve Shovel Knight Dig well in times of happiness and sadness.
I see I have also failed to mention that Nitrome developed this one. Nitrome has had considerable experience making mobile games, and you and I both know they make some really good ones. Shovel Knight Dig is clearly designed around normal controllers and you can use one of those if you are that-way inclined. There are two different options for touch controls, however, and I found both of them did a smart job of filling in for those who don’t have a controller handy or simply want to use their mobile device in a more mobile fashion. You can go with swipe controls or virtual buttons, and they both have their merits. I suggest forcing yourself to get used to the swipes as they are ultimately a bit more accurate in the heat of things. But I’m not the control police, so you use whichever one you find most comfortable.
One thing I doubt there will be any disagreement or discomfort with is this game’s presentation. The visuals free themselves of having to adhere to “NES as you remember it” standards and it’s great to see just how animated and detailed Shovel Knight and his world can be without those limitations. The always-welcome Jake “Virt” Kaufman has returned to do his magical music thing for this game and you know that means the audio is pure velvety gold for your head-holes. How can I not dig when you’re providing such wonderful marching tunes?
I don’t love everything about Shovel Knight Dig. I mentioned how sometimes the roguelite bits don’t click, and how some of the upgrades can seem utterly superfluous. I also feel that shoveling in your desired direction can get a little vexing when you’re getting bum rushed by enemies or traps. Sometimes the game seems to struggle a little with its pacing, not quite sure if it wants you to slow down or hurry the heck up. On the whole I’m not sure how much of this game is great because of Shovel Knight Dig versus the Shovel Knight bits carrying over. Is this a problem? I don’t know. Probably not a big one.
Really and truly, the moments where I’m having less than optimal fun with Shovel Knight Dig are heavily outweighed by the good times. Like, it’s not even worth comparing. Especially given the nature of how this game is delivered on mobile, I can’t even imagine not giving this game some of your time if you have Apple Arcade. Why wouldn’t you? It’s very fun, will keep you busy for hours, and if it’s not quite as replayable as the likes of Dead Cells or Downwell, who really cares? If you don’t like roguelites this game probably won’t change your mind unless you really, really like Shovel Knight, but otherwise I’d say all systems are go here.
In the end, Shovel Knight Dig checks off two boxes for me: the desire for a Shovel Knight-ish experience on my iPhone, and the desire for more games like Downwell. It’s not flawless by any means, but it’s a great game with a lot of things going for it. I’m truly impressed with how well Nitrome was able to adapt the essence of Shovel Knight into such a different format without losing the satisfying elements of the pineapple and pen it was trying to smash together.
Yes, that was a Pikotaro reference in 2022. I regret nothing. I especially do not regret playing Shovel Knight Dig. And you, my dearest of readers? I suspect you will not either.