Preview: Dungeon-Crawl Straight Down in Shovel Knight Dig
There are a lot of things about Shovel Knight Dig that feel like they should’ve happened before now. The most obvious is in the gameplay. For as much digging as Shovel Knight is known to do, he hasn’t yet been in a game where digging is this much of it.
The other, which is a little more inside baseball, is that until now, as far as I know, nobody else ever thought to slap Dig Dug and Mr. Driller together and see what happened. Those are the two big names in digging-based 2D arcade games, and really, the more I think about it, the more I think they should’ve crossed over before now.
Instead, we’ve got this.
The story of Dig is simple: one night, Shovel Knight is peacefully asleep at his campsite when new enemy, Drill Knight, and his crew, the Hexcavators, make off with Shovel Knight’s accumulated treasure. All of it. Chasing Drill Knight and regaining the lost loot means going straight down into the earth, through an assortment of monsters, traps, obstacles, and hazards.
It takes very little time to get accustomed to Dig's new mechanics. As Shovel Knight, you can dig left, right, or down through soft earth, carving out passageways as you go. Once you drop down a level, however, it’s easy to get stuck that way. Most of the time, going down at all is a one-way trip.
You’ve also got a time limit in the form of a giant whirring death machine that will drop from above if you take too much time. It’s odd in that there’s no real indication it’s there, but all you have to do is see it once before you start feeling its pressure bearing down on you. Dig feels like a comparatively leisurely experience, right up until this monster made of blades and pain starts chasing you down a tunnel.
That’s where the Mr. Driller comparison kicks in. The movement’s out of Dig Dug, where you make your tunnels through the dirt as you go, but the constant feeling of being one step ahead of imminent disaster is pure Driller action. It encourages you to rush through things and be as expedient as you can, although it thankfully doesn’t feature the additional distraction of something like Mr. Driller’s air gauge.
Along the way, you can whack monsters with your shovel using Shovel Knight’s usual retinue of moves. You also dodge spikes, outwit explosive obstacles, and collect treasure to spend in shops. In each area, there are three golden gears you can pick up, and if you get all three, you can open up a big chest at the end of each level section. The gears usually require a bit of a detour to grab or, at least, make you think further ahead than usual.
Dig is decidedly the kind of game that stresses both your reflexes and your ability to pre-plan on the fly, as you can miss out on a lot of treasure and opportunities if you shovel straight down as quickly as possible. The treasure, in turn, can be spent to unlock bonuses and upgrades in shops that pop up along the sides of the tunnel.
According to Yacht Club Games, the publisher of Shovel Knight Dig, the game features a mixture of handcrafted levels and proprietary generation. While individual areas and challenges do appear, the order in which they appear and are attached is randomly determined at the start of your run. They are then regenerated if you die.
The plan is to feature “infinite replayability,” roguelike-style.
Shovel Knight Dig was available for play at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle at Yacht Club Games’s booth.
For Dig, Yacht Club is only the publisher; the developer is Nitrome, a studio in London founded in 2005 known for making (well over 100) browser and mobile games with high-quality pixel art. Nitrome broke into the console market for the first time when it brought Bomb Chicken to the Switch last year.
According to Yacht Club’s Alec Faulkner, Dig had been in development for about a year as of PAX West, with no firm plans yet for a release date or platforms. It was shown off alongside Cyber Shadow and the forthcoming Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, featuring the brand-new 4-player Showdown mode.
Dig also features a new soundtrack by Shovel Knight composer Jake “virt” Kaufman.