Review: SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt

SteamWorldDig

Breaking rocks is supposed to be an activity reserved for rehabilitating criminals—you know, the guys in the striped suits with the big balls and chains attached to their legs. It’s not supposed to be entertaining, addictive and strategic.

Then again, the cats breaking boulders in the prison yard don’t get to dig deep into the earth, and they aren’t typically rewarded with things like shiny gold nuggets and precious/delicious minerals like “chocolatite.” Those perks are reserved for Rusty the Robot, the star of the surprisingly fun SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt on the Nintendo 3DS.

So, yeah, dig it: A Fistful of Dirt follows the trajectory of a lot of typical Western tales. You’re the new kid, er, robot, in a steampunk-flavored ghost town that used to bustle from the now abandoned mine your robotic uncle used to front. Pickaxe in hand, you’re shipped below to try to tunnel and uncover the ruins of an old world, collecting as much shiny loot and beating back as many subterranean creatures in the process as you can.

The gameplay’s part Dig Dug, part Metroid-style platform special, and it meshes seamlessly. While you’re not wielding a pump gun and causing death by overinflation like those halcyon coin-op arcade days, you can totally use environmental hazards to crush and explode your foes. And man, is it satisfying when it goes off without taking you out, too.

But it’s the thrill of constant discovery, whether that’s a particularly rare type of gem or a hidden path to buried caverns, that serves as the steam that’ll keep you digging deeper and deeper. The longer you’re below ground, the more savvy you become about how to dig your tunnels so as not to make the double-jump trip back up to the surface nigh impossible. There’s nothing more frustrating than digging yourself into an inescapable pit and having to start over from the surface. And it can totally happen if you’re not mindful and strategic about how you swing that pickaxe.

The penalty for dying (or self-destructing, should you happen to trap yourself in a deep well with no ladders or water for steam-jumping), is pretty steep—half of whatever cash you’ve accumulated. Enemies like underground armadillos can blast the ground out from underneath you, dropping you into some deadly and damaging situations, so you’ll need to be careful when the spaces get tight. Resource management is critical, too. In addition to your health meter, you’ll have to manage your lamp oil and your water tank. Any time they run low, you’re facing another long climb back to the surface.

Rusty’s reward curve is just about perfectly configured. As you stumble across new tech in the underground caverns—teleporters, steam-powered drills, the ability to hurl sticks of dynamite—new depths, and new challenges are opened to you. Buying upgrades from the general-store traders on the surface increases your ability to stay underground longer before your lamplights go out, leaving you digging blindly in the darkness. Clang.

The notion of chip-chip-chipping away at block after block seems like the most boring gaming activity possible. Rusty and his steam drill prove that the exact opposite’s true. Dig in, everyone.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Surprisingly addictive gameplay mixes Dig Dug with Metroid
+ Graceful reward curve
+ Easy-to-use control scheme
+ Chocolatite. Now that’s a mineral we all need

Cons:
- Steep penalty for dying/self-destructing

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS via eShop
Publisher: Image & Form
Developer: Image & Form
Release Date: 8/8/2013
Genre: Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.