SteamWorld Dig has a slightly weird comparison to Terraria in its little digital store page summary, which might give some people the wrong idea about the game. I mean, yes, it does feature some 2D digging of blocks, but then again it also has a robot in it. That doesn’t automatically mean a comparison to Rise of the Robots would be apt. Mainly because SteamWorld Dig is an enjoyable game, rather than one of the most notorious payola-fueled frauds of the mid-90s.
So just forget about Terraria for now. If you’re wanting the new game that’s quite a bit like Terraria, you should be looking at the Starbound beta instead. If, on the other hand, you want Dig Dug with some levelling up mechanics and a cast of terrific burbling robots then you’re on the right track.
The digging-out-2D-blocks-for-minerals genre is a trickier one to trace than I was expecting. I’ve got vague memories of several games of this type from the ZX Spectrum era, but I doubt any of them were the first. They tend to share some of the same ideas though, and SteamWorld Dig is happy to make use of some of the classics. Harder rocks will take more swipes of a pickaxe (or some special equipment) to mine through, and heavier boulders will tumble through the earth if you remove the support beneath them. That can be bad news for you if you’re still under them, and just as terrible for any subterranean enemies who get in its path.
SteamWorld Dig’s set-up for all this excavation is a robot named Rusty, who’s come to a robo Frontier town in search of his Uncle Joe. Joe is written off during the tutorial (that’s the most minor of miner spoilers,) but he’s left his digging operation in Rusty’s capable metallic hands. Since the rest of the delightful robot folk in town depend solely on what comes out of the hole in the ground to keep their economy functioning, they’re quite keen for Rusty to continue the family business.
That means heading ever deeper into the earth in an effort to find out what happened to Joe and to fulfill your ever-present desire to exchange precious minerals for cash and then swap said cash for fancy robo upgrades. Roboconomics at their finest.
Upgrades in SteamWorld Dig come in two forms. There are those that unlock at the surface shops as you earn more money, which tend to be refinements of your existing equipment (a hardier pick axe or more health, say.) Then there are additions to your toolset that can only be gained by entering certain caves found within each of the three distinct strata of earth.
Throughout Rusty’s travels he’ll eventually pick up things like a drill or dynamite that not only make his progress smoother, but also open up new avenues of exploration in earlier caves. It’s the old ‘Metroidvania’ concept in action (albeit in a lighter, more relaxed form.) Find a new tool, then return to previous haunts to access places you couldn’t reach earlier.
Aside from the need to sell your uncovered treasures, there are a pair of resources that will periodically force Rusty to return to the surface. He has a limited supply of light, which will gradually diminish and cleverly cut off how far it’s possible to see. Running out of light doesn’t mean pitch darkness, but it does mean taking much greater risks and mining somewhat blind. After all, that next block could send you tumbling into a cavern of critters.
Our robot buddy also requires water to run (or cool, or something) certain parts of his machinery. Once this runs dry, tools like the drill become useless. It’s possible to find light and water dropped by defeated enemies, as well as standing pools that can be slurped up into the storage tank, so you’re often weighing the risk of plunging onwards into the depths against a trek back to the top (or to the nearest teleporter.)
In any case, death is not a huge hindrance. SteamWorld Dig is a pretty friendly game, so if Rusty is incapacitated he’ll just leave his bag of goodies behind at the place where he fell and pay a minor repair fee. Just another way for the town to squeeze a bit of cash out of his labours.
The game has made the transition from the 3DS rather well. I was worried about a lack of resolution options, but it seems like it just defaults to your desktop size. If you want to mess about with it, you can run the game in a window and stretch as required. Lovely.
Such is the seamless nature of the user-interface redesign that I’m not even sure what the additional 3DS screen would’ve been doing. The map, maybe? Some inventory stuff? Whatever the case, it’s all been sensibly rearranged for a lone monitor.
I would, though, have appreciated some key rebinding options (said to be coming in the future.) Most of my time with SteamWorld Dig was spent with a gamepad, and while the control choices were largely fine, the decision to map run to X and jump to A wasn’t ideal for those moments where a near-perfect running leap was required. But that’s about the extent of the trouble, and the feel of the controls (as opposed to the mapping) is fantastic.
SteamWorld Dig isn’t a huge game. I’d made my way to its narrative conclusion in just over four hours. However, that speaks to a lack of superfluous busywork, and the fact that I’d not seen or explored everything it had to offer. There are plenty of opportunities for back-tracking and putting newly-acquired equipment to smart use, and just as many compelling reasons for pressing onward. Once the credits roll, reloading your save will put you back into the world as you left it. So it’s possible for completionists to wrap up a couple more achievements, or to just casually fool around.
It’s a compact, clever and charming game that, like the excellent Toki Tori 2+, shows that there are rich pickings on the Nintendo platforms for those prepared to bring them to the PC. I’m glad developers Image & Form chose to do just that.