Image & Form, the independent developer behind 3DS eshop (and, recently Steam) title, SteamWorld Dig, is plainly an archeologist, an excavator of the past. In crafting its 2D, sprite-based platformer, the developer has drawn from a variety of well-worn influences from gaming’s yore, from Super Metroid to Dig Dug. Fortunately, this reverence has not translated into mere nostalgic reproduction, but has resulted in an action game that pays homage to the greats while forging a new path. There’s not one particular element of SteamWorld Dig that is wholly new, or original, but its peculiar melange of influences is so potent, and interesting, that it can’t help but seem like a breath of fresh air. SteamWorld Dig casts the player as Rusty, a diminutive robot in a steampunk Wild West setting, who takes up his pickaxe to explore his late uncle’s mine and make his fortune. Along the way, Rusty acquires valuable loot which he exchanges for ever more effective digging tools, allowing him to travel further, deeper and faster than before, and collect more loot while he is at it.
The plot of SteamWorld Dig is thin, being little more than a premise to justify the core gameplay loop. But what a loop it is; SteamWorld Dig is addicting and compelling in the best of ways, slowly escalating and developing Rusty’s core set of abilities until his mastery of the environment is at its apex. Using a variety of pickaxes and drills powered by steam, and packing a small lantern for visibility, its up to Rusty to dig his own path through the mine, chipping away at blocks while remaining careful not to dislodge boulders or tap into pockets of lethal enemies. Rusty’s resources are limited, and his ability to carry loot even more so (at least initially), necessitating frequent return trips to the surface to bank his loot and purchase newer upgrades and resources. Along the way, Rusty can upgrade his traversal skills to encompass a wall jump or a high-speed dash, rendering his subterranean journeys more efficient. SteamWorld Dig’s greatest success is its co-opting of the rewarding sense of exploration and traversal offered by Super Metroid, and enhancing those aspects with the player’s freedom to carve his own path through the world. No two players’ mines will ever be identical, and oftentimes I regretted the decisions I had made in the past, particularly where my shafts and tunnels had inexorably led me through pockets of vicious enemies, or with no effective or easy way to return to the surface. Where SteamWorld Dig truly exceeds itself is in its basic craftsmanship; controlling Rusty feels tight and, most importantly, right – Image & Form delivers on the simple joy of wall-jumping up a tunnel. Further, the visuals, while not technically astounding, are effective at conveying necessary information and are quite charming in their deliberate evocation of sprite-based platformers of the 16-bit era.
SteamWorld Dig is not a long game, clocking in at about 4 or 5 hours, and it is likely that most, if not all, players will dig through it in a couple of sittings. But for its low cost of entry and the amount of addicting gameplay it provides, it is hard to quibble with the game’s value proposition. SteamWorld Dig is bite-sized, free from filler, and constantly delivers upon its promise. Anyone who is a fan of the game’s principal influences, or seeking something new to play on their Nintendo 3DS (or Steam), should give SteamWorld Dig a try. It’s simple but refined, brief but enjoyable, and reverential but fresh. Put simply, its one of the best downloadable games I’ve played all year.