On paper, SteamWorld Dig sounds like the most mind-numbing slog that you could possibly imagine. The object of the game is to dig, exchange the minerals you unearth for better equipment, then dig some more. And when you think you've dug deep enough, you start punching the rocks and pick up the pace.
Being forced to perform a singular action ad infinitum can severely impede fun and enjoyment in a videogame. Ironically, the cornerstone of many popular games is the repetition of seemingly mundane tasks with the goal of discovering ever more efficient ways to accomplish said tasks.
What makes the grind in SteamWorld Dig so exhilarating is that each upturned patch of soil is another step towards some grand new discovery. That is, as long as you don't mind digging. A lot.
SteamWorld Dig (3DS)
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
Release: August 7, 2013 (EU / AU) / August 8, 2013 (US)
In a steampunk Wild West populated by robots, young Rusty has inherited his Uncle Joe's mine. Ol' Joe apparently lost his life plunging the depths of the mine for its secrets, thus its up to his nephew to take up the pickaxe and continue the journey.
SteamWorld Dig is sort of like an open-world Dig Dug. You must chisel away at the soil to create paths that descend ever deeper, all while avoiding underground obstacles such giant insects, falling stones, and pools of acid. Your field of vision is regulated by how much light you have remaining, so you must use your wall-climbing ability to regularly return to the surface and refill your lantern to avoid fumbling around in the dark.
Topside is a mining town where you can exchange any ore you find for cash and in turn use the cash to purchase new items and upgrades. Sturdier pickaxes will allow you to break through tougher soil in fewer hits, pouch expansions will allow you collect more ore, and so on.
Along the way, you'll enter special caves which offer more straightforward platforming challenges. Here you'll earn upgrades, like as a super jump, a drill arm to break through rocks that your pickaxe can't crack, or dynamite to blow away obstacles from a safe distance. Many of the upgrades are steam-powered, thus you must also mind your water reserves, which can only be refilled in underground pools or by picking up refills from fallen enemies.
That's the gist of it, really. What keeps the journey so thrilling is how customizable it is. Rusty can dig in either of the four cardinal directions but only when he's standing on solid ground. Therefore, you have to chart a path that not only allows access to ore deposits but also provides a clear route back to the town. Do you wish to dig straight down, thereby missing out on money that could be spent towards simplifying your journey, or do you perform a more thorough job and waste precious lantern light?
What results is a root-like labyrinthine of tunnels, chutes, and open expanses entirely of your creation; no two players' excavation work will be identical. How each person digs speaks volumes about their individual traits -- efficiency, curiosity, patience. It almost makes me wish that the game allowed for online progress sharing so that we could compare maps and play methods.
It is actually possible to trap yourself should you dig without concern for your equipment or surroundings. Certain items such as ladders and teleporters can be your saving grace, but should your supply be exhausted, your only option is to self-destruct. You will respawn on the surface, but you'll incur a 50% cash penalty and any ores you were carrying will have to be retrieved at the site of your death. The total amount of ore in the game is limited, so though there's more than enough to purchase every upgrade, repeated carelessness could end your shopping spree.
There's a lot to track and observe in SteamWorld Dig, but you can only understand its brilliance if you push forward through the grind, which may be easier for some than others. The first hour is definitely the hardest -- several swings are required to break through the soil using your weak starter pickaxe, and without the support of Rusty's later upgrades and techniques, progress is as slow and laborious as a real-life mining dig.
Then there's the need to return to the surface. The further down you dig, the longer it takes to climb back out to refill your light or go shopping. Aside from the teleporters you purchase from the shop, you'll find a scant few pre-installed at specific depths. Though they make returning to town a lot easier, you'll still be forced to backtrack a significant stretch as you create distance between yourself and the most recent teleporter. The best you can do is make sure that the return path is as streamlined as possible.
I admit that I felt pretty fed up with the game on a number of occasions precisely because of these shortcomings. Even so, the allure of what lay hidden beneath the surface compelled me onward. Soil gives way to a long-lost subterranean civilization, which then gives way to evidence of a world much more advanced then the one on the surface. Every hundred meters is some new surprise, some new revelation.
There is a genuine allure to SteamWorld Dig, you just have to clear out the rubble to find it.