Steamworld Dig begins with the main character, a steam powered robot named Rusty, traveling to the backwater town of Tumbleton following a letter from his uncle. You see, Tumbleton is a mining town; there’s a cave that goes deep into the earth filled with riches and dangers, ripe for the picking. It thrives on explorers braving its perils; or, rather, it would if there was anyone to speak of. When Rusty first arrives, there’s only an upgrade shop and a saloon, each with one resident. They both lament how lonely it is out here, but what good fortune it is to have Rusty in town. After a very short exposition, the game proper begins.
Basically, Rusty is given a pickaxe, told “good luck” and sent into the mine. The ultimate goal is to find his uncle Joe and find out what he discovered in the mine. And to do so, Rusty’s going to have to dig- a lot. The game boasts an impressively randomly generated mine with its own individual riches and locations to uncover. The goal is to carve a path through all the dirt with your tool to A) be able to get back up to the surface should you need to and B) still be able to grab as many riches and valuables as possible. It sounds rather simple and, in essence, it is; the act of digging is incredibly basic, but it’s in the inherent strategy that the game’s strengths come into play.
For instance, digging straight down is almost never a good idea. For one, you could easily miss out on precious ore since it could be literally anywhere. But you can’t dig too much dirt out either, because once a block is gone, it’s gone forever. You can wall jump your way up a wall, but sometimes you might find that you dug too much and are unable to get back up due to large gaps in dirt or something along those lines. It gives every move you make a feeling of risk, especially once tougher enemies come into play.
Most runs through the mine take only a few minutes. Generally, you’ll dig for five or ten minutes, get a full haul of treasure, then go back up to the surface and cash in on what you found. It’s an inherently addictive formula that never grows tiring during the game’s six to seven hour length. Of course, there is an issue of repetition. You are always, no matter what, digging further into the mine. Other than that, there are no side quests or other objectives. This could put some people off, since the rather low intensity play of digging isn’t insanely exciting.
Thankfully, the game doesn’t know how to reward exploration. When you get to the surface to get more money, the town can “level up” in a sense based on how much money you’ve gathered overall. This can, in turn, lead to more upgrades for your character. These can be anything from a sharper pickaxe to more health. It’s a surprisingly addictive cycle of digging and buying that never ends until you have everything you can possibly get.
But, in addition to the upgrades you can buy, there are other upgrades to be found within puzzle rooms in the mine. These are not randomly generated (although they are in random places in the mine) but they hold key upgrades such as a high jump (which uses water, another precious resource you need to manage in addition to your light) or more exotic moves like a rocket powered fist. Finding these new upgrades opens up new ways to mine, which can lead to even more untold riches. Basically, the game has a very Metroid- esque feeling to how it handles upgrading; there’s an almost constant stream of things to buy or find, and it’s a lot of fun to deck Rusty out.
The production values of the game also reflect Metroid in a way. The 2D art design is simply gorgeous and charming as all get out, but the lighting and mood in the mines are more foreboding, but also inviting. The graphics add a lot to the atmosphere; they manage to capture the essence of what it would be to be a lone miner in an unknown place. Although the environments all get old after a while due to the sameness of each area, the game is still good looking. The sound is more meh in general though. There’s almost no music to speak of and the sounds of mining and the like, while not bad by any means, aren’t spectacular or anything. The voices for each robot, though, are charming in a goofy kind of way, with each one tossing out pure, automated gibberish as they talk.
There are a few issues, though. For one, it may not be possible to get all the upgrades in a single run through. When you die, you lose half of the money you have on you at the time and you lose the ore you’re carrying (although you can retrieve the ore by returning to the point of demise). It makes sense given the random nature of the game that there is limited money to go around, but it’s still a tad frustrating not being able to get all the upgrades present in the game. There’s also the matter of variety and the final (only) boss in the game. Exploring is a ton of fun, but the developers could have mixed things up a bit by giving out some sort of side objectives. And the boss at the end is disappointing at best; it’s incredibly easy, and doesn’t really deliver a suitable payoff given the mysterious nature of the game’s (decidedly) minimalistic story. It simply happens, and the game ends with almost no explanation for everything that happened in the last few minutes.
Even with those issues, though, Steamworld Dig is a charming and atmospheric 2D platformer. The exploration is very strong, the process of mining as much as possible is inherently addictive and the sense of upgrading to both the character and the town is satisfying. It could have used a bit more variety beyond the simple act of digging deeper, and the ending is quite disappointing given the setup, but the game is still worth checking out for fans of games like Metroid or Castlevania. Plus, it’s got a lot of replay value due to the randomly generated mines, which should definitely provide interesting challenges to speed runners and the like. So long and thanks for reading.