Steamworld Dig, or to give it its full title, Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt, is perhaps best described as an anthology of gaming’s greatest hits. It has been compared to Terraria, Spelunky and a host of other esteemed games that sadly have not (yet?) made their way to Mac OS.
In Steamworld Dig, you control Rusty, a steam-powered robot who arrives in the tumbleweed-infused mining town of Tumbleton. Following in the footsteps of his revered ancestor, Rusty grabs a pickaxe, and heads down into the mines beneath the town in search of precious materials and answers.
Steamworld Dig is something of a plaformer. If, like me, that makes you cringe at the potential hours of mis-timed jumping frustration that lie ahead, worry not. In Steamworld Dig, Rusty literally forges his own path, smashing through the earth to create a path of descent. If, like me, that makes you cringe at the potential hours of minecraft-style aimlessness that lie ahead, worry you not about that either. To put it mildly, the simple act of bashing pickaxe to ground is extremely enjoyable, in the same way that obliterating Lego is in those other games. Which is good, because everything else the game does is really just about making that sublime experience more fun as you go along.
Your purpose in the game is really two-fold: explore the depths, and collect the precious minerals embedded in the ground to sell in order to buy upgrades that make both of these activities more enjoyable. This is a game that is shamelessly about progression, about delving deeper, and becoming more powerful. It really, really gets it right. In an era where games so callously reward you simply for investing time, or shoehorn so-called RPG mechanics in order to feel like the mere act of playing is not enough to hold your interest, Steamworld Dig instead has a positive feedback loop where everything you do is there simply to reinforce that pick, pick, pick.
Upgrades that you earn might just increase how much you can carry (never enough) or how much damage you can take (for people like me, who insist on repeatedly jumping onto the same spike trap), or best of all, improve that pickaxe to chip away tougher blocks of rock faster. Upgrades are also doled out by completing certain story sequences, which add extra powers like boosted jumping, mineral detection, new mining attachments and other things that, again, just serve to make the basic gameplay feel fresh and fun. At the start of the game you’ll have fun just tunneling towards shiny minerals; by the end you’ll be super-jumping and steam-punching all over the screen effortlessly.
There are monsters, of course, that lurk in the depths of the mine. First there are the caterpillar-like creatures that are first woken by your unwavering pickaxe, and then ended by it. The rumours of greater dangers prove to be true the deeper you dig, and some of these will be best defeated with other tactics, such as luring them into traps, or even digging the ground out from under them.
For the most part, the underworld is randomly generated; you can acquire certain tools like ladders or lanterns that let you shape it as you see fit. And, just like in real life, there’s rarely a situation that can’t be resolved through the liberal application of explosives. There are some sequences where you’ll be faced with a specifically designed room to traverse, which can require a bit of head-scratching to get through, though they’re on par with Portal 2‘s level designs, and shouldn’t cause much duress.
I can’t stress enough just how superb the pacing is. One of the brilliant things the developers did was to give you the ability to wall-jump from the very start. This makes the platforming much less of a chore (to the point where it’s unusually pleasurable), and crucially, means you rarely dig yourself into a hole you can’t then get out of (although there’s always the option to self-destruct if things go too badly). You level up (merely by cashing in minerals) at a rapid pace, with each level unlocking some new upgrade you can buy, and this process has clearly been designed so that you can never quite afford to buy everything on offer, at least not until towards the end of the game.
Death comes from running out of health, which itself happens by getting caught in traps, attacked by monsters, or falling from great heights. You can get revived on the surface for a percentage of your wealth, at which point the matron-like robot will offer you some tidbit of advice as to how to avoid a similar fate in the future. It’s all very elegant, and you’re then able to go back and recover the minerals left behind by your last death and continue your adventure. I died many, many times during my playthrough, but never felt like I was badly punished for it. Losing any amount of cash merely served as an incentive to mine for more minerals.
For me, the game achieved that rare thing to my starved-of-time lifestyle: it made me want to play it all the way to the end (which was around half a dozen hours) for its own sake. I took real joy in firing the game up and continuing my excavation, aside from a section towards the end where things got a little repetitive. There are numerous side challenges (more of the puzzle rooms) to be had, and I suspect some people will be dedicated enough to get the achievement to complete the entire thing without dying. For me, I particularly liked that I could either explore the underworld or progress the story as I saw fit.
With so many big budget developers looking to cram as many different mechanisms into their games as possible, it’s a true delight to see a small independent developer get just the right balance to make their game constantly interesting, constantly rewarding, and a true joy to play. I just can’t recommend the game enough.
Performance & Quality
I encountered no issues at all with the Mac version of the game, which is impressive enough in itself. The graphics options are sparse, but given that it’s a 2D game that originated on the Nintendo 3DS, there’s really nothing to complain about. The art style is lovely, with a surprising variety of locations to explore, the music and effects are just right. My single complaint is that the default controller mapping puts sprint on one of the face buttons rather than a trigger, making sprint-jumping a little awkward, and the controls can’t be remapped.