SteamWorld Dig is an exploratory 2D platformer from Swedish game developer Image & Form. It’s available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop for £7.99 and you should buy it because it’s very, very good.
• Developer: Image & Form
• Publisher: Image & Form
• Reviewed on: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
• Release Date: Available Now
At length, then: SteamWorld Dig revolves around the exploits of Rusty the steambot, a boot-toting, hat-tippin’ emerald-eyed cowboy of the old steampunk west. He’s got a copper boiler in his belly and the steely glint of adventure in his eyes. It’s adventure that awaits him when he arrives in an old frontier town with the deed to his late uncle’s mine.
From the get-go the game equips you with a pickaxe, presents you with the unexplored mine and invites you to go a-diggin’. Set against the golden hues of the sun-soaked deserts above and deeper, danker colours as you go south, the action of the game – part Spelunky, part Metroid – is glorious fun from the first block of dirt you break to the last. It unfolds as a very organic and delightful process in which the game plays almost no part in guiding you forward.
Much like the first time you crack the ground open in Minecraft and have a peek inside, the heaving load of gems you reap from the dirt isn’t so much the reward as the warm glow of curiosity being satisfied. Carving a path through untouched ground with your pick, chipping away at pesky subterranean critters and watching as tough blocks crumble through seemingly endless manual labour are simple pleasures, but they remain fresh throughout as the game knows when to bow out.
It only lasts around six hours, if you take your time, but the world it creates below the surface is randomly generated, which is a nice touch. Should you go back for a speed run – and you might, if the medals screen at the end of the game is any motivation – the challenge won’t be the same.
Image & Form seem to have stumbled upon the secret of human curiosity as they know – they just know – when your ability to be curious begins to wean. They’ll cheekily slip the ability to upgrade things your way at just the right time, hooking you again with the promise of sharper, faster picks and new, more advanced tools. Exploring and re-exploring is made easier by a retailer selling ladders, lanterns and dynamite. Rusty will be upgraded automatically at key points during his travels, enabling him to jump higher and fall farther. Time and time again, just as your curiosity feels sated, SteamWorld Dig grabs you again and reels you back in without much of a fight.
Despite the pint-sized price tag, the world screams high-quality. From the sumptuous golden deserts to the town’s various denizens there’s real attention to detail in every block and sprite. Rusty’s animation when he leaps down holes is wonderful – his hat covers his eyes, but there’s a cheeky robot smirk visible just beneath the brim – one of many details which makes the game seriously likeable.
There are hints scattered everywhere of something delightfully epic on a small scale. The soundtrack is soaked in the auras of the winds of the west and the dooming, dull rumbles of the world beneath the ground, painting the world as this tortured and torn old thing whose very core you’re drilling closer and closer to with each step you take. Despite the lightweight characterisation of SteamWorld’s cast and the locales they inhabit, the effort of Image & Form’s genius artists and designers ensures that every pixel and ounce of sound is brimming with personality.
SteamWorld Dig is an absolute gem of a game. It grabs your natural curiosity by the goolies and yanks it into a deceptively simple world rich with potential and wonder, and it packs more enjoyment than many full-price games for a fifth of the price. For these reasons, among many others, it deserves to burrow its way into your 3DS collection.