SteamWorld Dig

A game by Image & Form for PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4, Vita, 3DS, Switch, and Wii U, originally released in 2013.
In SteamWorld Dig, you take on the role of Rusty, a steambot whose father – a miner – has recently passed away and left behind a mine filled with valuable treasures and ancient mysteries. You roll into a robot-populated Wild West town and assume operation of the mine, discovering your father’s body in the first few minutes of the game. From there, you begin digging for yourself, armed with only your father’s pickaxe and a few minutes of fuel for your lantern.

At the start of the game, Rusty isn’t a terribly capable miner. He can use his pickaxe to dig into adjacent dirt in four directions while standing on the ground, and he has a 1x jump. In addition, he can wall slide and wall jump, and repeated jumps allow him to scale vertical shafts… a skill which is very necessary, as the only way to sell accumulated ore and purchase upgrades is to return to the surface.

The world is entirely block-based, with most blocks consisting of dirt, loose dirt, ore, rock, and impenetrable rock walls. Loose dirt can be dug through with a single swing of your pickaxe, and it can also be destroyed by falling on it from a great height, or by digging under rocks and allowing them to fall. Regular dirt can be dug through with a few strikes, and ore takes a few more, while rock requires the use of a drill which is awarded to the player early in the game. The impenetrable rock walls are in place to create boundaries for the procedurally generated world.

You have to be very careful in the early going, as you will take fall damage if you drop too far (you can wall slide to avoid taking damage), and it’s entirely possible to dig through a section of dirt in a way that prevents you from climbing back up. As Rusty becomes more capable, this becomes less of an issue, but it also means that players may experience a rather slow and frustrating start to an otherwise well-constructed adventure. If you make a mistake and get yourself stuck, the only way to exit the mine is to self-destruct, costing you half of your money, and causing you to drop your accumulated ore… which can be quite punishing if you’re saving up for a costly upgrade.

While there is some platforming to be had, and a few enemies to be killed, SteamWorld Dig is first and foremost a mining game. As such, most of the game’s progression centers on finding ore of increasing value and trading it at the shop for incremental increases in your abilities. These enhanced abilities include slight increases in the strength of your pickaxe, allowing you to dig more quickly and through tougher dirt; increased capacity for your lantern, allowing you to stay beneath the surface for extended periods; increased water for steam-powered upgrades (more on these in a bit); increased carrying capacity; and increased health. A few consumable items are available as well, such as a ladder that gives you an extra block of height, lanterns that you can drop to light the nearby area, dynamite that can blow through rocks, and teleporters that let you warp back to the surface.

As you dig, you also encounter caves which serve as self-contained environments, often based around solving one or more puzzles. Some of these caves offer rare ore to those who are savvy enough to complete them, while others – marked with Roman numerals – offer one-of-a-kind pieces of equipment that permanently alter your abilities.

Among this discovered equipment are various footwear upgrades, one of which allows you to run and jump to cross larger gaps and reach greater heights, while another gives you a double jump ability, and yet another absorbs fall damage. In addition, various mining tools are available, including a drill that allows you to dig through rock and an iron fist that lets you punch through dirt from a distance. The fist is a real game changer, as it offers the first opportunity to dig through dirt across a gap (the pickaxe and drill can only access dirt that is directly adjacent), and it allows you to dig upward, giving you the opportunity to create more efficient routes back to the surface.

These new tools are steam powered and therefore require water to operate. Unlike your health which can be restored cheaply at the shop, or your lantern which refills automatically when you return to the surface, your water supply can only be replenished by discovering subterranean pools. Standing in a pool of water causes it to drain slowly as your water meter fills. It is possible to drain a water supply completely, although they refill each time you leave the mine and return. Water tank upgrades make the tanks more efficient, requiring less water to fill them and draining less water when their associated tools are used.

As you might imagine, returning to the surface between mining runs becomes more difficult and time consuming as you get deeper. However, shafts do contain the occasional teleporter that allows you to warp back the surface, and each new shaft has a shortcut that spits you back out onto the surface as well. You’ll still need to ascend fairly regularly as you reach the limit of your carrying capacity, but at least you don’t have to make your way up the entire shaft every time. This also gives you an easy way to return to previous areas with new abilities to go after any ore you may have missed. You can also buy your own teleporters if you wish, allowing you to zap yourself topside, but relying on them too much can cost you the opportunity to buy upgrades…

SteamWorld Dig features two separate currency systems. One is your basic gold system where you earn coins by selling off ore and then spend the coins in a shop. The other system is built upon a rare blue orb that can only be found by uncovering it in the mines, and caches of blue orbs tend to be well hidden. Some items and upgrades require only gold to purchase, but many require a combination of gold and blue orbs. Of the consumable items, only the teleporter requires the use of blue orbs to purchase, so you could be putting yourself out of an upgrade if you don’t spend them wisely. Blue orbs are often found by solving puzzles in the self-contained caves, or by thoroughly exploring each of the shafts.

Light is a very important component here as well. Early on, your lantern acts more as a time limit than anything else, forcing you to use your time beneath the surface wisely. The design also enforces the importance of grabbing ore quickly rather than wandering around exploring the environment, although exploration becomes more of a focus as you gain new abilities. The amount of light emanating from Rusty is determined by a light meter at the top of the screen, and as it drains, so too does your viewing distance… making it harder and harder to make out your surroundings and determine the best place to dig for ore.

Once the light goes out completely, you can still see the outlines of the dirt and rocks, but their forms are shrouded in darkness. You could be standing right next to a cache of ore, or an impenetrable rock wall. As you upgrade your light meter and acquire pickaxes that let you dig more quickly, the looming time limit becomes less of an issue than your carrying capacity.

The game’s enemies are not terribly complex. Most follow simple patrol routes and can be defeated with a generous application of the old pickaxe-to-the-head technique. Some enemies move back and forth between walls and ledges, while some walk off of ledges to fall down to lower levels, potentially pursuing you but also giving you the chance to trap them by digging a pit.

Some of the more dangerous foes are pale underdwellers that carry dynamite, hucking it at you when you get within visual range, giving them a chance to harm you and change the shape of the environment. Fortunately, you can often find them sleeping and take them out before they wake up. There’s also a super tough projectile tosser that pelts you with bottles from a distance, but he dies easily if you dig the ground out from beneath him. Caves offer more technology-based enemies and obstacles, with electricity spewing turrets, and the occasional laser beam. Most killed enemies drop health, water, or light restoratives, and the caves often have restoratives lying about.

A few environmental hazards offer challenges as well, including dripping acid that can eat through most types of dirt, slowly dripping down through the environment until you destroy the slime block emitting the drips. Acid often collects in pools lined with indestructible rock. TNT barrels are scattered throughout the tougher areas as well, and there’s no shortage of things that will set them off, which can sometimes be used to your advantage. Hitting a barrel with your pickaxe gives you a few seconds to get away before it explodes, whereas standing next to one for too long will cause it to go off on its own. Enemies can trigger the explosions as well, and you must often deal with chain reactions that blow up multiple barrels in succession. This also causes an additional danger… by blowing out large open areas, you can make it more difficult for yourself to climb back out of the shaft.

A map shows your nearby surroundings, with a few key items marked, such as cave entrances and teleporters. It also acts as an indicator of where you need to head next, with arrows pointing the direction to your next major goal. When you start out, you’re mostly just concerned with “up” and “down”, so the map has limited value in the early going, but there is an upgrade that makes it quite useful for exploration.

Little by little, you uncover the depths of the world, and as you do, the town above expands as well, with new buildings and NPC’s being added as you encounter major milestones. For the most part, these are just new shops and their corresponding shopkeepers, offering further upgrades to your existing abilities. Since most upgrades must be acquired in succession, this is a further continuation of the incremental enhancement system that permeates the experience.

SteamWorld Dig was developed by Image & Form, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. In the company’s early days, it was focused primarily on creating PC games for children, although they have recently expanded into titles more suited toward adult gamers.

Ed note: screenshots are a mix of the computer and 3DS versions of the game.