SteamWorld Dig. It sounds like the way a Beatnik would describe visiting Valve’s offices. “I’m heading to SteamWorld, ya dig?” But actually, it’s a 3DS game by indie studio Image & Form. I was told about this game (well, warned would probably be a better description) from a few readers. “Hey, if you like Miner Dig Deep, you’ll love SteamWorld Dig!” Others compared it to Terraria, which is an epic-sized bad comparison. Terraria is a world-building game with time-sinky elements. Miner Dig Deep forgoes any semblance of story or point and focused on the time-sink stuff, for maximum narcotic effect. SteamWorld is more like that, only with some minor Metroidvania elements thrown in. Of course, I like Metroidvanias more than world-building games, which meant that SteamWorld had the possibly to hook me in like a 19th century sailor in my first opium den.
Set in a robotic version of the old west, you play as a dude whose father died and left you his mine. You go into the mine, dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, which you use to dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, repeat this about one hundred times, and that’s the game. The core gameplay is so close to Miner Dig Deep that I’m really curious if the developers of SteamWorld had played it or not. We’ve got a bet going over here regarding that, with bets taken on the following responses.
A. “Yes, we loved it.”
B. “We’ve never heard of it.”
C. A dismissive smile followed by walking out of the room like a boss.
I’m not allowed to say which one I’ve got money on, because apparently my chums consider that cheating. Hopefully the developers will C to it that we get a proper answer.
Anyway, the comparisons to Miner Dig Deep can safely end now. Image & Form have greatly improved the formula by adding platforming and rudimentary combat. I was skeptical how well this would work, since the controls in Terraia for jumping and combat were a bit flaky. I guess that’s why I was so blown away by SteamWorld. It has some of the best platforming mechanics that were not made by Nintendo that I’ve seen in quite a while. The jumping elements become second nature, making distances easy to get a feel for. You never feel like you have to course-correct to avoid under-jumping/over-jumping. And the wall-jump mechanic couldn’t be easier.
The controls aren’t perfect. You can’t jump and dig, so getting minerals above you is a chore. Also, for a game that has a lot of enemies, the combat is flaky and lacks appropriate oomph to it. The pick-axe is a fairly-unsatisfying offensive weapon. It can be upgraded into a more combat-ready one, but to be frank, I thought the upgrade was too expensive and I never acquired it. Midway though the game, you pick up a “steam-powered punch” that I found to be a much better way to take on baddies. But, for the most part, I just avoided fights and stuck to mining. The time-sinky, hypnotic simplicity of digging up various types of minerals and resources, plus the arbitrary upgrading of my items, is what kept me going. And it kept me going with a smile on my face. And drool collecting around my lap.
I’m also not convinced they made the best use of the whole Metroidvania thing. The game is separated into three “worlds”. Tippy-top upgrades are found by digging until you stumble upon a door, which leads to a platformer/maze section. And the end of each of those, you’ll find an upgrade to the robot that allows him to jump higher, fall further, throw punches, etc. It’s all very linear, with backtracking only necessary at the end of the game. Part of this is the whole mining thing only lends itself well to going one direction: straight down. It’s hard to do the open-world thing this genre is famous for when your chosen theme presents fewer options than a light switch. And SteamWorld takes no risks, which is a shame because all the mechanical parts are in place to have allowed some experimentation. I guess I should offer kudos for resisting the temptation to have all the platformer/adventure clichés such as an ice level, a fire level, etc. But, when I reached the end of the game and realized things were being wrapped up, I was genuinely shocked. “Wait, that’s it? Three mother fucking levels?” Not one of which was the slightest bit inspired. It’s kind of surprising to me that they plan on sequelizing this in short order, because it sure seems like they ran out of ideas quickly here.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that I disliked SteamWorld Dig. It’s, as of this writing, the fifth-best indie game I’ve had the privileged of playing for Indie Gamer Chick. For all it does wrong, it sure does a lot right. Fluid platforming controls, satisfying play-mechanics, and a sense of progression despite the grindy, time-sinky nature of it. I would probably still give the Best 3DS eShop game nod to non-indie Pushmo, but SteamWorld Dig comes close. Probably the highest praise I could offer it is this: if someone had handed me this game, and I knew nothing about it going in, and I was asked who made it, I would have said “Nintendo” without hesitation. I can think of no greater complement for an indie developer, that a title of theirs could be mistaken for a first-party Nintendo game. Well, actually, nah. I probably wouldn’t guess this was a new first-party Nintendo game. I mean, Nintendo coming up with a new IP? Ha. Snort. Chuckle.
SteamWorld Dig is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.