There’s something different about holding a game in the palm of your hand that makes it special — personal, even. Handheld games often don’t have the time to get you engrossed in a deep story or breathtaking visuals, so they have to rely on gameplay that can hook you in immediately, but at the same time, be put down at a moment’s notice. This is a difficult balance, but when it works, it makes you want to keep coming back for more. Against all odds, SteamWorld Dig fuses classic and modern elements to deliver a carefully crafted experience that works perfectly for its platform.
SteamWorld Dig puts you in the boots of Rusty, a steam-powered robot cowboy from the desert who has just inherited an old mine from his uncle. Before long and with little fanfare, your goal becomes to start exploring the abandoned mine and to dig as deep as you possibly can. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of tools at your disposal, including a pick axe, drill, and steam-powered punch, among others. The further you dig, the more difficult your task becomes, with some terrain being completely impassable without further upgrades to your equipment. This is where the game’s main hook comes into play — while digging to explore what happened in your uncle’s mine, you’ll find valuable minerals that you can sell in town in order to make money and buy upgrades. You’ll also discover “dungeons” in the mine full of puzzles and intense platforming that will earn you brand-new abilities, most of which are necessary to progress deeper into the ground.
Any of this sound familiar? Despite all the mining, SteamWorld Dig doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to gameplay. It’s hard not to see the elements of Minecraft, Spelunky, and a handful of Metroidvania games. Fortunately, the best of each is represented here. The satisfying sense of exploration and destruction, the tight controls and roguelike consequences, and the perfectly-timed upgrades fit together surprisingly well and made me wonder how someone hadn’t made a game quite like this before.
The gameplay systems at work here fit together like perfectly matching gear teeth, each one doing its part to create one of the most satisfying feedback loops I’ve experienced in recent memory. You will dig and dig, aiming at nothing in particular, until you feel like you can’t go one meter further. Then, right on cue, a blip appears on your map and you have a new goal to race for. Once you get there, you’ll face a challenging (but fair) mini-dungeon and at the end you’ll be rewarded with a brand new upgrade that will get you further than you imagined you could go. Fifteen minutes later, it happens again. And then again. Stepping back to look at the big picture, it’s all Game Design 101, but moment-to-moment, it works so well that you just don’t care.
The only real problems with SteamWorld Dig arise when something interrupts the dopamine rush of getting a new item or uncovering a new area. Although Rusty’s self-destruct feature makes it impossible to ever get truly stuck in the mines, you can find yourself in sticky situations where you need to get back to the surface without any good way to climb back up. You can buy ladders and teleporters at the shop, but arbitrary inventory restrictions neuter the effectiveness of these items. The inconsistent checkpoints compound the problem, leaving you stuck trying to decide if an instant respawn topside is worth losing half your money and some of your progress.
Despite these missteps, the unique Western motif of SteamWorld Dig will keep you invested, tying together the disparate elements in a charming package. The game’s story begins and ends abruptly, dropping you into a world that takes itself completely seriously, but feels playful at the same time. As jarring as it is, this transition makes something as ridiculous as a cartoon ghost town inhabited by steam-powered robots seem… believable. It really shouldn’t work, but it does — the commitment to the characters and world is admirable. This vignette style works even better once you learn that Image & Form has expressed interest in making more games under the SteamWorld banner.
SteamWorld Dig isn’t ground-breaking, but its tight action platforming and satisfying gameplay hook will easily keep you entertained for several hours. It’s perfectly designed for a handheld experience, allowing you to pick up and play for a few minutes here and there, progressing a little further each time. It’s clear that much care was put into getting the gameplay and charming robotic Western motif just right, and that makes the promise of additional adventures in this fun little world an exciting proposition.