I never really played any “mining games” quite like Image & Form’s SteamWorld Dig before I decided to download the eShop title, but a few rosy critiques and comparisons to the Metroid series convinced me to take the plunge. I quickly found out that SteamWorld Dig is one of the eShop’s brightest gems and best downloadable platformers on the market.
SteamWorld Dig takes the idea of working your way deep underground, mining for precious ore and materials – and selling your loot – and then combines it all with the platforming/exploration-based design of the side-scrolling Metroid titles. The idea works brilliantly. With some gorgeous sprite-based visuals and stylish aesthetics working in its favor, SteamWorld emerges as one of the eShop’s brightest gems.
You play as Rusty, a steam-punk robot who inherits his uncle’s mine in the Wild West town of Tumbleton. From the beginning, Rusty is tasked with saving the town and its inhabitants by using his digging abilities to mine deep below the surface. Armed with his trusty pickaxe, he must obtain precious ore and other materials, which can be taken back to town and sold for cash.
The concept of SteamWorld Dig sounds a lot more repetitive and a lot less entertaining on paper than it is to actually play. Basically, you spend a great deal of time hacking away at rocky walls, creating tunnels and platforms to navigate the seemingly-endless underground area beneath Tumbleton. Like most mining games, you’ll frequently resurface to sell all of the loot you’ve acquired during each digging effort.
This is partially where the Metroid-style platforming and backtracking comes into play, as you often need to retrace your steps in order to avoid potential hazards and restock or heal Rusty. If you don’t make it back to Tumbleton before Rusty’s lantern supply is depleted, it becomes very difficult to see. In these situations, it is easier to be taken out by all of the dangers underground rather than playing blindly. Fortunately, even though you drop all of your loot when you’re knocked out, you can return to the area and pick up your haul as long as your inventory isn’t already refilled with ore.
Throughout the game, Rusty explores various caverns and caves, eventually reaching some pretty futuristic-looking areas. Again, there are all kinds of obstacles and hazards hidden below: spike pits and radioactive pools of liquid, subterranean monsters, and explosive barrels, just to name a few. In another throwback to Metroid, there are hidden areas filled with valuable gems and collectible orbs, which are necessary to purchase some of the best upgrades in the game. For example, there are certain points where teleporters are available to quickly return to Tumbleton, but you can also buy a portable one in case you need to immediately escape the underground.
In addition to all of the upgrades and items that are available for cash, Rusty acquires some special equipment and abilities from venturing into certain areas of the game. These include a drill, which drives through stone quicker than the pickaxe; a steam-based super jump that launches Rusty high into the air; and another steam-based super punch that can quickly blast through several layers of rock. These steam-powered moves are based on Rusty’s water supply, which is depleted any time he uses them. Fortunately, standing in pools of water will quickly resupply you. Along with the lantern supply and health supply, you really have to think ahead, conserve when possible, and plan your return to Tumbleton accordingly. Getting stuck is definitely easy if you’re not careful.
Truth be told, there are a few points of frustration with SteamWorld Dig. First, the back-tracking to Tumbleton is particularly a nuisance at the beginning of the game, when you can’t buy portable teleporters and quickly resurface. The game’s controls are also pretty “slippery” for a platformer, exacerbated by the fact that there is no option to use the D-pad rather than the circle pad for movement. This doesn’t help the occasional combat with enemies, which can often result in taking a lot of damage simply because Rusty slides into them rather than striking them with his pickaxe. Finally, while the 3D effects are pretty solid, SteamWorld doesn’t really take advantage of any other 3DS features. There are no online features, no co-op or competitive modes, no StreetPass, or SpotPass support. The replay value is definitely still there, but sadly it’s a solo-only experience.
Although it may not sound very appealing to constantly dig through layers of rock and backtrack to the surface to sell your loot, the gameplay works. SteamWorld Dig is addicting, rewarding, and highly entertaining. It combines the “mining game” style very well with the focus on platforming and exploration seen in classic Metroid games, providing a satisfying and stylish experience that feels fresh and unique despite its obvious inspirations. For less than ten bucks, it is easily one of the finest eShop games.
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