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SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt Review

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What is the concept? In an era when Pac-Man fever had yet to infect stateside gamers, Commodore PET users might be found playing MINER!, an excavation simulation that was published in Cursor magazine. Echoing games of the epoch, the purpose of Rod Longfellow’s title was straightforward: players earned as much money as possible by tunneling through a quarry, collecting rare minerals and the occasional gold nugget. Although the goalmouth was clear, earning an income proved to be a surprisingly demanding endeavor thanks to the MINER!’s hazard-filled digging sites.

Extending the same core premise, recent eShop release SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt undoubtedly draws inspiration from this nearly forgotten classic. Yet, once players begin burrowing through the title’s procedurally-generated playfields, they’ll discover that SteamWorld interweaves  number of prominent game mechanics- resulting in a title, which paradoxically, feels both familiar and fresh. If the idea of cleaving into subterranean settings has ever intrigued you, Swedish studio Image & Form has created an engaging formula that is inclined to leech your leisure hours.

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Players assume the role of Rusty, a steam-power bot who ventures to the town of Tumbleton to claim a quarry left from his departed uncle. On the surface, the dusty hamlet offers basic amenities- such as an assay office which pays currency for mined materials and a general store that offers a continual supply of dig-related sundries. Below, things aren’t as approachable. The soil is home to snares such as unstable boulders and as player progress deeper- increasingly more menacing robotic enemies.

What are the game’s strengths? SteamWorld Dig triumphs with a trio of understated virtues: a feeling of autonomy, a mild motivational push, and the game’s superb sensation of permanency. Shirking convention, the game offers little in the way of guided tutorial. Instead, players are compelled to glean the secrets of success on their own. In fact, it’s wholly possible for sloppy spelunkers to become trapped before they have even stepped foot inside the main excavation site. Fortunately, A Fistful of Dirt never feels punitive, seizing half your currency and dropping your materials (inspiring subsequent retrieval) upon defeat. Much of the game’s enjoyment stems from learning the relationship between environment, enemies, and tools, as players cultivate digging strategies and the best methods to deal with foes.

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While SteamWorld Dig’s mechanics allow players to explore at their own pace, the game still conveys a sense of urgency. Limits on the amount of materials Rusty can carry, such as dwindling supplies of light or water, ensure period trips to the surface. While in town, currency can be traded for tools which encourage deeper excavation, giving players a renewing impetus. While the underbelly of mines hold antagonistic creatures, deftly the game doesn’t rely on combat to maintain a player’s attention. More often, curiosity and the enticement of better gear are the only stimuli A Fistful of Dirt needs to hook players.

While a legion of middling Rogue-likes have taught gamers to be wary of randomly generated environments, SteamWorld Dig’s algorithms are surprisingly adept. Commodities used to purchase special tools are entombed in thorny strongholds, while resilient rock formations turn mines into impromptu mazes. More proficiently, the game’s feeling of perpetuity can be captivating. Since every block of earth that’s removed is gone forever, players have to be mindful of their excavation patterns, leaving contingency shafts for errant digging or environmental damage caused by enemies.

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What are the game’s weaknesses? Although SteamWorld Dig’s visuals are skillful, elevated by soothing earthly hues and a charmingly animated lead character, the game’s sonic accompaniments aren’t as competent. Character dialog sounds like robotic Simish, with Rusty and his comrades duplicating a handful of sounds. Luckily, conversations are succinct and occur infrequently thoroughly the six to nine hour campaign. That said, the game’s soundtrack does recycle with irksome frequency, reiterating up the same Morricone-inspired refrain throughout long stretches of gameplay. Collectively, these aural flaws are minor, barely blemishing the game’s beguiling gameplay.

Is it worth the money? When factoring in the $8.99 USD price, SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt earns an unreserved recommendation. Transforming an archaic turn-based title into a title that amalgamates simulation elements with sporadic bits of real-time action, the game feels consistently rewarding. 3DS owners seeking a shrouded gem would be wise to unearth A Fistful of Dirt.

SteamWorld Dig A Fistful of Dirt  (5)

What is the concept? In an era when Pac-Man fever had yet to infect stateside gamers, Commodore PET users might be found playing MINER!, an excavation simulation that was published in Cursor magazine. Echoing games of the epoch, the purpose of Rod Longfellow’s title was straightforward: players earned as much money as possible by tunneling through a quarry, collecting rare minerals and the occasional gold nugget. Although the goalmouth was clear, earning an income proved to be a surprisingly demanding endeavor thanks to the MINER!’s hazard-filled digging sites. Extending the same core premise, recent eShop release SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful…

Review Overview

Gameplay - 95%
Story - 75%
Aesthetics - 90%
Content - 90%
Accessibility - 90%

88%

Very Good

Summary : An indulgence for both the mind and restless fingers, SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt is a rousing success, and one of the better titles found on the eShop.

User Rating: 3.48 ( 5 votes)

About Robert Allen

With over 35 years of gaming experience, Robert 'DesertEagle' Allen is Tech-Gaming's resident worrier/warrior who spends his days teaching at three colleges and his nights devoted to JRPGs.

43 comments

  1. Looks a bit like Mr. Driller (which is one of my favorite action/puzzle games)

    I wonder why Namco hasn’t made a sequel the game?

  2. “deftly the game doesn’t rely on combat to maintain a player’s attention. ”

    They’re saying this about the new BioShock Infinite expansion, too. I don’t know why but this idea always worries me.

  3. For some reason, I get the game confused with Dillon’s Rolling Western. Must be the font/colors.

  4. Great review, Robert!

    If I ever get a 3DS (an all white one would probably push me), I might have to get SteamWorld.

  5. The eShop is beginning to get some really good titles. Too bad Nintendo doesn’t publicize or promote them more. First time I heard about this game.

  6. Robert, I saw you tweeting about DuckTales (woo-ooo!)

    Wheres our review?

  7. Robert, first of all – thanks for the great review. And I don’t mean the score (but thanks for that too). We’ve been fortunate to get a number of reviews that are so thought-through and well-written that you wish they wouldn’t come to an end. It’s very interesting for us as the dev to read about influences and similarities that you find to classic games. We are influenced by the classics you mention, but it’s almost unconscious – and therefore great to get it in perspective.
    Second – and this may sound as a silly remark – thanks for the exquisite readability/layout of the piece and your site. It makes the reading so much more enjoyable.
    We look forward to have you review our future games; we hope SteamWorld Dig is commercially successful enough to let us continue our vision of making extraordinary games.
    From the bottom of our robotic coal furnaces, thank you. /Brjann

    • Any developer who takes the to comment in threads earns kudos by me.

      Really want to try the game out.

      And Robert, not just a good review but a great analysis.

    • Brjann- yeah, Robert writes some really good stuff everyone once in a while 😉

      I’m curious if you could tell us more about the development of SteamWorld Dig, like:

      – How long did it make to make?
      – Any plans for a Wii U port?
      – You say there were some games that inspired you (maybe subconsciously), what were they?

      Best of luck you guys. I’ll probably be downloading the game this week.

      • Hi Akira! First off, I’m amazed to see so many comments on this – I simply fell very much in love with Robert’s writing style and thought I’d comment on it – I was drinking up his words. 🙂 Sorry for the brevity of this comment, so many other things that I’ve promised to do right away – but screw it! Here goes!

        – How long did it make to make?

        We started outlining SteamWorld Dig last spring, had the Game Design Doc ready by summer while working on other things, and started for real in October 2012. We were at that time a team of 8 – since March-April we’ve been 11, and 10 of us working full-time on SteamWorld Dig. So you can imagine it’s a bit of an effort – and an investment! – for an indie studio.

        – Any plans for a Wii U port?

        We are discussing various options for porting at the moment. Since we enjoy working with Nintendo (Nintendo of Europe has treated us with great respect, enthusiasm and proactiviity), it’s definitely an option.
        But obviously we must make sure that SteamWorld Dig for the 3DS is a hit, so that we dare commit a large investment for porting – as we have in the original development. We have a laughable PR/marketing budget – you wouldn’t believe it – so we must be clever in reaching out. As a self-publishing indie dev betting all of our (sadly non-existing) farms on a brilliant game, we’re the real David against all the publishing Goliaths out there. So we get only as much hype as we can create with our bare, typing hands. No PR agency, no ads – we can’t afford it. Maybe all of you guys can help? 🙂 If you all would shout in social – and “real” – media, or even ask your media friends to contact us (brjann at imageform dot se) we stand a better fighting chance. We’ve got the stone – a magnificent little game. Please help us improve our slingshot.

        – You say there were some games that inspired you (maybe subconsciously), what were they?

        We love games – I guess you have to in order to become a devoted game dev.
        The real inspiration was the drive to expand on the SteamWorld universe. After we had made SteamWorld Tower Defense (which amazingly paid for itself on the DSiWare Store!) in 2010, we felt that we wanted to expand on the story of decent, hardworking robots fighting lazy, greedy humans. Why the twist? What could possibly have happened to make the world look like this? We have written the story and mapped the components of SteamWorld, but decided to reveal only part of it in SteamWorld Dig. We want to – and will, if it works out – continue making games in this series, and we’ll piecemeal out the bits of the story throughout. This in itself will be very exciting, and is the reason why the story isn’t so fleshed out in SteamWorld Dig, but rather hinting at a greater, underlying story.
        We also love to see what happens when you mix genres. When we made our iOS hit Anthill (from which the proceeds plus loans paid for the development of SteamWorld Dig), we were intrigued to see what would happen if we mixed castle defense with real-time strategy and – line-drawing (such as in Flight Control)! It worked amazingly well, and Apple featured it as iPad Game of the Week at launch. “Aha,” we thought, “taking the best elements from various genres actually works!”
        And so we set about doing the same thing for SteamWorld Dig, which turned into “a mining platformer adventure”, as we call it. As we’re relieved to see, most reviewers are getting it: SteamWorld is in terms of influences a blend of Metroid, MetroidVania, Miner! and other games, among them simple gems such as Dig Dug – but we’ve taken pains to ensure it’s a cocktail that tastes like nothing before. And – as Robert and now dozens of reviewers are testifying – it tastes good!

        Sorry to take up your valuable time with my ramblings. If you feel that you have the power to help us in any way propel SteamWorld Dig into commercially safe waters, don’t hesitate to contact me – we will love you forever. So here it goes again:

        brjann at imageform dot se

        Now enjoy the game, or as we so predictably say:

        DIG IT! 😀

        /Brjann

        • And of course I forgot: please follow us on Twitter, which has been our one trusted railgun throughout this mad PR week: we’re @imageform – look us up and follow! 😀

        • Between the review and the behind the scenes peek, I’m loving this thread.

        • Brjann,

          Thank you for providing a look behind the scenes of SteamWorld Dig and to Image & Form! For me, finding out about the impetus and struggle behind a game adds to the overall experience.

          Now, please don’t forget about us when you become wildly rich, ok?

  8. Downloading now. I love a good mining/digging game.

    Is there any platforming?

  9. For me, this one came out of nowhere. Might have to break in my new black 3DS XL with this.

  10. Wow, that’s a ton of praise. SteamWorld is now on my radar.

  11. I managed to find video for the game Robert was talking about. Beyond the mining/gem collecting I don’t really see the similarities, but of course, I didn’t play it. It came out before I was born.

      • I see the resemblance:

        – Bank/Assay office on top
        – 2D side view of the mine
        – Simulation and goal of making money
        – Little marks that indicate where ore and minerals are
        – Mining permanently alters the playfield

        But watch they video again, You can run out of money and end the game in less than 2 minutes. That is harsh!

      • Its like a 4 bit version of SteamWorld Dig.

        Seems like a cool concept. Anything with a Metroid vibe interests me.

    • Sadly I can’t say the same. 😀 Don’t know about you Robert, but sometime it feels like I grew up before computers were even invented. But it also meant playing classic games when they first came out, which was more awesome than we realized at that time – we saw entire genres being born in the penny arcades. /Brjann

  12. BTW Robert, I was reading headset reviews and came across one sound bite that had some snap to it. Guess who wrote it?

  13. I think I can part with $8.99. Sounds like a fun game.

    One question: is there any new game+ mode?

    • @Captain Killjoy: There is only one game mode, and there is only one difficulty setting. However, the worlds are created procedurally, which means that the locations of items and caves will differ from session to session. Also, we have designed SteamWorld Dig with both exploration and speedrunning in mind. You can explore the entire game – and there will be things you miss – a few times, and then concentrate on speedrunning. The end being so finite as it is – although it may open up for a sequel…? – can lead you to believe that there is little replay value in SteamWorld Dig. I want to contest that – there’s actually a lot of fun in playing it over and over again. It’s never really the same.

      /Brjann

      • I can confirm that. I bought it last night. I started playing and realized I was making a lot of little mining mistakes. So I started over. The new mine was completely different, and I started making new, little mistakes all over.

        Great game, guys! Well worth the $8.99 price.

  14. I really “dig” the art style!

  15. I just want to chime in, I’d love to see more developers chime in on the review thread and interact with us.

  16. Good review. Fun to read.