Wot I Think: SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful Of Dirt

By John Walker on December 5th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

We learned late last month that metroidvania-meets-Spelunky-and-other-stuff dig-em-up SteamWorld Dig, the 3DS hit, was making its way to PC. Today it’s arrived, on Steam, and I’ve finished it all over again. Here’s wot I think:

If you played SteamWorld Dig on 3DS, then yes, good news, this is precisely the same fantastic game but with far lovelier graphics. If you didn’t, then gosh, do I have a game to recommend to you.

SWD follows a smart, zeitgeisty recipe. Two parts Metroidvania, one part mining game, and a splash of roguelite platforming sensibilities. But rather than a cynical embracing of current trends, it then also manages to include something else: being brilliant.

You play as a robot, coming into a Wild West town to claim his uncle’s mines. After the advice of the town’s fantastic locals (who will also prove to be shopkeepers), you head underground, to see what’s what. And ‘what’ is your uncle, rather dead. So with a practicality that only a serious-faced robot can offer, you grab his pickaxe and start hitting stuff.

The game is very much about creating downward paths. The 2D game is essentially tiled, the ground made of square blocks, but oddly never feels that way – it always feels organic and free-flowing. There’s loose earth, stone, precious stones, impenetrable rock, and so on. Your pick will only manage the former, with other tools coming your way soon for dealing with the tougher stuff.

Those downward paths can prove quite crucial, since there’s a good chance you’ll want to retrace your steps. And it’s entirely possible to carve away at the game in such a way that you leave yourself unable to. That’s not a game over, in any sense – there are teleporters (both pre-placed, and ones you can buy and drop), and there’s an option to self-destruct, and be rebuilt up top while losing half your current cash. But those paths are permanent. As you explore farther, you open up new mines, perhaps five in total (I’m not best at counting), and retracing your steps isn’t something you regularly need to do. But at the same time, it adds a splendid element of care as you dig for treasures.

When you head back up top, you can exchange your mined goodies for cash, and then spend that on upgrades from an increasing number of store owners. These can be better tools, better versions of current tools, more health, and very crucially, benefits toward light and water.

Water is used for various special abilities and tools. Its limitations mean you can’t just go drilly willy nilly, or super-jumping everywhere. Finding pools of it is usually the best bet, standing in them and hearing the excellent slurrpiiscrlurpp sound as our hero soaks it in. Killing enemies can also yield a bit of water, but you’re taking a chance there, as they’ll also drop health, or light.

Light indeed – it’s the most important resource in the game. The longer you’re down in the mines, the darker it gets. And this is delivered extremely effectively. The screen begins gorgeously illuminated, and the gradually the darkness draws in around you, until you can barely see past where you’re stood. You can still play, but you’re risking destroying a block that supports a big mean droppy-down metal thing that’ll squish you, or walking off a ledge into a big plunge. So you either attack things to maybe get their odd drop, or you make a trip back to the surface to restock. It sounds like it might be frustrating, but it rarely is. It’s just another element to think about as you play, another reason to be careful.

Along the ways down, you find doorways to puzzle rooms. There are only maybe a dozen of them – it’s not the focal point of the game – but in these you’re set some very satisfying challenges to complete with your ever-expanding collection of abilities. The rewards are often floaty blue orbs which are needed to buy certain upgrades, or just some phat mineral loot.

So in the end, when I look at it, the game really is about digging for jewels, selling them, then digging for more jewels. And yet it never, ever feels like that as I’m playing. I’ve finished the game twice now, once on 3DS, and now on PC, and both times I’ve been absolutely hooked throughout. And it’s thanks to the incredibly subtle cleverness behind the design. As the game goes on, even mining itself becomes a more elaborate task, requiring forethought and care to get to the tougher places, without cocking up your route. The layout isn’t just blank sheets of rock to mine, but intricately crafted domains, as interesting as possible to explore.

Another design element that deserves celebration is how it very cleverly gets you to retrace earlier steps to pick up what you missed. You could do that at any time, but then the drive to keep moving forward is pretty strong. So when the game has you revisit a few specific challenge areas to reveal some surprises, along the way you re-explore places, now complete with a pile of extra skills. Everything is suddenly more accessible, and those places you messed up and couldn’t climb back up are now reachable. This is a game that makes you wait an agonisingly long time for the precious double-jump, but once you’ve got it, oh boy.

The PC realisation of the formerly tiny-windowed system is smart, and the transition doesn’t lose anything for missing a second screen. The new interface keeps everything tidily around the sides, and the map – while annoying that I couldn’t find a way to zoom out – sits sensibly top right and does a fine job.

A serious concern was my not finding a way to adjust the PC controls. The game, like Spelunky, makes more sense to play on a controller, and I did. But again, no options for moving the buttons about. That seems like a hefty oversight.

When it comes to resolutions, however, it’s the best possible world. There are no options – uh-oh. Except, run it in a window and you can then stretch and resize it to anything you want, and the game instantly conforms, and looks pristine. All games: do that please.

The result is a perfect transition of an already adored game, re-rendered beautifully for the PC. It never looks less than gorgeous, and the tiny details that were almost unappreciable on the 3DS can now be properly enjoyed. Like, for instance:

The few characters in the game are bursting with silly, pantomime personalities, foils for your silent, straight-faced champ, but they don’t nag or get in the way of what matters: digging for treasure. Perhaps most importantly, the controls are all but perfect. The 3DS build was rightly praised for having such absolutely amazing controls, every leap, hit and wall-jump feeling spot on. And the same is true here – it’s something easily taken for granted, as perhaps it should be, but it remains outstanding in its class. The “all but”? Oddly, just like the handheld version, it sometimes seems to misfire the double-jump on your first bounce. Not often, not in a way that spoils anything, but enough for me to hold back on giving it the “perfect” they’d want to quote on an advert.

(“‘perfect’ – John Walker, Rock, Paper, Shotgun”…)

It remains a joy. It’s calming, pleasurable, cute and tricky. It’s Spelunky for people who don’t like restarting all the time. But it’s also its own distinct notion, with its focus on progression over difficulty. SteamWorld Dig is a really lovely, very fun time. What a great thing for a game to be.

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39 Comments »

  1. Lexx87 says:

    This sounds wonderful – yet another on the pile….

    I’ve only just managed to play and finish Guacamelee and Brothers: Tale of two sons.

  2. zachforrest says:

    Well this sounds like an absolute belter

  3. GernauMorat says:

    Up with this kind of thing!

  4. pilouuuu says:

    I’m glad to know that this is a very fine game.

  5. Moraven says:

    So now, will it make the Advent calendar…

    Need to pick this up on my 3DS.

  6. ComradeSnarky says:

    I loved this game to death on the 3DS and I’m glad to see it on PC, but I do wonder how the PC crowd will receive it. It is fantastic while it lasts, and heartily recommended, but it doesn’t have the longevity of, say, Spelunky or Terraria.

    • DrollRemark says:

      Yeah, my biggest flaws with this were that it was just too short, and a too easy. I enjoyed it, absolutely, but I think the glowing reviews I read beforehand made me expect more than I should have.

      Still, if you haven’t played it, do.

      • ComradeSnarky says:

        It is super fun and charming and does not wear out its welcome. Everyone should buy it (but they shouldn’t expect an especially lengthy or replayable experience).

    • Bradamantium says:

      Clearly I don’t speak for PC gamers as whole, but I almost prefer that. I bought Spelunky recently and it stared me down from atop its learning curve and made me realize I’d be looking at dozens of hours’ investment in this game to get any good at it. Which is a shame, as I do like it, and I do like its brand of difficulty, but that pigeonholes when I can spend much time with it at all. Considering the number of nigh unbeatable games in my Steam library, I wonder if the obsession with longevity on our side of the market may be a bit excessive.

      • ComradeSnarky says:

        I am also coming to prefer shorter games because (1) I have limited time and there are interesting games coming out every nanosecond these days, and (2) I find that most games aren’t deep enough to really warrant 20+ hours of gameplay. (Spelunky is sort of an outlier. I will probably never be “done” with it because it is crazily deep and compelling, but I can play a few runs here and there without sinking a huge amount of time into it because good runs are short and bad runs are…shorter.)

        That being said, when I reached the end of SWD, I wished there was some way to spend more time playing around in its world other than simply starting over and playing the same campaign again. That’s not really a problem, per se–really, it’s a testament to the strength of the mechanics. I just hope that doesn’t turn folks off, because the game really is splendid.

    • internisus says:

      I want my PC to have all of the wonderful finite single-player experiences normally attributed to consoles. Indeed, I value a SteamWorld Dig more than a Spelunky or a Terraria. Yet I am extremely pro-PC to the point where I would prefer to see consoles disappear because their existence keeps games from my platform. All I care about as far as platform goes are 1) the power and flexibility of the system and 2) the availability of games.

      My choice of platform is completely independent of my taste in games, and I’d wager that, among the well-known communities of highly tactical and historically accurate war simulators, modified competitive FPS players on custom servers, and dedicated builders who spend years recreating their favorite fictional cities in Minecraft, there are plenty like me who quietly love well-made single-player experiences but happen to do so on PC.

      • ComradeSnarky says:

        I didn’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a place for games like this on PC. I’m happy it’s on PC and I will probably buy it again. It’s just that it had a very nice niche on the 3DS. We are sort of spoiled for choice here on PC when it comes to awesome indie games.

  7. Nero says:

    I played it through in pretty much one sitting when I got it on 3DS which is something I very rarely. I will probably eventually grab the PC version as well.

    • Toadsmash says:

      How is it on replayability compared to Spelunky/Terraria?

  8. Fry says:

    A game like this really needs to be Big Picture ready. Meaning, default to full screen and be immediately controllable without resorting to mouse & keyboard.

    • Lorewin says:

      Just bought it – it starts fullscreen and works immediately with my (360 wireless) controller.

      • Fry says:

        Good to know, thanks. The article made it sound like it didn’t.

      • internisus says:

        Indeed, it does. I was surprised. I run 2560×1440, and a lot of games, if they even handle that properly at all, start up weirdly the first time. This was perfect.

  9. SillyWizard says:

    How does a robot have an uncle?

  10. amateurviking says:

    So I just bought a 3DS. Should I get it on that or Steam?

    • ComradeSnarky says:

      I’ve only played it on the 3DS, but it probably comes down to whether you want the spiffier visuals of the PC version or the portability of the 3DS version. The game looks good on the 3DS, but the 3D effect isn’t as well-implemented as it could be.

  11. Dozer says:

    “I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking “did he inject me with six shots or only five?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is adrenaline, the most powerful stimulant in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

    Inability to count is yet one more reason why Walker is a terrible healer.

    • Dozer says:

      I can’t tell you all how disappointed I am that no-one’s noticed my brilliant comment.

  12. internisus says:

    If the controls are pretty much perfect (and I agree), then why demand the ability to change the buttons? It seems silly and unnecessary. Let’s just trust the developer to design the controller layout ideally for their game, especially since, as you say, they did.

    • Oozo says:

      The word “controls” actually can mean two different things, and you are mixing them up: What John is talking about is closer to what Tim Rogers calls “friction”. Stuff like how Mario’s acceleration in the first “Super Mario Bros.” (famously triggered by the B-button) just feels right. Or how every jump in “Super Meat Boy” is just pixel-perfect.
      The other meaning is just plain UI — which button actually does make Super Meat Boy jump? It’s reasonable to ask for a way to decide that on your own, while you gladly take the “tightness” of the controls in the other sense.

      • internisus says:

        I may be mixing them up in John’s writing, but not in my argument. Control layout feeds the sense of “friction” (not a fan of that term for it, but whatever); they are not independent aspects. Decisions made about control layout help to create “tightness” of controls. Super Mario Bros. and Super Meat Boy are both examples of that; just as you used them to describe “friction,” you have to appreciate that the way they feel to play is heavily influenced by the placement of the run button with respect to the jump button in each. Control layout is *not* “plain UI.”

        So, again, the controller layout is exactly how it should be, game designers should be trusted to provide you with the layout that they want you to use for their game, and it is not in fact reasonable to expect to be able to change the buttons unless they’ve cocked that up, which is certainly not the case here.

        Why would anyone want to change the buttons here, anyway? I’d like to hear one or two specifics, as I can’t imagine any changes that wouldn’t make the game worse instead of better. Like some fool in 1985 changing the run button in SMB to select instead of B.

        • ComradeSnarky says:

          Rebindable controls are kind of a thing on PC, no? This argument strikes me the same way as the defenses offered for the lack of FOV sliders in many first person games. Just because the default works for you, or even for most people, does not mean that you shouldn’t give people options.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Perhaps because I’m using a nonstandard keyboard, and QWAS is positioned horribly?

        • Nixitur says:

          Specifically, I hated the run button on the 360 gamepad being on X. With my thumb usually between A and B, that is a very inconvenient place to hit in a hurry.
          The game expects me to hold down the front part of my thumb and press the jump button with the lower part. That just feels unnatural, as the front part of the thumb is much better suited to repeated button pushing.
          There is a config file that you can edit to change the controls, but the problem is that it doesn’t work. I would have loved the run button to be on the right trigger, but no dice.

          • Mitthrawn says:

            It works now (reprogramming controls), and I just have to say, exactly this. Who puts run on a face button? Right trigger is where it belongs.

        • DatonKallandor says:

          Because smaller and indie developers (and console devs) are frequently dumb and put important functions on the X and Z keys. Completely forgetting that Z isn’t in the same place for everyone in the world. Not a problem if keys are bindable freely – a game-breaking problem if they’re not.

        • dE says:

          So, about your point:
          - left handed players
          - players with physical disabilities
          - players with foreign keyboard layouts

          So… about that point… you still want to make it? In case you do, do you also oppose volume sliders, because you need to listen to the sound in precisely the loudness the Developer intends?

  13. airtekh says:

    Hmm, not sure about this. I love Spelunky but I hated Terraria.

    Is there a demo?

    • ComradeSnarky says:

      No demo that I’m aware of. It is a much more focused experience than Terraria. There is no crafting to speak of. It’s really just exploration and combat. In terms of mechanics and aesthetics, I much prefer it.

  14. Metr13 says:

    An amazing game, but leaves hungering for a soft-of terraria experience with all the shiny toys it has to offer.

    Then again, not every game needs to be a sandbox.

  15. pertusaria says:

    This sounds great. I really like Gem Miner, which going by the description is a (simpler?) game like this for Android, so I’m quite prepared for a pleasant experience that will while away a few hours before eventually ending.