SteamWorld Dig (Nintendo Switch) review: Stainless steel

Being a sequel, SteamWorld Dig 2 was necessarily focused on taking everything that made its predecessor work. It was incredibly successful at that—as I said in my review—had the side effect of giving me an urge to play the original SteamWorld Dig again. I re-downloaded the PS Vita version and played through it again, loving every minute of it but also appreciating the sequel’s improvements that much more.

A few months later, and SteamWorld Dig is back again with a release on Nintendo Switch. It’s a homecoming of sorts, seeing as the whole SteamWorld series was born on a Nintendo handheld. It’s also at least the third or fourth time I’ve played through this game, and I still love it every bit as much as I did the first time. This is a game that’s stood the test of time well, and I’ve no doubt it’s one I’ll return to time and again in years to come.

SteamWorld Dig advertises itself as “a platform mining adventure”, which is certainly an apt description. You play as Rusty, a steam-powered robot who inherits his uncle’s old mine beneath the quiet Western town of Tumbleton. Armed with a trusty pickaxe, the goal is to dig your way through the earth, collecting ores and gems that can be exchanged for cold, hard cash. The deeper you go, the rarer and more valuable the loot, but the tougher the earth is to break—luckily, you can get stronger axes with your hard-earned money.

SteamWorld Dig Switch review

As you dig deeper, you discover that there’s more to old Joe’s mine than first meets the eye. Among the precious metals are strange, glowing relics that the Tumbleton shopkeeps are all too happy to take off your hands. Things get even stranger as you go deeper, from the zombie-like “shiners”—who love to toss dynamite around despite, y’know, living in a mine—to the deadly remnants of a lost, technologically advanced civilisation with plenty of its own secrets to uncover.

Throughout all this, you find trap-laden caverns lead to weird machines. Stepping into one of these imparts new abilities on Rusty, better equipping him for his mining adventures with things like a pneumatic drill and a double-jump. It’s Metroid-like ability progression, but without the typical Metroid-like level structure; instead, your upgrades make you more able to reach tucked-away deposits and less likely to dig yourself into a hole you can’t get out of.

Those caverns are all carefully designed, offering up a smooth and well-crafted platforming challenge. If you’re just going for the upgrades and story progression, there’s nothing too difficult, but each one of these “dungeons” also has a wealth of loot that requires a bit more platforming prowess. Here, SteamWorld Dig strikes a fine balance between pixel-perfect jumps and creative puzzle solving.

SteamWorld Dig Switch review

The mine outside of those caves, meanwhile, is all procedurally-generated and more open in terms of design. Aside from a few unbreakable platforms scattered about, most of the tiles are destructible, so if you’re not careful you can dig yourself into a hole with no way out except a costly self-destruct. You can avoid such a fate with a little bit of planning, and strategically mining your way down in such a way that you always have an escape route is its own puzzle.

Luckily, Rusty can wall jump up vertical surfaces, and the upgrades you get along the way give you more tools to navigate with, letting you jump higher and farther. The Tumbleton shopkeeper sells ladders, which you can stack on top of one another to give you some means of climbing if you get stuck, but you can carry only five at a time, so they’re best used sparingly.

In this sense, SteamWorld Dig is rougher than its successor. In SteamWorld Dig 2, the maps are all carefully designed in such a way that, no matter how much you dig, there’s always a way to the surface; as such, there’s no need for ladders or self-destructs. That’s certainly convenient, and the sequel’s level design is much more classically Metroidvanian as a consequence. After revisiting the first game, I feel like something was lost there; in SteamWorld Dig, you’re effectively creating (and solving) your own platforming puzzles as you dig your way deeper into the mine.

SteamWorld Dig Switch review

Playing SteamWorld Dig 2, I found myself compulsively destroying every destructible tile I came across—which is cathartic, in its own way. Doing that in SteamWorld Dig is a quick route to failure, though, so it creates a very different sort of relationship between player and level design, and that’s one of this game’s most unique features. Put another way, the two games are a great complement to one another; there’s a lot of excitement to be found in both the polished, refined approach of SteamWorld Dig 2 and the rough creativity of SteamWorld Dig.

Nothing new has been added for the Switch release, and that’s because nothing needed to be. As Image & Form said themselves when they announced the port, “SWD1 is our pride and joy and claim to fame. It’s the classic that set the stage for grander events unfolding in SteamWorld.” It’s a perfect fit for Switch, too: it’s easy to play in short bursts, making it great for playing on the go, but with a bigger screen than both 3DS and Vita so that you can really appreciate the game’s gorgeous artwork.

SteamWorld Dig was a brilliant game when it first came out on 3DS five years ago, and it’s every bit as brilliant today. It’s a rougher experience than its successors, sure, but that’s part of its charm—and it’s that charm, along with the simple, compelling game loop, that makes this a game I’ll always enjoy, no matter how many times I’ve played it.

SteamWorld Dig is developed and published by Image & Form. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC, Xbox One, Wii U, and 3DS.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.