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SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt

Platform(s): Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, WiiU, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Image & Form Games
Release Date: Feb. 1, 2018

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Switch Review - 'Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt'

by Andreas Salmen on July 13, 2018 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

SteamWorld Dig is a platform mining adventure where you dig tunnels, collect rare minerals, sell them for better equipment and take on the terrors of the underground - while Rusty undergoes the strangest of transformations.

Buy Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt

Image & Form's latest game, Steamworld Dig 2, was released last autumn to critical acclaim, building on the foundation laid by its predecessor, Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt. In case you haven't had the opportunity to play the origin story of Dorothy and Rusty in this steampunk Wild West, Image & Form has also ported its first game to the Switch. Almost five years after its initial release on the 3DS, Steamworld Dig holds up pretty well.

In A Fistful of Dirt, we take control of a robot named Rusty, who recently inherited his uncle's mine. Upon investigating our unexpected inheritance, we meet Dorothy (the protagonist of Steamworld Dig 2) and the remains of our uncle. We "borrow" his pickax and get to work rebuilding the town with the gems, orbs, and valuables we find in the mine. A Fistful of Dirt is a highly imaginative world with quirky characters, even if it feels restrained and limited in that regard when compared with later titles.

Steamworld Dig is an explorative platformer that's inspired by Metroidvania elements and a bit of Spelunky. The game is based on exploring our mine downward in search of gems to sell for cash, which we can exchange for items and upgrades for our equipment. The more gems and orbs we unearth, the more shops open in our town, offering more advanced upgrades. We have to be mindful of not digging a pit that we can't climb out of, and we'll also encounter enemies to either avoid or kill. A Fistful of Dirt is an indie title that doesn't span more than five hours if you really take your time and want to get all upgrades before facing the last boss. It isn't even challenging by any standards, but it nails a very important aspect that makes it fun to play years after its original release: exploration.

It's a simple enough gameplay loop that involves exploring for a while, returning to the surface, getting upgrades, and venturing deeper. The limiting factors in the early stages are equipment, health and light. Enemies can be very tough at the start, and dying means being sent back to the surface with nothing to show for it. You can reclaim some lost gems by going back down. We carry a lamp to see where we're digging, but it only lasts for a short time, and a backpack that runs out of space just as quickly. We may also reach deeper layers of the mine, where our pickax is either useless or highly inefficient, so we'll need to upgrade or find new tools altogether.

On our way through the mine, we encounter small entrances. Some of them are rather small and house additional gems and orbs, but others are integral to the story and update our toolset so we can run faster, jump higher and destroy harder stones. While not a Metroidvania in a traditional sense — there's no real level design here apart from secluded story levels, and there's no real backtracking — it does invoke the same sense of progression and discovery as we dig.

A Fistful of Dirt plays well, with great platforming mechanics and tight controls. It's apparent where the sequel got its rock-solid foundation from, but even though it's still a fun little experience, this title is far from reaching the heights of the most recent entry.

The randomized mines may boost replayability, but they can also make the game feel slightly unfocused. It's not as noticeable due to its short runtime, but after the more thoughtfully designed Steamworld Dig 2, the first game lacks some direction in its design approach. Add to that some missing conveniences from its sequel, like an established fast-travel system, and the gameplay is significantly different.

Whereas the second game had fixed fast travel points, A Fistful of Dirt has portals that must be purchased and can be placed at our convenience. Portals are purchased with orbs that can appear limited at times if you don't actively seek them out, leaving you without a fast-travel point in rare instances. The game also offers other items, such as ladders, which we never really used, and that rightfully disappeared in the sequel.

Visually, the game is an indie gem of the past that shows its roots since it was designed for the 3DS and was ported to other platforms afterward. It's a far cry from Steamworld Dig 2, but it's still charming and well executed. It runs perfectly well on the Switch and may still be one of the better indies to take on the go for a quick explorative fix.

As a sum of its parts, Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt still holds up reasonably well. If you haven't jumped in yet, start your journey here before tackling the sequel. The gameplay may feel limited if you've already completed the sequel, but A Fistful of Dirt is still an incredibly fun platformer.

Score: 7.3/10

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