“Historically, people move west more than east. People go east only when invited. When opportunity knocks. People go west when all bets are off: a reputation in ruins, a love gone wrong. When they need to save their sorry souls, folks head for the frontier.”
When last I explored the SteamWorld, it was in SteamWorld Dig 2, released September 2017. This was also my first experience with any of the SteamWorld games by developer Image & Form Games, so I had the unique vantage of ingesting the series at its latest and most refined entry. The plus side of watching a television series some ten or so episodes in is there’s that opportunity for the show to find its footing and identity, its confidence. By then, presumably, the show has gotten good, pardon the expression. I’m sure most of us know someone who insists upon the quality of some tv show though they include the caveat that you have to sit through so many episodes before the series comes into its full flower.
Analogously, this is true of SteamWorld Dig 2 in terms of its refinement, not to incriminate the previous games of poor quality at all, mind. Dig 2 is in fact the fourth game in the SteamWorld series following SteamWorld Tower Defense, SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt, and SteamWorld Heist in that order, so Dig 2 had the benefit of learning from its predecessors to become the great game that it was. Going back in time from that high point toward A Fistful of Dirt carries with it the added challenge of not entirely coloring my take on the older game with my affection for the newer, but this is nonetheless my necessary perspective on it.
Dig 2 instilled in me a hunger for more of this steampunk/Western infused universe, and since the first Dig is a much more compact game, a shorter jaunt through this world, it was an appetizer that doubly whet my appetite. I’ve still SteamWorld Heist to play but how long until we get SteamWorld Dig 3: the Steambot with No Name?
SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt opens in cinematic fashion with a lone figure trekking through a vast Wild West desert, his glare evocative of Clint Eastwood. This is Rusty the Steambot and he has reached the town of Tumbleton, population 3 (considering one member of that population is a saloon girl it must be a rather interesting town, indeed). As it turns out, Rusty has inherited the deed to his Uncle Joe’s mine, but when he arrives at the town where the mine’s entrance is located, he discovers that his dear uncle has gone the way of the Steam-dinosaurs. Taking up his dearly departed uncle’s pickaxe, Rusty begins to explore the underground macrocosm, uncovering untold riches, lodes of ore and crystals, veins of precious metals, as well as secrets from the past waiting far below.
Rusty’s digging and dugging is supported by the townsfolk of Tumbleton (spoilers: highlight to reveal) which later includes a few more residents. Dorothy, who appears in the sequel as the protagonist, runs a trade shop where Rusty can exchange the ore and gems he mines for currency. Cranky is an aged Steambot who runs an upgrades workshop, supplying Rusty with several early pieces of equipment to make his spelunkery easier. Lola operates the saloon and is maybe possibly a painted lady, and that’s about it.
There is a loosely related story thread through each of the SteamWorld games which I find quite fascinating. A Fistful of Dirt takes place after Tower Defence but the only direct sequel so far, Dig 2, fills in the plot between Fistful of Dirt and Heist. What interests me most is the portrayal of the SteamWorld games as some kind of bizarre and distant post-apocalyptic future.
Think H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, or better yet since I made that comparison with SteamWorld Dig 2, think Beneath the Planet of the Apes, instead. You remember the sequel to the original Planet of the Apes where the mutated descendants of humanity lived underground and worshiped a nuclear bomb? Well here the Apes are replaced with Steambots and the humans steeped in religiosity are traded away for Golumn-esque ghouls clutching haphazard dynamite.
Exactly what grim fate befell the planet? Image & Form Games did release a statement filling in those details, which I included in my review of SteamWorld Dig 2 in its entirety. This vague background that is quite nearly irrelevant to the initial character drives of Rusty and Dorothy helps provide an air of mystery about the game. It’s not just about digging underground and dredging up gold and crystals. A Fistful of Dirt is a game about penetrating mysteries, and that pushes the player forward to find out what’s ahead. That narrative impetus and the almighty “loop” ensure SteamWorld Dig is an addicting game, undoubtedly accounting for its fame and status in the gaming community.
This being a port released on the Nintendo Switch some 5 years after it was originally released on the Nintendo 3DS, I was most curious to discover what visual improvements if any Image & Form Games made. As you can see from the images below, they made more than a few! Overall the presentation is vastly improved.
The screen is zoomed out, allowing the player to take in more detail in Rusty’s immediate surroundings, spy out treasures and secret passageways. The icons at the four corners of the screen are more refined, especially the fire graphic for Rusty’s light source. Shifting that to appear more similar to his health bar and water levels was a great idea. The UI is much cleaner and there is the addition of a mini-map that comes in handy when navigating the underworld, a carry over from Dig 2.
Changes like these bring A Fistful of Dirt more in tune with the imagery of its sequel, a luxury that ports and remasters can afford. However, and this is from my perspective of having fortunately or unfortunately played the sequel first, I could wish they’d carried over the sleeker character designs from the second game back into the first. Comparatively, the characters in Fistful of Dirt are almost prototypical. Dorothy makes for a good point of contrast. There’s much more confidence and balance in her design in Dig 2, as is to be expected with the evolution of design.
Still, SteamWorld Dig boasts a world of light and color in soft, textured tones, almost Seussian in its wackiness, and the streamlining on the Switch sets it above average.
The soundtrack by Mattias Hammarin cannot compare to the single glory that is “El Machino” from SteamWorld Dig 2, a song of infinite listening potentiality. Now that I’ve made that comparison, let’s talk about how great the soundtrack to Fistful of Dirt is.
The songs all lean heavily on the Western flavor of the game, much more so than with the sequel, with the atmospheric sensibilities we most often associate audibly with space and science fiction. I can’t imagine that this combination was easy to pull off, though it’s evocative of the Terran themes from StarCraft to my ears. Here, however, the music provides a pleasant enough backdrop for exploring the ancient, subterranean world. “The Main Theme” is fair representative of the entire score, I reckon.
Actually, in pausing to think about it, the thought occurred to me that the music of Fistful of Dirt is more appropriate for the character of Rusty than is the music of Dig 2, which fits Dorothy. The masculine “hah-ing” of the game’s central theme and its plodding pace match the square-jawed Rusty, the loner crossing the wastes, whereas the gentle, smooth sophistication and optimism of Dig 2’s soundtrack highlights Dorothy the desert flower and her hopefulness.
On one minor note (music pun, heh), I did feel the need to mess with the audio settings in the game a few minutes after playing it for the first time. Rusty makes a loud, metallic crashing noise when dropping or jumping and hitting his head against a ceiling which proved too noisy, so I took the sound effects down a few in-game notches and bumped up the levels for the music. It was easy goin’ from there.
When I wrote on SteamWorld Dig 2, I talked a bit about “the loop”. This loop is where a game provides incentive to keep playing by allowing you access to tangibles which are then used to collect upgrades which then allow you to access greater tangibles which are then used to collect greater upgrades and so on. Many games present this loop at their core and that’s a part of the Metroidvania influence in SteamWorld Dig 2 that many have pointed out. That involves backtracking and scouring every surface for any conceivable tangible to get all your upgrades, capitalizing on what seems to be a fundamental human drive to accumulate, if not hoard.
Here in A Fistful of Dirt, the loop is present on a smaller scale in its comparatively linear world; it takes you straight down with only a prompt to backtrack toward the end of the game. Despite the pressure of a rather tiny inventory early on before you gain the cash to expand it, which I was somewhat critical of in Dig 2 as I’m somewhat critical of here, this loop functions incredibly well.
What’s surprising, given A Fistful of Dirt’s short length (it’s easily beatable in 3-4 hours), is how many upgrades there are to purchase back in Tumbleton. Anything from sharper, stronger pickaxes that chew through dirt quicker, to optimizing upgrades to Rusty’s water retention and consumption, to more health, to consumable items like lamps and ladders and dynamite.
That’s a lot to choose from but it doesn’t even include the very much Metroidvania-esque abilities to be discovered underground. Among those are things like a running ability that lets Rusty sprint over crumbling chasms. Even when fully upgraded (or nearly so, since I didn’t completely 100% the game), I still missed the plethora of additional mechanisms Dorothy later gains in Dig 2, such as her jetpack and bombs.
Without these, I found it was much easier to get trapped underground with Rusty. He can wall-climb but digging up the dirt incorrectly later in the game can leave you with self-destruction as your only option for returning to town, assuming you forgot to purchase a mobile teleporter. These aren’t as seamless of a mode of travel as in Dig 2 where you could choose your destination for fast travel, but teleporters are a Godsend when your inventory is full and you’re running out of light.
You did bring a teleporter, didn’t you?
Ultimately, if there was one thing I could ask for more of in SteamWorld Dig, besides for more SteamWorld Dig, is more story. The final revelation of the game is a good payoff, provided it wasn’t spoiled in playing Dig 2 before Fistful of Dirt, as was the final boss fight but I would like to have learned more about Vectron and what the last area of the game means for the history of this Steam-World. Maybe that’s just something that will continue to drive me toward playing more games in this series.
A Fistful of Dirt is easy and enjoyable to play with a simple control scheme and a focal sense of direction: go downward, that’s it. Each of the game’s multiple upgrades and abilities are easy to grasp and utilize in the situations which require them, while the game at the same time presents the player with obstacles to be overcome through applying indirect and inquisitive uses of Rusty’s tools. I never once used a ladder or a lamp, or even felt the need to, so in that sense there may be more to SteamWorld Dig than is necessary, but on the whole it is a very lean game with seemingly as much fat trimmed out as possible.
I made the mistake of underestimating this game’s difficulty which grows steep there toward the end. Because I chewed through the early to mid portions of the game with ease, with minimal upgrades to Rusty’s H2O systems, choosing instead to dump my gold into faster and stronger pickaxes, when I was confronted with the real difficulties of navigating the bottom half of the shiner regions I was taken by surprise.
Acid pools. Lasers. Exploding robots. TNT barrels. Magnetic blocks that fall upwards. A couple stupid deaths on my part with these were enough to make me rethink my strategy. I opted to spend a little more time beefing up Rusty’s health and capabilities before digging onward. Even then, I still died the first time I fought the final boss as I couldn’t find one of the nodes to destroy, but that was a thrilling encounter that actually put me on the edge of my seat for some minutes! Hooray for tough boss fights that are more than exalted cutscenes.
A Fistful of Dirt has well above average replay value not solely because there is so much to find and discover but also because it is just so much fun to play. Included in that is the fact that this game’s underground environs are randomly generated, meaning that no two playthroughs will be precisely the same. That preserves the sense of exploration and the joy of discovery you felt the first time you played it.
Plus, there is one particularly nostalgic secret that really made me smile (potential SPOILER warning for that link).
The first of the two Dig games, I can safely say that if I’d played it first before its sequel, I would’ve found it very unique. It reminds one of games like Dig Dug and Terraria, with others mentioning Spelunky, but A Fistful of Dirt owns its universe and its collision of influences is utterly distinctive in gaming, including the connective tissues of which Fistful of Dirt is a part in this grander drama of SteamWorld. Bring on SteamWorld Dig 3!
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I was so delighted to finally play SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt and come to understand just why this game is so beloved among indies in the gaming community. I know why now. It’s a spiral that makes you want to keep circling deeper without ever wanting to reach the center. You play it and just want more. It is one of the seminal indie titles that anyone who is into indies must play.
I’m extremely grateful to Image & Form Games for providing us with a key to review this game. Look out for audio content coming soon and thanks for reading!
Aggregated Score: 7.5
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