Few would have been aware of SteamWorld Dig's existence before the last Nintendo Direct saw Satoru Shibata rather casually announce that it was to launch on the eShop immediately after the end of the presentation. I'll admit, I dismissed it on sight: though it looked nice enough, it reminded me too much of the disappointing Dillon's Rolling Western, if only for the Morricone-esque whistling on the soundtrack.
Well, more fool me, because SteamWorld Dig is an unexpected joy, a winning blend of Metroid's exploration and atmosphere with the tension of Mr. Driller's careful path plotting and limited resources. Toss in a pinch of Spelunky's cheerful craftiness and stern challenge and the result is one of the best 3DS downloads to date.
The first half-hour even carries faint echoes of Terraria's lonely, laborious opening stages, as robot hero Rusty slowly chips away at the rock and dirt beneath a sparse desert settlement, hoping to uncover the remnants of a long-dead human civilisation. Your first trips underground are short and uneventful: your lantern will run out of light fairly quickly, while the dormant enemies that burrow towards you should you disturb them can take hefty chunks out of your small health meter. You'll climb back up within minutes, toting a meagre haul of cheap ore back to town and selling it for cash that pays for items, with a cumulative total unlocking fresh upgrades at certain milestones.
The pace begins to pick up once you get hold of Rusty's drill. You'll chew through dirt quicker and start plotting routes towards the pockets of water you need to absorb in order to run it. Then you'll get a steam-powered punch that makes light work of regular tiles, allowing you to move deeper faster, towards more expensive minerals. A charge-jump makes trips back to base less arduous, as do portable teleports that allow you to return to the deepest point you reached.
A winning blend of Metroid's exploration and atmosphere, Mr. Driller's careful path plotting and limited resources, Spelunky's cheerful craftiness and stern challenge
By now, the dangers of your excavation are all the more apparent, from robot armadillos to dynamite-carrying zombies alongside natural hazards like pools of lurid green acid, collapsing rocks and spikes. Your greatest enemy, however, is complacency. Digging a vertical trench may be fine on the way down, and a handy wall-jump means you can get back up, but a return trip can see you lose a chunk of energy or even die from the fall.
That's nothing compared to that cold sensation in the pit of your stomach when you've spent half an hour digging only to realise there's no possible way back up, other than to self-destruct and lose your hard-earned swag. Luckily, you can return to pick up your pouch of goodies if you make it back unscathed, but haste can lead to moments of sloppiness: a carelessly placed stick of dynamite, or a foolhardy attempt to grab a diamond from under a falling stone, are as likely as any of those subterranean beasts to be the end of you.
Death might come quickly to the careless, then, but the immaculate pacing keeps you coming back. Thanks to your investment, the town develops over time, with new arrivals selling you better gear, while just about every dig ends with you unlocking or buying something new. I finished the game in just under six hours (with a handful of upgrades still to buy), over two sessions that ran into the early hours - both times intended as nothing more than a quick go before bed.
SteamWorld Dig is the best kind of surprise, then: a game with substance, challenge and no little charm that seems to have come out of nowhere. The 3DS is enjoying a particularly strong year for games, and eShop titles of this quality can only continue its hot streak.