I’m a big fan of games about spelunking which focus exploring vast, enigmatic underground worlds. Among these include Minecraft and its 2D doppelganger Terraria, RPGs like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis, retro classics like Boulder Dash and Blaster Master, and of course, Spelunky. I’ve been having trouble articulating specifically what causes me to become so engrossed by such settings. In general, I’m always attracted to the exploration aspects of games, but there is something particularly curious about enclosed, dimly lit caverns and what might be waiting to be found (or lurking) within. These spaces juxtapose an atmosphere that is alien yet still earthly. Down there, the treasure is often untouched by human hands, pristine and plentiful, the resident monsters excel at being creepily odd, and hidden surprises become more secretive. Frequently there is that question: “How did this get all the way down here?” These reasons and more contribute to an exceptionally grandiose sense of discovery, which is at the heart of appeal for all exploration-driven games.
Bonus points are given when players are allowed to dig and excavate their own way through the living earth. Digging around is just a fun thing to do! Most games provide such rigid level structures that being able to bust through on your own path is a refreshing novelty. In this post, I want to call out and discuss two good examples of relatively new releases in this vein that have recently been on my plate: SteamWorld Dig and Full Bore.
SteamWorld Dig launched last year on the 3DS eshop and has since proliferated to Steam and PSN. The titular SteamWorld is inhabited by a cast of steam-powered robots in a wild west setting that takes place during a time when humans have long since disappeared from the Earth. Players take on the role of Rusty, a desert wanderer who has recently inherited his long lost uncle’s mine beneath the mostly abandoned town of Tumbleton. Rusty’s quest soon becomes to help the town get back on its feet by excavating the precious ores still buried deep in the mine, which the town needs badly for income, and to ultimately discover the profound secret far deeper in the mine that had become an obsession for his departed relative.
SteamWorld Dig is first and foremost a game about tunneling. With his pickaxe, Rusty must strategically dig his tunnels to locate ore deposits, mine them, and return them to the town when his bag is full. It’s rare to get trapped in the mine, since Rusty can wall jump his way out of most deep pits, but the game also allows him to buy ladders to access out of reach places and lanterns to keep track of his surroundings. Deep in the mine, Rusty will encounter dangers like trap floors and mutant enemies that creep into his tunnels, which he must fend off to avoid losing his fortune. Occasionally, he will encounter an opening that leads to a special cave, where, after completing some platforming and puzzle challenges, he will find a new ability such as running boots or a rocket jump. But really, the game at its core is about burrowing your tunnels, digging out ore, returning it to the town, and using the money to buy upgrades to your pickaxe and other equipment. It feels sort of like a smartphone game in that way. I don’t mean this in the sense that it has microtransactions or pestering ads (it has none of these for the record), but more in the sense that it is very focused on the upgrade loop. You mine ore to buy equipment to then get even more ore to buy even better equipment. The whole thing would run the risk of getting fairly monotonous if it were not for the fact that upgrades come at a refreshingly brisk pace and the enemies and special areas help mix things up.
Gameplay-wise, Full Bore is a very different experience, being more of a box pushing puzzle game than a freeform treasure hunt. However, Full Bore takes place in a similarly whimsical setting, a world of sentient, talking bores. The player takes on the role of one such creature (named either Frederick or Hildi depending on the gender chosen) who has been framed for the robbery of corpulent industrialist Mr. Gullinbursti’s treasure vault. As punishment, the player must descend into Gullinbursti’s mining operation to recover enough gems to restock the vault to its former glory. Unlike SteamWorld Dig, the bore is mostly working in the framework of an already established mine, meaning that scaffolding and platforms permeate most areas of the game. The goal is then to dig into nearby gem-containing earth tiles from the pre-existing structures. The puzzles of the game are a combination of strategic digging and box-pushing. Your character can dig in any direction (up, down, left, and right), but can’t jump. They can however climb up adjacent steps that are their own height. What this means is that to reach a gem, you will often need to build a tunnel which allows for the maneuvering crates so that a pathway can be constructed for the character to reach the gem. Gravity is your enemy in this game and failure is the result of the character or a necessary crate falling or getting stuck in a path from which there is no recovery. Fortunately, the game offers a Braid-style rewind time feature that makes it easy to undo mistakes and mitigate frustration.
All of this is encapsulated in a beautifully detailed pixelated world. The levels interconnect with each in a spiderweb like way to form an open 2D world to explore. Some have referred to this game as a “Metroidvania,” which has regrettably become a catch-all term for any game with such a level structure. While there are a number of hidden areas in the game, there are no unlockable abilities needed to reach those areas. Since this is a rare time that I’m actually playing a game close to its release, I hope to write up a more expanded review later.
Despite the significant differences in gameplay between these titles, I’m struck by several similarities between the two. In addition to the cartoonish settings I mentioned before, there are a lot of these similarities which pop-up across the spectrum of the “underground” games I talked about before, and these qualities are things that really setup (and set apart) a good underground adventure. First and this isn’t much of a spoiler since it’s introduced almost right off the bat in each, their stories both involve uncovering the secrets of a long buried, advanced civilization. Seems like most of these games have you stumbling upon the ruins of a long lost, idyllic society; this was even a major plot thread all the way back in Ultima Underworld. When you think about it, these sorts of deeply buried ruins are kind of a strange contrivance. But really, they sort of play off the “alien yet earthly” aspect I mentioned before. These civilizations are often familiar in some ways, but also exotic as a result of their age and/or advancement. A second major commonality is a focus on unearthed treasure and collecting treasure is always satisfying. Some might say that it’s an unhealthy product of a materialistic society, but collecting shiny objects and watching your cash pile go up always produces a greedy sense of satisfaction, and the act of uncovering these hidden riches creates an empowering feeling of cleverness. And the final thing I want to touch on, most of these games feature multiple “biomes,” things like underground jungles, the aforementioned ruins, lava-filled chambers, underground rivers and waterways, ice caves, etc. Some of this is rooted in reality, but most it is pure invention of the imagination. While a lot of exploration-driven games have differing landscapes, there’s something about all of these realms being secreted deep in the earth that strokes wonderment. It is the thrill of seeing the unseen: that which has always been beneath our feet but only ever speculated upon in fever dreams.
When you really think about it, gaming has always been in love with the underworld. In the real world, the average person rarely ventures beneath the surface, and when they do, it’s usually only because something is broken down there. In games though, we always find characters adventuring around underfoot, not always in caves and mines like I’ve talked about here, but also in dungeons, tunnels, sewers, and vaults.