Dig Dug represents a type of game that doesn’t really exist any more, at least in its original form: what I shall refer to from hereon as “Dirt and Boulders” games.
The idea of a Dirt and Boulders game is that you dig through a bunch of dirt while trying to accomplish something, attempting not to get squashed by inconveniently placed boulders, and occasionally trying to use said boulders to your advantage.
Dirt and Boulders games were big in the ’80s, with titles like Mr. Do!, Boulder Dash and numerous clones of both keeping people entertained both in arcades and at home. But 1982’s Dig Dug was the game that established the template for all subsequent Dirt and Boulders games to follow — and a template that modern offshoots of Dirt and Boulders games, such as Minecraft, Terraria and suchlike, have somewhat drifted away from in favour of crafting and exploration.
In Dig Dug, you take on the role of a character who is typically just known as Dig Dug today, but, if you delve into series lore — yes, it exists — is actually named Hori Taizo, a pun on a Japanese phrase that translates to “I want to dig”. If you delve a little further, you may also discover that he is the father of Mr. Driller’s protagonist and the ex-husband of Baraduke’s heroine Toby Masuyo. The Namco extended universe is a strange and wonderful place.
In probably the quintessential example of the Dirt and Boulders genre I described above, in Dig Dug your one and only goal is to clear each screen of monsters buried in dirt, using either your trusty harpoon gun-cum-bike pump combo or by dropping rocks on their heads after digging out the dirt from underneath them. Said monsters come in two different flavours: Pookas simply wander around, while Fygars are small fire-breathing dragons that occasionally spit out a jet of flame on the horizontal axis. Both begin in already-dug tunnels, but have the ability to take on a ghostly form and float through solid dirt in pursuit of whatever you want to call the protagonist.
Dig Dug adopts a common format for Namco’s arcade games in that simple survival and progression is relatively straightforward, but if you want to score the big points (and, by extension, extra lives) you’re going to have to take some more significant risks. Specifically, you’ll need to try and defeat enemies deeper in the dirt — darker-coloured soil further down the screen indicates a new “tier” of points for defeating an enemy there — and ideally by using the boulders to crush multiple enemies at once rather than picking off one at a time using your air pump. Bonus points can also be obtained by picking up an item that appears in the middle of a stage after you drop any two rocks, and as the game progresses the value of this item increases hugely.
Dig Dug works well as a score attack game because its basic mechanics and rules are extremely simple to understand, but advanced players can distinguish themselves by making use of additional techniques beyond simply moving and firing the harpoon. Once you get used to Dig Dug, you’ll want to carefully plan out your route through the dirt to trap monsters into ending up underneath boulders, dig out as much dirt as possible for bonus points, or only partially inflate enemies in order to slow them down without killing them. This latter aspect is particularly important as the number of enemies in a single level increases and you sometimes find three or four chasing you down at once.
While Dig Dug’s stage layouts are fixed, there’s less benefit to memorising them than in something like Galaga, because there’s a much more significant random, variable component to the gameplay. The enemies are less predictable — though you can manipulate their behaviour in a few ways — and each game tends to unfold quite differently rather than simply being a memory test. This isn’t to say that there is no value in learning what happens when, however, particularly when the game starts playing dirty tricks such as overlaying multiple enemies on top of each other, meaning one can kill you while you’re attempting to inflate the other.
Dig Dug may initially appear to lack depth (no pun intended) compared to some later examples of Dirt and Boulders games, most notably 1984’s Boulder Dash, which was more of a puzzle game than anything else. But in actuality, it’s not that the game lacks substance; rather, it’s that it offers a rather more freeform experience than the more structured levels of Boulder Dash and even Mr. Do!. You’re given the tools you need to succeed at your given task, and it’s up to you how you accomplish it.
Do you attempt to clear each screen quickly and efficiently, or do you try and mastermind an elaborate plan to score a huge chunk of points in one go? Do you deliberately drop rocks even if they’re nowhere near enemies, just to spawn the bonus items? Or do you try and — pardon me — kill two Pookas with one stone? Do you make an effort to lure enemies into the depths? Or do you just kill them where they stand?
There are lots of interesting decisions to make in a typical game of Dig Dug, and, as we’ve said already, each time you play things tend to unfold slightly differently to the last. Sometimes you’ll get lucky with your boulder drops; sometimes you’ll pull off a piece of strategic mastery; sometimes you’ll idiotically wander straight into a Pooka within five seconds of starting the first level.
There’s one constant, though: it’s always fun, satisfying and joyful to play a game of Dig Dug; it’s one of Namco’s most enduring, popular and widely ported games with good reason. So wherever you choose to play it — the most recently released place to do so at the time of writing being the excellent Namco Museum for Nintendo Switch — you’re certain to have a good time… and be humming Yuriko Keino’s damn digging tune for the rest of the day once you’re done.
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