One of the interesting things about fully exploring retro gaming is discovering the subtle differences between different versions of a game.
Back in the early to mid ’80s, there were sometimes quite significant differences between the various platforms’ take on an established game. This was due to a combination of factors: most frequently it was down to the technical limitations of the host platforms, but sometimes it was due to the programmers responsible for the ports not having all of the resources they needed, and consequently having to do the coder’s equivalent of holding things together with sticky tape.
Namco’s port of its classic arcade title Dig Dug for the Famicom — easily accessible today as part of the Namco Museum Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform — is a good example of (probably) the former. Either way, it’s a distinctive version of Dig Dug that is well worth playing, even if you’re well familiar with the arcade original!
For the uninitiated, Dig Dug casts you in the role of one Hori Taizo who, some 103 years after the events of Galaxian (and 25 years before Star Luster), is forced into action by the United Galaxy Space Force. The planet on which Taizo lives, you see, has become infested with monsters who appear underground and threaten the wellbeing of anyone unfortunate enough to come near them. Not something the UGSF can just sit back and let happen!
Taizo, thankfully, is armed with two very important tools: a shovel, with which he can dig through the dirt to reach his foes, and some sort of inflatable air pumpy thing (usually colloquially referred to as a “bike pump”), with which he can dispatch his enemies through the rather gruesome means of inflating them until their intestines explode out through their abdomen.
The shovel also opens up an alternative means of enemy disposal: digging the dirt out from beneath a buried boulder will cause the rock to fall, and if it squishes an enemy beneath it, then that’s a good thing (for Taizo, not for the enemy). However, the enemies are pretty wise to this, and are smart enough to quickly about-face and head the opposite direction if a boulder comes a-rollin’. As such, you’ll need to set up your tunnels carefully if you hope to make good use of the rocks.
Dig Dug, having its origins in the arcades of the ’80s, is all about score. Everything you do — including digging through the dirt on the screen — rewards you with points, but the genius of the game is in how it rewards you with significantly more points if you successfully pull off risky or tricky manoeuvres.
Dropping a rock on an enemy is much more valuable than indulging Taizo’s apparent inflation fetish, for example — and even more so if you can catch multiple enemies beneath the boulder when it lands. Likewise, attacking the fire-breathing, dragon-like Fygars on the horizontal plane, where you’re at risk of being caught in their flaming blasts, is worth double the points to the coward’s way out of hitting them from above or below.
On top of that, bonus items appear in the centre of the stage if you drop two rocks in a stage, regardless of if they hit anything, and with each new stage they become more and more valuable. And just for the final bit of seasoning, there are four “tiers” of dirt on any given screen; the deeper the tier in which you kill an enemy, the more points they’re worth — the reason for this being the fact that as soon as you get down to the last enemy on a stage, they make a beeline for the surface and a hasty retreat from Taizo and his implements of torture.
The Famicom version of Dig Dug is very true to its arcade source material, with one important difference: the lower resolution at which the Famicom runs means that the play area you have available to you is significantly smaller than on the arcade’s vertically oriented monitor. This actually changes the feel of the game quite a bit; the fact the perspective is somewhat “zoomed in” means the sprites are a bit larger and feel like they’re moving more fluidly, but conversely you have less space to play around with. This makes dodging enemies a little trickier — and also gives you less time to catch the fleeing final enemy on each stage.
Is it better? That’s a matter of taste, really, but as mentioned above that’s one of the nice things about retro games of this age — you can try out all sorts of different versions of a particular game before you decide which one you like the best. And Namco’s games had plenty of different versions for you to try; in Dig Dug’s case specifically, besides the original arcade and the Famicom version we’ve been looking at today, there are also releases for the Ataris 2600, 5200 and 7800, Atari 8-bit home computers, Colecovision, Commodore 64, MSX and Game Boy, among others. So assuming you like Dig Dug, you’ll almost certainly find a “favourite” versions somewhere among them.
For my money, I’m actually leaning slightly towards preferring the Famicom version to the arcade original. While there are a few minor technical issues here and there such as the platform’s notorious sprite flicker when things get a bit busy, the overall fluidity of movement and the more confined play area gives the game a very enjoyable feel. Plus despite the cramped arena potentially bumping up the difficulty a little, it feels like it might be a little easier to reach that initial score milestone of 10,000 points.
Or perhaps I’m just getting better at Dig Dug every time I play. Either way, I’m having a lovely time — and it’s a pleasure to have one of my favourite versions of Dig Dug accessible and ready to play at a moment’s notice on the Evercade. So I think I might just get a round or two in before bed!
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