I dig it, can you dig it?

  • Developer(s): Bullets (primary developer), Namco (seems to have been a supporting role)
  • Publisher: Namco (JP/NA), Atari (EU)
  • Release Dates: September 8th, 2005 (Japan), October 19th, 2005 (North America/Canada), August 25, 2006 (PAL regions)
  • Available On: Nintendo DS
  • Genre: Action, Puzzle

It feels like every iconic arcade hit (from big names, anyways) goes through three particular phases. First, they come out to exceptional acclaim and get revisions that iterate upon the core concept while throwing in new wrinkles here and there. Then, things get spicy and interesting – with the original game and its iterations so thoroughly enjoyed at this point, you have to start getting a little… unorthodox with the sequels. Maybe you start throwing in more story or you use a console gimmick like touch/motion controls to your advantage. Maybe you even change the genre entirely and rely more on iconography to remind people that it’s related to the original game at all! Finally, once the deluge of ideas is no longer sustainable, you dial it back, relying mostly on constant ports of the original game plus the occasional new title that doesn’t stray too far from the roots. Pac-Man and Frogger are two perfect examples of this: you have the legendary arcade hits, then you have the iterative updates (Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Frogger 2: Threeedeep!, those PS1 Frogger games), you have the fascinating sequels/reboots (Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, Frogger: The Great Quest, My Frogger: Toy Trials, etc), and now both franchises play it pretty safe. The original Pac-Man has so many ports even on modern platforms and aside from a remaster of Pac-Man World (a game that originally sold millions, mind you), there hasn’t been much in the way of surprises or unusual choices for the little yellow guy. Frogger is still widely available too and the green frog has been pretty cozy with Apple Arcade as of late, but even with the new coat of paint (they really, really love to change Frogger’s look every few games), those new games play pretty closely to that original arcade game. I could go on with other arcade classics like Galaga, Centipede, or Bubble Bobble, but I think the idea is pretty clear at this point, so I’ll get on with it!

I bring up this theory because Dig Dug seems to have avoided this. At least, that’s what I thought before this. Aside from a PC game called Dig Dug Deeper in 2001 and a 2009 mobile game called Dig Dug Remix (neither of which I’m familiar with at all), there really weren’t many Dig Dug sequels despite how big of a deal that original game was. Dig Dug II exists and is cool, but it never gets the love that the original did, and some of the things that came after like Dig Dug Arrangement aren’t widely available, are always packed in with other things instead of being the main event, and don’t do much to expand upon that original game. For all its fun lore, like the protagonist of Mr. Driller, Susumu, being the son of Dig Dug’s Taizo Hori and Baraduke’s Masuyo Tobi being Taizo’s wife until they got divorced, it’s surprising to me how seemingly little Namco did to build upon Dig Dug. Make no mistake, the original game is still very widely beloved, from endless ports to cameos in games like Namco X Capcom, but it just seems weird that it was mostly left to languish in familiarity from the get go while Mr. Driller inherited its legacy and went on to get plenty of sequels. Sure, Taizo shows up in various Mr. Driller games and Mr. Driller is excellent, but Taizo just never gets much of a leading role anymore, and considering how he’s the original main character of the “extended Dig Dug/Mr. Driller universe”, it’s pretty bizarre. It’d be like having Kazuya barely appear at all in a Tekken game! What do you think it’s like to have your crowning achievement (nearly) forgotten about over the years as your son goes on to replace you in the eyes of the public? This might sound ridiculous, but Dig Dug: Digging Strike actually answers this question! All this time, Dig Dug had its “weird sequel” like all the other classics of yore and it was hiding in plain sight since 2005! I suppose Dig Dug Deeper is kinda weird too, but work with me here…

In case you were wondering, I’m happy to report that they kept the thing from the original where the music only plays when you walk, which I absolutely love

Even though Dig Dug is far from obscure, it’s not so surprising that I (and likely many others) missed out on this particular entry. 2005 was only the second year of the DS’s life, but there was still plenty of competition already on the platform. Retro ports, compilations, and revivals found the DS to be a cozy home and so pretty much every franchise got at least one crack on the platform. Not long prior to Digging Strike, you had things like Puzzle Bobble DS, Pac ‘n Roll, Bomberman, Space Invaders Revolution, Retro Atari Classics, and fittingly, Mr. Driller Drill Spirits. Considering that reviews for Digging Strike weren’t the hottest, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people went with some of those games over poor ol’ Dig Dug, to say nothing of all the other shiny new DS games I didn’t mention… So why did the game get such lukewarm reviews if Dig Dig is a beloved classic? Well, if you go back and look (at the ones that still work on Metacritic, anyway), you’ll see some common threads. The short length of the game with little in the way of extras, the lack of DS features like touchscreen usage and single cart multiplayer (one review even claims that it could have been a GBA game despite its constant and effective use of the two screens…), the slow gameplay compared to something like Mr. Driller, and the fact that at the end of the day, the fundamental gameplay is still good old fashioned Dig Dug. When you’re reviewing a game under the pretense of being a “buyer’s guide” the way outlets like these do, it’s perfectly understandable to take things like length and the number of features into account, but blog posts like this thankfully don’t have to worry about such limitations. Here, I can ignore the prospective “value” of the game and focus on what it’s doing as a creative work. Is it a proper sequel to Dig Dug that takes the core gameplay to new heights? Does it have something poignant to say about the relationship between Taizo and Susumu as well as their respective games as a whole? I think so!

Digging Strike was developed by a company called Bullets (with assistance from Namco staff, including several people who worked on Ace Combat games and Toshiya Hara, producer of We Love Katamari and two of the GBA Klonoa games), which is headed by former Natsume director Kimio Hirota and has been assisting with work for bigger companies for a long time now. They tend to take on a supporting role and have provided work for games like Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection, Shinobi Master Senran Kagura: New Link, and Mega Man Legacy Collection 2. They even did development work on the excellent remasters for SaGa Frontier and Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song; considering that those are two of my favorite games ever, I owe Bullets a lot of gratitude! Their biggest claim to fame in terms of development is the Kenka Bancho series, which they took over from the third entry onward. I’ve never played Kenka Bancho, but it looks like it’s extremely up my alley, so I should probably get on that sometime! They’re a bit of a mysterious developer, in a sense; they rarely get credit for their work at the water cooler conversation level despite not being one of those shadow developers (when people talk about something like Mega Man Legacy Collection 2 or Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection, they’re probably not mentioning Bullets, which is what I’m referring to here) and even useful resources like Mobygames have an underwhelming amount of information on them. Heck, Mobygames doesn’t have a single entry for any of the Kenka Bancho games! As always, GDRI comes in clutch and has a good list of their works, so if you’re curious to dive into their catalog, you can check that out here.

Susumu’s out there living his best life, solving crises (in New York, apparently!), starring in commercials, being the face of good fashion, and just being the man that everybody loves. It makes sense because Mr. Driller is great and everybody loves it, but it also makes sense because Mr. Driller is generally seen as a successor to Dig Dug despite their differences. But such fame is tough for his father to live with. Taizo was the OG digger, the man who solved “The Dig Dug Incident”, but his name has been effectively lost to time. When a government official from Horinesia (you gotta wonder if this entire continent was named after Susumu’s and Taizo’s last name…) comes calling for assistance with a monster problem, he’s clearly looking for Susumu and doesn’t even know who Taizo is. Because of this slight, Taizo takes it upon himself to try and solve their problem entirely on his own, much to the chagrin of everybody else involved. Being the good son that he is, it doesn’t take long for Susumu and his dog Puchi to come to Taizo’s aid in case anything goes wrong. Though he initially didn’t want anyone’s help, Taizo learns the value of teamwork and comes to accept his son’s success now that he’s had a chance to prove himself by saving Horinesia. While the story leans more towards silly comedy (the final monster is summoned because the people of the underground tried to make a soup out of it, which is pretty funny), it does say a bit about the idea of fame, passing the torch, and accepting that you may never be the most famous person around no matter what you do. Even after all his achievements and helping to save the day, the story still ends with people cheering more for Susumu than Taizo. He’s not as mad about it at that point, though, which tells me that he’s learned to be happy for his son and be more accepting of his place in life, knowing that the ol’ digging business is in good hands. This kind of story is something I imagine artists and creators could relate to in today’s world, honestly. It’s tough out there, toiling away at hard work knowing that whatever you do will never be as appreciated as what some other people are putting out. And yet, you continue on, doing what you do because you love it and know that you’re worth it, which in turn gives you the purpose and motivation to keep going. It might seem strange or mean for a father to be jealous of his son, but I think we’ve all got a bit of Taizo in us, regardless of whether or not we want to admit it. We all just want to be appreciated in some way and Digging Strike manages to remind us that we can find a way to do so while still encouraging the success of others. We’re all better off making friends than enemies when we can, right?

I really like how they use the original game as a (partial) tutorial for this one

Don’t let the clever tutorial that’s literally the first level of the original Dig Dug fool you: this is very much a step up from the previous games. Combining the subterranean warfare of the original game with the island sinking, puzzle game-esque shenanigans of Dig Dug II, Digging Strike expects you to conquer both the surface and the underground. On the top screen, you’re at a distinct disadvantage; a giant monster prowls the area and it can snuff out Taizo’s life with even a momentary graze. Taizo moves pretty slowly and can’t harm the monster normally, so during this half of the equation, the right move is to find and enter one of several holes that’ll take you back to your old stomping (under)grounds. Once you’re beneath the surface, things become more familiar – here, you’re playing an expanded take on the original Dig Dug, inflating enemies to their death while avoiding the ones that lie in wait. Points are far from your only concern this time around, though, because now there are items to assist you and a goal beyond survival to aim for. In order to deal with that monster above, you’ll need to cause fissures in the island in just the right spots so that the section the monster is standing on sinks into the ocean. You can’t do this above ground like you could in Dig Dug II, so now you have to go underground and clear a path for giant stakes to sink far enough into the ground. These stakes will cause cracks to spread either vertically or horizontally and once you’ve made enough cracks in the right direction and shape, the piece of the island they outline will sink. Doesn’t sound too complicated yet, right? Well, Digging Strike makes sure to throw some wrenches into your plans!

While you’re underground, you can constantly monitor what the monster’s doing above, which factors into your strategy (and makes good use of the DS’s dual screens!). Even if you go through all of the effort of putting stakes in the ground, if the monster isn’t caught on the spot of the island that falls from your actions, it’ll have all been for nothing! In fact, if you make too many hasty moves and eliminate all of your potential options for sinking the monster before it’s in position, you’ll have to start the entire level over again, which can be painful in some of the longer levels. Because of this, it’s vital that you plan out your moves in advance. The island won’t sink until you’ve pushed down enough stakes, but you don’t need to push down every stake to clear a level. In fact, if you examine the entire level, find the one or two stakes that’ll cause anything to sink, even if it’s just a tiny square, and then wait until the monster happens to cross that spot, you can end most levels really quickly! Doing so can make for some surprisingly uneventful stages (I beat the final boss in like 2 minutes…), but that’s how you get the big time bonuses, so pulling it off really makes you feel like a master of your craft. Monsters are also capable of interfering with your progress underground in various ways, such as by jumping on stakes to push them down without your permission or throwing additional dirt down there where it can stun you at the worst possible time. It’s a great idea to have warfare that transcends a single screen, but a lot of these monsters are surprisingly toothless, whereas others feel utterly stacked in their arsenal in comparison. Some just roam around without a care in the world, whereas the penguin monster in level seven knows to slide away from whatever section you’re trying to sink, forcing you to nearly submerge the entire island to get to it. The real winner is the dinosaur-like monster of stage eleven, which is able to throw hazards underground while also creating fake holes on the overworld that stun you if you try to get inside of them. Combine that with the level’s unique form of progression (finding hidden holes by eliminating water in other parts of the level) and you have a level that feels way more elaborate and difficult than anything else in the game. Digging Strike manages to make every level feel unique, but that consistent freshness does result in something of an uneven difficulty curve.

This game’s fun, but my goodness is this level a nightmare! Love the Pookas sleeping down there, at least!

Pookas and Fygars reprise their roles exactly as you remember them, but now there are new enemies and hazards to worry about when you’re spelunking. Some enemies have massive tongues that’ll slow you down, others will leave stun gas behind upon their death, and another kind will roll at you quickly. Individually, these newcomers aren’t much more of a problem than Pookas or Fygars, but when you’ve got falling rocks, flowing water, molten lava, and bombs to worry about, it can make for one chaotic game! They even took a page from Bubble Bobble and threw in an invincible enemy type that pursues you endlessly if you take too long to leave the underground! The sheer amount of stuff flying at you at once can sometimes border on feeling a bit unfair, but a lot of the classic strategies (pump one enemy a bit, then stop to pump the other so both aren’t coming at you, luring enemies by boulders for a high-scoring multikill) still work well, which is nice for all the aficionados out there. Some of those old strategies can even be adapted to the new mechanics; for example, you can lure enemies underneath one of the stakes, then clear out dirt to make it crush them and block others from coming your way. Those new items help even the odds too by letting you push enemies away with a boxing glove, lure enemies to one place with a magnet or music, or create your own rocks on the spot for any point scoring opportunities you might spot. These items are limited and don’t carry over between stages, so you’re very much encouraged to use them often to survive.

Some items actually affect the surface instead by letting you call in Susumu, which is when things get really interesting. Depending on the item you pick, Susumu (and Puchi, of course!) will board a different vehicle to aid you in your mission. The Horicopter comes in two versions, one that lets you adjust the direction of the fissures caused by the stakes, and another that lets you instantly push a stake all the way down with a big weight. Both of these options facilitate fast stage clears if used correctly, which is great and all, but the real fun is with the vehicles that reference other Namco games and let you take on the monster directly. The “Horivalou” lets you play Xevious (hence the name of the ship) and shoot at the monster using projectiles and bombs (you can’t kill it, but you can stun it for a long period of time) and the Hori X lets you use smoke clouds to stun the monster, allowing for an easy sink if you have everything set up. A lot of my strategies throughout the game relied heavily on these vehicles since they can be activated at any time without any risk to you. Set up all of your stakes, use the Horivalou to stun the monster, then go in for the kill, works every time! Seeing these references pop up unexpectedly was a delight that made an already fun game even better and I would have loved to see even more. Aside from an island shaped like Pac-Man, I’m surprised there wasn’t a power pellet item or something!

The classic Dig Dug gameplay translates really well over to this new game, even with all its new bells and whistles, but there’s one particular new mechanic that I don’t care for. As you play the game and dig underground, you can find dinosaur fossils as well as parts for new machines that can be assembled to give Taizo new toys to play with. Each machine takes several parts to put together and these parts are hidden in various underground segments throughout the game. There’s no way to know where they are, so you just have to dig around and hope they show up. As anyone who has played Dig Dug can attest to, there’s no need to dig up an entire level, so finding these oftentimes makes you play in a way that’s both deeply unnatural and dangerously inefficient. It also makes levels take ages to complete because Taizo moves much slower than he did in the original Dig Dug. Even if you do gather all of the pieces, the unlocked item can’t be selected at will. Instead, you need to get lucky with the end of level roulette wheel and hope the game selects it for you. That doesn’t unlock it permanently, either – you only get to use it for one level! Because of how tedious and inefficient this process was, I didn’t get many of these items to try out (imposed one week time limits between posts will do that to you…) nor did I feel strongly inspired to, if I’m being honest, but based on the names of them, there seems to be at least one item that specifically addresses Taizo’s speed issue, so that one is probably the one to get if anything. The one I got was a drill that made Taizo dig faster when dirt was in his way, which was nice, but a general movement speed boost is really what he needs. It’s not too often that this issue comes up, this idea of “unlocking the right to get something for another cost instead of just getting the thing right away”, but whenever it does, I absolutely can’t stand it, so I was disappointed by this otherwise cool way of adding more to the Dig Dug Formula. To go back to those dinosaur fossils for a moment, collecting all of those (which is done in the same way as the item parts) unlocks three extra levels for you to play through, which is a much better reward. I didn’t get to test any of those out for this post, but I could easily see myself going back for them. Plus, it’d be nice to record that information for others to use since I couldn’t find it anywhere on walkthrough sites like Gamefaqs. It’s nice to give back where I can when I have the time, I suppose!

This roulette between levels is the only way to get access to items you’ve unlocked, which is a real pain

Some retro revivals around the DS era really didn’t work out well (Bubble Bobble Revolution being the most notorious one because the initial North American version was impossible to finish), so I was very pleasantly surprised by Digging Strike. I’ve always liked Dig Dug, so it’s nice to have a new game to sink my teeth into after all these years and I wish I had picked it up back when the DS was new. The new mechanics and successful merging of the first two Dig Dug games works really well in creating a game that’s more complex while retaining the feel of the original game. I sure didn’t expect the story to be such a joy either, so much so that I wish there was more of it! I also wish that the unlockable item system was handled better and that Taizo moved faster by default, but even with those issues, it’s such a breezy experience that it’s hard to get too mad at it for those things. I can see how it got the scores it did when it came out since almost everything about it flies in the face of the kinds of games that typically review well, but this feels like a game that really deserves a modern re-evaluation. I think if more people remembered that this game existed (and were more willing to bring out their DSes), it would be hailed as a successful follow-up to the previous games, the “true” Dig Dug III, if you will. It’s very charming, its gameplay has clever twists, and it displays love for Namco’s illustrious history. Dig Dug might seem like one of those classics that was “figured out” pretty quickly since the other sequels stuck pretty close to it and it didn’t get a whole lot of them, but I think Digging Strike proves that more can still be done with everyone’s favorite subterranean pumping simulator in terms of the gameplay and the storytelling as it relates to the Mr. Driller series. Maybe Bandai Namco should find a way to re-release this one as part of their series of recent remasters that they’ve been doing – just imagine, “Dig Dug: Digging Strike Re-Drilled” or “Dig Dug: Digging Strike Unearthed”, or something like that, it totally works if you ask me!

More Screenshots


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