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8-Bit Chronicles: Dig Dug

Who’s up for some pest extermination?

dig dug

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon the original arcade Dig Dug included within PlayStation 3’s PSOne Classic re-release of Namco Museum 3, originally released for PlayStation.

Long, long ago in the halcyon days of 2000 — what, were you fossils expecting the 80’s? — eight-year-old me found himself yet again at Inline 309: an in-door skating rink popular for birthday parties. The memories of this particular occasion have grown cloudy — I remember not whose birthday it was, let alone any occurrences other than stumbling across a new arcade cabinet in the game corner: Dig Dug. Intrigued, I fished out a quarter, inserted it, and observed as a man in a hazmat suit burrowed deep beneath the earth, infested by sentient balloons and nasty dragons. Resting my fingers on the trigger button (mysteriously titled “pump”), I casually tunneled my way towards one of the walking balloons — a red, goggle-wearing goon dubbed “Pooka”– and watched with wonder when, as advertised, a pump sprang from my character and latched onto the pudgy critter.

My trigger finger acted on instinct. As poor Pooka expanded, swelled and burst into pieces, an ecstatic grin formed as I recognized that, yes, this was indeed a game about blowing stuff up. And so a lifelong addiction was born.

Contrary to what you may’ve expected, this humbling anecdote does not illustrate my arsonist origin story; nay, I speak merely of Dig Dug‘s timelessness. Much of the development behind Namco’s 1982 hit remains shrouded in mystery — as far as we English-speaking players know, its inception isn’t credited to any one individual (Wikipedia cites Shigeru Yokoyama, but, well, it’s Wikipedia; besides, it ain’t sourced), and its main programmer in Shouichi Fukatani sadly passed away in 1985 — but regardless, Dig Dug was a mainstay of the Arcade Golden Age in no small-part to its fun visuals, cute cast, and, I suspect most of all, its eye-grabbing concept. Whereas Pac-Man‘s abstract in its chase system — a circle munches up dots while under pursuit by ghost blobs — Dig Dug presents an interactive cartoon featuring the loosest of narrative; namely, an exterminator of sorts — “Dig Dug” in localized territories and “Taizo Hori” in Japanese media, with the latter being a Japanese pun (“Horitai zo”; meaning, “I want to dig!”) — goes spelunking, engages in cartoon chase sequences with hostile creatures, and then inflates/blows up said enemies.

I just wanna make you go POP!

dig dug

We don’t know quite why this is all going on — there’s a peripheral story about Dig Dug’s garden being infested, but unlike, say, Donkey Kong, we’re not privy to all that — but we stay for Dig Dug’s flexibility. It is a maze game, but nothing so structurally sound as Pac-Man; as seen above, enemies dwell within their own niches, so we tunnel any which way to lure them out. To maintain pressure, these monsters aren’t content with just waiting around for their doom, as they’ll eventually stalk our hero (a spooky process represented by their transition into a pair of floating eyes; yes, it doesn’t make sense, but we wouldn’t want them breaking Dig Dug‘s balance by digging their own tunnels.) It’s here we recognize Pac-Man‘s influence beats deep within the underground recesses — make any one wrong turn, and you’ll collide with an enemy. The maze still exists — the difference is we make it.

Recognizing our ability to warp the playing field, Dig Dug resorts to subverting our expectations; already, the cocky new player is caught off-guard by the floating pests, so we shift our strategies accordingly. Hardly deterred, Dig Dug ups the ante not even four stages in by placing enemies parallel to one another; in other words, hiding a Pooka behind another Pooka! The game’s 8-bit graphics work to its advantage here — barring their occasionally running out-of-sync, even the most wary of players would approach this formation unawares. Other tricks up Namco’s sleeve continue confounding players; for instance, we’re already treading dangerous ground in approaching the fiery Fygar lizards, but we learn in more ways than one not to approach them head-on; namely, getting torched even if we’re separated by layers of dirt.

Squish.

dig dug

True to Dig Dug‘s name: the further you dig, the deeper it becomes. Its affinity for organic feedback naturally generates makeshift strategies — say two Pookas are chasing us down; what can we do to stop them? Simple: we quickly inflate one, but stall on blowing it up; instead, we momentarily abandoned the stunned balloon and quickly work on the next before the it returns to normal (Don’t forget you can pass through inflated enemies!) Meanwhile, we can aim from above to circumnavigate our fire hazards in pesky Fygars, but astute players discover dislodging rocks upon hapless monsters score more points, especially if they crush multiple enemies at once; of course, the trade-off’s in its unwieldy accuracy, but the ensuing feast in bonus fruits/veggies only fuels our drive to study timing and enemy patterns.

A process I imagine is helped along by the sound — in Yuriko Keino’s first Namco sound-work, she followed the development team’s wishes in designing the game’s music around the player’s movements; in fact, whenever the player stops, the music halts too. Whether this is a video game first warrants further investigation, but its implementation deserves analysis — consider how Pac-Man‘s attractive sound design maintains a ubiquitous presence in us munching dots; however, with Dig Dug‘s objective revolving around a much-smaller collection (as in, whatever enemies are on screen), Keino instead turned her direction towards a more ubiquitous presence: digging, an ever-constant method of point-accumulation. As Dig Dug doesn’t have a timer, this sound’s also an effective way to keep us moving — linger too long in any one stage, and the monsters grow fiercer in their impatience.

An uncanny resemblance!

Dig Dug‘s immediate success prompted no shortage of console ports, albeit to varying success — the game’s multiple Atari conversions never gained Pac-Man‘s sobering infamy (if anything, I certainly wouldn’t mind trying out this Atari 7800 version), but I’m not about to touch this Apple II abomination. My only experience remains the Famicom version; yes, for reasons unknown, this was never localized for Western audiences! Shame, considering this is a fantastic port — there’s no palpable loss to function or speed, the graphics and sound are faithful (sure, the colors are a tad washed out, but close enough!), and unlike earlier ports, this version maintains the original’s 2-player mode! (Not co-op, unfortunately; you just take turns.) This port finally saw its US release on Wii back in 2009, but sadly, 2018’s closure of the Wii Shop Channel rendered this version once again unavailable for Western audiences. Perhaps we’ll see its return on Nintendo Switch Online? (Oh, and while you’re here, do take the to watch the embedded video — that’s clearly a Dig Dug expert at work!)

Much like its other Namco arcade contemporaries, Dig Dug‘s legacy largely revolves around the first game — while 1985’s Dig Dug 2 was a solid follow-up, its never caught on like the original did, and future entries in Dig Dug Deeper, Dig Dug: Digging Strike, and Dig Dug Arrangement were subject to muted reception. (Shame regarding that last one; apparently it has co-op!) Thankfully, the game’s still revered today in countless references within Namco’s library, with my personal favorite being Pooka’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS‘s Smash Run mode; just like in the original game, you gotta smack it several times ’till it pops! By the way, did you know Namco’s puzzle series Mr. Driller not only originally started out as Dig Dug 3, but the titular character’s the son of Dig Dug and Masuyo “Kissy” Tobi of Baraduke fame? Sadly, they’ve apparently divorced — could this official comic made for Dig Dug‘s 30th anniversary pinpoint where it all went horribly wrong?

As a wee youngin’, Dig Dug was my favorite arcade title, and I’ll confess part of my initiative in starting 8-Bit Chronicles was searching for a Golden Oldie that’d surpass my affections for it. Bubble Bobble may very well have topped it, but at the very least, I suspect it’ll endure among the Namco crowd. But as it stands, it’s an expedition that continually surprises me, for not once does my excavation process ever cease in unearthing fertile riches courtesy of an underground playground. What better form of gaming immortality can I ask for?

I smell disaster.

dig dug

(Speaking of the comics, their host in ShiftyLook — Namco’s web-comic service — shut down in 2014, but you can still dig ’em up throughout the internet. Here’s one that ends on a delectable cliffhanger; augh, I wanna see what happens!)

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.
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