“Under the earth I go,
On the oak-leaf I stand,
I ride on the filly that never was foaled
And I carry the dead in my hand.”
One of the most famous and iconic of all classic arcade games, Namco’s Dig Dug is the paragon of video game success.
For one, it’s extremely fun to play and addicting as well. Then there’s the fact that it’s been recreated, re-released and repackaged an insane amount of times since its original arcade inception in 1982: from Namco to Atari to Intellivision, to Commodore 64, NES, Apple, Game Boy, Windows, Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Virtual Console, 3DS, Wii U, and the PS4 (which is where I most recently played it).
Dig Dug is a lesson in the success of simplicity. Sometimes a game is enjoyable simply because it’s stripped down to the barest elements, without all the bells and whistles. In Dig Dug, you immediately know your objective.
Dig Dug revolves around the subterranean adventures of a little blue man in a white suit, who is apparently officially named “Dig Dug”.Dig Dug digs below the Earth and after he has dug a bit, he encounters fierce and terrifying monsters. Well, actually, just two of them. There are only two in the game and they aren’t very terrifying, either. Not with names like Pooka and Fygar.
The Pookas are a species of sentient red orbs who always wear their trendy yellow goggles. The Fygars are a race of underground dragons who can breathe fire. Both species are capable of metamorphic intangibility, that is, they can pass through solid rock. Perhaps they are the spirits of our ancestors come to remind us that history is circular, and if we don’t reign in our rape of the natural world (i.e. digging and dugging) then we surely face a bleak future devoid of fossil fuels and the internet, and other such modern conveniences.
Then again, I don’t believe the Pookas and Fygars are spirits, despite their ubiquity and intangibility ability. That’s because Dig Dug can blow them up. How? Why with his trusty air pump. This is his only means of self-defense. When the monsters rush at him, Dig Dug can use his air pump to inflate the Pookas and Fygars until their bodies explode like so many shattered dreams after the 2016 American presidential election.
This also leads me to believe that Dig Dug is not a scientist, an archaeologist, or an excavator. He’s a predator. His sole purpose in the game is to eliminate every living thing beneath the surface. Why, the last surviving monster in each round will flee for its life once all its friends and family are brutally murdered by the white-clad invader with his air pump harpoon.
But perhaps there is a method to Dig Dug’s madness, his purposeful xenocide of all subterranean life. Crawling through the tunnels in every direction, once Dig Dug clears an area of so-called “monsters”, a single flower appears above ground. Perhaps, just perhaps, Dig Dug is telling the story of a far flung future in which the last survivors of humanity have mutated into deceptively elegant, blue-skinned surface dwellers dressed in white and hideous subterrestrial outcasts and genetic rejects with only a semblance of their former technology (the yellow goggles), raising ancient, blind, fire-breathing newts as pets. Just like in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine!
In this distant, irradiated Earth, Dig Dug braves the horrors of the underground world, choosing the genocide of his genetically removed, once-human cousins in order to bring organic life back to the surface. The flowers tell the tale, one by one marking the deaths of each colony of “monsters” as Dig Dug single-handedly wipes them out to stop their millennia-long feud for food, like the pineapples, cucumbers and eggplants which appear in the center of the screen. Clean water would also be something Dig Dug needs to secure from the hands of the “monsters”, not just their food, in order to ensure the continuance of a new super-race of white-clad surface-dwellers.
Dig Dug is deep, man.
Or… maybe it’s just an incredibly fun arcade game.
The 8-bit Review
Dig Dug didn’t revolutionize the graphics of the industry in ’82. With only three character sprites (Dig Dug, Pookas, and Fygars), there isn’t a whole lot of variation to be enjoyed as the player progresses through the rounds. This was an issue of boredom that was later rectified in a few remakes. However, the surrounding dirt does change colors with every few sets of rounds.
I will also contend that Dig Dug is a step above some of the uglier video games to appear in 1982. This is most likely because it was an arcade game, but to compare it to Atari contemporaries like the hideous E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial or Pitfall! shows that Dig Dug was less drab and had more flair than average.
Adorably, the in-game music in Dig Dug only plays when Dig Dug moves. It stops when he stops. Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s a measure of technological prowess to aid in his stealth mission of mass murder.
When the music does play, it’s ultimately cheery. Like it’s tinkling from an ice cream truck lazily pulling through your neighborhood… I just thought of a way to make a quick buck… The music sounds a lot like typical circus music, and is by now instantly recognizable, even if it was the anthem of surface-dweller superiority.
Dig Dug can move in any direction except for diagonally when underground, and at the surface he can only walk horizontally unless he returns to the subterranean earth. Plowing through the dirt, he leaves tunnels behind him that the monsters can use to track him down. Dig Dug can be a little wiser than that, though, and can set up makeshift traps with heavy boulders so that they come crashing down on the heads of unsuspecting Pookas and Fygars. This is the only other way to kill the creatures besides for pumping them up with his air pump until they blow.
Dig Dug also uses a points system and rewards an extra man for accumulating so many points, which leads me to believe that the surface-dwellers worship an ancient form of cloning technology and use it frequently with materials harvested from beneath the Earth’s crust.
If Dig Dug causes two boulders to drop, a special item appears in the center of the screen. It’s typically food. This is worth extra points, so snag it for the future of the ubermensches and bring on the clones! But be wary, O Dugger of Digs: the Pookas and Fygars get faster and more aggressive with each round.
Their nest has been disturbed.
The beauty of these arcade classics lies in their simplicity and accessibility. Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig Dug. As the player, it’s easy to know immediately what to do, even if you’re never played the game before. And if you can’t figure it out, generally there’s an introductory screen which shows you how to play the game in a few seconds. With Dig Dug, you automatically know what to do. It’s the same archetypal fantasy you played out in your backyard as a child: kill the bad guys. Deliver justice. Impose your authority upon the scum of depraved and mutated subterranean humanity. Kid’s stuff.
Dig Dug is one of those games that is accessible but it is also misleading. It’s easy in appearance only. After round 10 or 12 or so, the “monsters” get a lot faster and there are a lot more of them. It’s enough of a cakewalk to defend yourself from two approaching Pookas, but a swarm of them? Not so much. Dig Dug only has one air pump against an army of evolutionary miscreants.
Originating as an arcade game, Dig Dug’s sole purpose is to get you to put another coin in. For that reason, it’s addicting. Every time I play it (and lose), I shut it off and then immediately start thinking “I could’ve done better than that“. Then I turn it on again and find out I was wrong. I couldn’t have done better than that. Maybe gain a few rounds or so, or break my personal record, but I’ll lose again anyway. I’ve made it a few dozen rounds in, and the game is hard, but it’s one of the go-to games I always look for first when I’m in an arcade.
Thank God for the PS4 Arcade Game Series 3-in-1 Pack I picked up, or I wouldn’t be able to put food on the table. I’d be out of quarters.
Mr. Do! comes to mind as a title similar to Dig Dug but beyond that I can’t think of too many titles that capture Dig Dug’s style, gameplay, addictiveness, and outlandish premise. I’m not an encyclopedia of 1982 video games, though, contrary to popular opinion.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
It was great to play Dig Dug again on the PS4. The re-release adds features like the ability to start at any round you’ve already reached, and a few cool display features like frames and scan lines. It’s essentially the same game, though. And that’s great. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s not much to fix with Dig Dug.
It was and will always remain one of the brightest stars from the golden age of gaming, and one of my own personal favorites. And now I really want to write a sci-fi novella about it. It’s marketing art even looks like cryptic mosaics from an alien culture!
Aggregated Score: 8.4