Review: Pepper Grinder

28 Mar 2024

When we first saw Pepper Grinder trailers in our work chat, I immediately responded with a tongue-in-cheek nod to a classic movie joke: “This summer, Dig Dug is back, and this time it’s personal!” Which is easily the first mood you can get out of the promotional trailers. This is a game in which you are very clearly digging into the dirt, and at first glance it’s… kind of familiar in that regard? Not in a “this is a shallow retread” sense or anything like that, but just in a sense that you are accustomed to the shape of this sort of game.

In actuality, Pepper Grinder is not really comparable to Dig Dug or anything of the sort. In fact, it seems to be taking more inspiration from Yoshi’s Island with its own particular movement gimmick. But let’s not give the game away altogether; you’ll have to dig a little deeper into the game in order to understand if it’s worth picking up today on Steam or Nintendo Switch.

Digger Dug

So the story of Pepper Grinder is definitely not the focus, but it is there and refreshingly straightforward. You play as Pepper, she’s a pirate-ish lady, she crashes her ship and gets her treasure stolen. She wants it back. She has a drill and there’s someone leading the little narwhal-esque goblins that stole it. That’s it. Oh, sure, there’s a touch more to it than that but this is not a game that you play for the plot.

Now, that would be enough in and of itself but like a lot of classic 16-bit games, there is actually sort of more going on in that you get hints of more story without details. There are creatures occupying this land. There is backstory here. You aren’t privy to most of it and it’s not the point, you would be doing the same things whether you knew it or not, but it’s still there.

That is, at least to me, kind of charming. A lot of games that are clearly going for that retro-platformer vibe take the opportunity to flesh out their worlds and engage in more serious storytelling along the way, like the oft-cited Shovel Knight, and I don’t mean to imply that this is a better process… but it’s an interesting and valid one all the same. I kind of like it.

Grinder Ground

The main focus of this game, forever, was going to be your drill. Pepper has a drill. You are using the drill to do things. A shoulder button lets you turn on the drill, and anything that hits the drill gets minced up good by it. Also, you can jump. And… that’s kind of it, actually. Two buttons, and the drill is even on a shoulder button because you’re going to be holding it a lot.

See, you do have one other trick. There’s a lot of clearly-viewable dirt all over the place. When you can dig into the dirt with the drill, it pulls you in and suddenly you turn into a swimming subterranean beast. Your drills speeds up and tugs you along for the ride whether you want it to or not, and you can even press the jump button for a burst of speed. That can be useful for dodging things while underground, leaping out with even greater velocity, and so forth. However, while you’re digging you are also locked into moving forward along the path of the drill, and changing direction becomes much more about larger arcs and wrestling your drill path.

And… like… that’s 90% of the gameplay right there. There is more to it, strictly speaking; there’s a lot to consider when it comes to your overall velocity, there are things like cannons and such that you stick your drill in to activate, and so forth, but most of the game is just about navigating the environment and enemies carefully. You have four units of life and you want to collect as many hidden Skull Coins as you can (each non-boss level holds five), they can open up secret bonus stages and be spent on character customizations, you can spend the treasures you collect on little collectable doodads. There. That’s your game.

It’d be really easy for all of this to become boring, but each world consists of about five actual levels in total, with each one having some central gimmicks, so nothing ever has time to really wear out its welcome. Indeed, the game on a whole is pretty short, although there are time trials you can participate in to clear the levels faster and inspire some replay value. This is a short, quick, directed experience aimed at people who want a dose of platforming fun.

The one area it really suffers is when it comes to boss fights. Boss fights are not terribly fun, not because they’re not well designed but just because the game’s combat isn’t really the strength of its gameplay. Being forced into them tends to have unpleasant portions of just dodging and waiting for extended periods, which is never fun. Of course, there aren’t a lot of them, so it’s not a crippling flaw.

Pepper Pepped

Visually, the game has a delicate and lovely style of pixel art that’s both very readable and very iconic. Sprites are animated wonderfully, and despite how easy it would be for things like diggable ground to be unclear I never found anything like that. It can occasionally be hard to judge if you can’t quite make a jump, but the game always plays fair with its hidden digging spots and general hiding spots for skull coins. I found most of them on my playthrough just by keeping my eyes peeled, as it happened.

The music definitely has an SNES feel to it without evoking any specific title, just a general mood. I mentioned Yoshi’s Island but that’s mostly clear in the game’s map screen and level naming; beyond that, the game really doesn’t feel much like it. The whole thing is lightweight and charming, pitched at being a spot of fun for its price tag but not terribly fleshed out beyond that.

Decently Seasoned

I expected a bit more out of Pepper Grinder than I got, but none of that is really a mark against the game. There are definitely things about the game I dislike – boss fights primarily, or the general brevity and simplicity of the game – but that’s also judging a game I didn’t get rather than one I did, and the title isn’t priced like a big sprawling adventure. At a $15 price tag, it feels like a light weekend thing, something you can drill through in a few nights of idle play and then pick up again whenever you have a hankering for something similar.

That’s… what it wants to be. And so I have to kind of give it up for that. There are frustration points, sure, but if you like this style of platformer it simultaneously doesn’t feel like something that’s been done a dozen times before and is fun to play start to finish. Not every game manages that.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.