Pepper Grinder is a fast-paced platformer for the Nintendo Switch. Developed by indie studio Ahr Ech, it takes the classic tunneling concept of Dig Dug and merges it with the platforming nuances of Mario’s best adventures. The result is something quite unique, boasting pretty graphics, tough levels, and tense boss fights. 

Things begin when our heroine wakes ashore to find her treasures have been stolen. She discovers a handy drill and sets off on an adventure to reclaim what’s hers, taking down any creepy monster who stands in her way. There’s not much in the way of dialogue, but that’s just fine. Things move along swiftly, and we’re quickly thrust into the first stage.

Pepper Grinder - Nintendo Switch - screen 1

Learning the basics doesn’t take long, either. You can run and jump as with any typical platformer, while holding down the ZR button allows you to use your drill. You can use this oversized tool at any time, smashing all sorts of objects and enemies. However, the digging portion of the gameplay only works in certain types of ground. These areas are differentiated by a lighter tone, indicating a sandy texture as opposed to the rocky ground or grassy areas that you walk on. 

Pressing B while digging grants you a boost of speed. This is handy when you need to traverse gaps between sandy patches or take out an enemy patrolling the top of your digable section. Things quickly escalate, and it’s soon obvious – by level 2, in fact – that this is one tough little platformer. 

Controlling your character as you dig is tricky; she moves fast and can’t stop until she exits the sand. It takes getting used to, but pulling it off feels satisfying. Enemies become the least of your concerns as you’re introduced to thorny branches and molten lava, among other things. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure.

Pepper Grinder - Nintendo Switch - screen 3

To help, you’re given four bars of life. That means you can take four hits before restarting the level. You’ll occasionally receive extra bars, giving you up to eight hits. Let me tell you, you’ll need all eight. Thankfully, there are checkpoints within each stage, similar to Mario’s mini flags halfway through his adventures. This creates a need to push through to the next checkpoint, a sense of relief flooding in now that you’re done with the previous section.

Of course, there are collectibles that tempt you to replay anyway. These come in the form of pirate coins, of which there are five scattered throughout each stage. Some are clearly visible in hard-to-reach places, while others are hidden in rocks that don’t look digable. Investigating is key, another Mario-ism that I enjoyed seeing reflected here. 

If it sounds like there are a few inspirations to platformers of the past, there are. But there’s also a lot of ingenuity. Drilling through sand aside, there are other in-stage attachments to discover, such as keys and guns. Blasting your way through enemies is just as satisfying as tunneling beneath them. Another addition is hooks, which you can swing from like Spiderman. These require good timing to leap from sand to hook and back to more sand without falling to your death. Oh, and then there are the boss fights.

Pepper Grinder - Nintendo Switch - screen 2

Did I mention that Pepper Grinder is tough? Well, the boss fights expound on this notion exponentially. Even the first encounter at the end of world one took me more than 20 attempts to defeat. I felt accomplished, sure, but would I have persisted had I not been reviewing the game? That’s a question best left to you, dear reader. If you relish a challenge, Pepper Grinder has it in spades.

Graphically, this is one charming-looking title. The slightly muddy graphics speak to retro titles of the 1990s, with pixelated characters that somehow ooze charm despite being so small and smudgy. The backgrounds and foregrounds are both lovely, giving it a playful, colorful look that leaps off the screen. The audio is equally impressive, with a fantastic assortment of tunes that vary between levels. There was never a dull moment both audibly or visually. 

Overall, Pepper Grinder is a platformer that wears its inspiration on its sleeve, with collectibles, checkpoints, and more in tow. It adds a unique spin to the formula with the addition of a drill mechanic, creating a fun-yet-tough experience that’s satisfying to conquer. It’s not a super-long game, but the challenge will keep you busy for some time regardless.