This pixel pirate platformer has some of the coolest movement I've seen this year, and a dash of Dig Dug

Pepper Grinder
(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

I have a new nemesis and it's a bug-like creature with a horn, firing shots at me on the back of a giant orange beetle. This is the first boss battle in the pixelated platformer Pepper Grinder from developer Ahr Ech, which sees me use a powerful drill to carve through pockets of the landscape and take out enemies. Using the sand encircling the blunderbuss-wielding bug and its oversized steed, I dart in and out to avoid the increasing number of shots being fired in my direction. Everything is a matter of timing. I have to try to avoid getting hit as I wait for the beetle to move in just the right spot so I can plunge my Grinder drill right into its soft underbelly and knock the rider off. Then, I land as many hits on the buggy foe as it scrambles to get back onto the beetle. 

It proves to be a challenge as I try to learn its attack patterns and avoid taking too many hits. Each time I whittle down the Beetle rider's health, its projectiles seem to change, going from a single blast to a whole burst of them that splay out over a wider area, making it trickier to avoid hits as I wait for the beetle to move into position each time. The fight resets if your health completely depletes, which has me on tenterhooks every time I narrowly avoid a hit. My frustration only grows with each failed attempt, but when I finally beat it, nothing beats the cathartic moment at the end of the fight when I get to mash the ZR button on my Switch controller to dig my drill into the enemy and deliver a final blow. 

If you were to ask me to try and sum up Pepper Grinder, I'd say it's like a mix between Ecco the Dolphin and Dig Dug – but make it pirates. The movement is definitely its biggest strength, and the Grinder drill makes for a satisfying means of traversal throughout. 

The grind

Pepper Grinder

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

Now I'm no pirate, but I reckon having your treasure stolen is the worst case scenario imaginable. Pepper Grinder begins with a shipwreck that sees titular hero Pepper washed up on the shore. You're greeted with the sight of a mysterious figure sporting a striking hairdo who shows up and swipes your treasure chest. The gall! Clearly angered, you ready your drill and set out across various platforming levels to reclaim the gems that were taken from you. The Grinder acts as your means of traversal and also your weapon. With pockets of terrain that you can quickly churn your way through not unlike Dig Dug, you can also use the drill to propel yourself up out of sand or earth - it's no wonder that even the developer compares it to Ecco the Dolphin, which instantly came to mind as I soared up to reach a platform like I was Ecco leaping up from the ocean. 

Different puzzle elements and hazards pop up throughout each level that you'll need to figure out or avoid to successfully make your way across every section. With everything from thorns and lava to ledge obstacles, moving platforms, and various roaming enemies, all of the levels I've experienced keep me on my toes. Admittedly, platformers aren't my strong suit. Despite my great love for some of the best Kirby games over the years - not to mention any number of classic Mario adventures - it's a genre I've never excelled at. Even so, I do enjoy them, and I particularly appreciate how many creative platformers we've seen in recent years in the indie scene - from the likes of Celeste to Hollow Knight, and many more. 

When it comes to Pepper Grinder, I definitely find it challenging at times, but it's so satisfying to drill through levels, carving my way across the terrain to collect gems and find big pirate coins that can be traded to a vendor for accessories, more health, or keys that unlock additional levels. The drill can also be used to move certain platforms, and each time you reach the end of a level, you use the Grinder to raise a pirate flag by turning a screw-like switch. It reminds me of some of the satisfying mechanics in Kirby Planet Robobot, which sees the puffball get into a mech and use tools to uncork screws or fix them into place. 

It's fast-paced, fluid, and visually pleasing thanks to its retro pixelated style. From what I've played so far, I'm already curious to see what other levels and challenges await me as I progress further through its hub world to reclaim my stolen treasure. If you're a big fan of colorful platformers that feel good to play, Pepper Grinder definitely ticks those boxes. 

Pepper Grinder is out now on PC and Switch. Check out what else we've been enjoying in our Indie Spotlight series, or see out what's on the horizon with our roundup of upcoming indie games

Heather Wald
Senior staff writer

I started out writing for the games section of a student-run website as an undergrad, and continued to write about games in my free time during retail and temp jobs for a number of years. Eventually, I earned an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, and soon after got my first official role in the industry as a content editor for Stuff magazine. After writing about all things tech and games-related, I then did a brief stint as a freelancer before I landed my role as a staff writer here at GamesRadar+. Now I get to write features, previews, and reviews, and when I'm not doing that, you can usually find me lost in any one of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect games, tucking into another delightful indie, or drinking far too much tea for my own good.