One of the great dialectics in gaming is the tension between pattern-driven and free-form play. Classic shooters like Gradius and R-Type are textbook examples of the former, goading gamers into improvement as they face the same patterns of enemies and environments with each subsequent replay. Here, advancement is rooted in memorization, with players habitually progressing via trial and error. The other, more improvisational, approach forces participants to adapt to a set of ever-changing surroundings. Within this context, things are so dynamic that gamers have to adjust their methods with each new playthrough.
Although all interactive efforts exist somewhere on this continuum, few have struck a balance as nimbly as 1984’s Boulder Dash. Controlling a gem-grabbing protagonist named Rockford, players could approach the game in two divergent ways. Some gradually uncovered patterns which allowed for the seamless collection of jewels needed to open the stage exit. But others would try to manage the on-screen chaos, attempting to predict the path of falling boulders and chain reactions. These players learned to read the environment, taking steps to avoid getting smashed under a landslide of remorseless rock. Given the game’s dual approaches, Boulder Dash developed a fan-base who appreciated the game’s blend of puzzle and action elements.
Although there have been a number of low-key attempts to propel Boulder Dash into the contemporary era, few have acquired much audience appreciation. The recent Steam release of Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary for the PC hopes to change that, but an adherence to the same design decisions used by the free-to-play mobile version undermines some of the improvements. In short, PC players deserved a brand new Boulder Dash, and this port, while enjoyable, makes the absence of a truly new game disheartening.
At its core, Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary preserves the mechanics of what made the original game so enjoyable. Rockford and his unlockable comrades, still quarry through soft dirt, constrained by the occasional rock wall. Dropping boulders is still the best way to eliminate pesky enemies from the playfield, and it feel good to pommel them with precision. While there’s a timer, players control the pace of the game, with each grid-based shift triggering all kinds of reactions. Of course, there’s a number of modernizations that add nuance- from diagonal ramps to machines that can transform falling a rock into collectable gem.
Destined to be divisive are 30th Anniversary’s new power-ups which can be used to destroy impenetrable walls, temporarily freezing the on-screen action, or even activating a bonus timer where point values are increased. These all play into the ranking system that’s present on each level, with utilization often necessary to earn a coveted three-star status. Since the acquisition of stars opens additional levels across the game’s 220-stage journey, they’re a compulsory part of Boulder Dash’s campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the mobile version of 30th Anniversary sold resources to players, or slightly less intrusively, made them watch videos to earn the gold bars that were needed to purchase additional sticks of dynamite. While the Steam version gets rid of most in-app purchases and commercial viewing, many of the free-to-play components linger, pressing players into grinding if they want to triple-star every stage. While a complete overhaul of the progression system might have been arduous, the result would have been an improved experience.
So in execution, Boulder Dash is a game that succeeds in spite of itself. Undeniably, the core gameplay regains engaging, pitting the temptation of higher score against the possibility of peril. It’s a tension that’s as nearly as old as the industry itself, but here it’s boiled down to its bare essentials. Of course all this hinges on quality level design, and largely 30th Anniversary exhibits distinction, with stages offering both a staggered learning curve and enough novelty that you’ll want to endure until the end of the expedition.
Those seeking additional environments have two option: the game’s level editor and two DLC packages. The former is a bit bare bounds but rather straightforward. Sure, you’ll yearn for additional tools to speed up the creation process, but you’ll probably also be able to dig right in and starting engineering without having to watch a lengthy tutorial video. And while Steam Workshop integration is functional and will probably outlive a dedicated server, downloading custom-made levels is a bit cumbersome. For those who rather play professionally created content, Boulder Dash offers a pair of two-dollar DLCs. The first bring back twenty levels from the original game, tweaking them slightly so they’ll utilize the new power-ups. Retro fans might also appreciate The Bouldering Comp, a collection of challenging stages crafted by Peter Liepa, one of the creators of the original title.
Given the game’s mobile roots, it’s not unexpected to find that 30th Anniversary runs an almost any contemporary PC. On a modest laptop with a discrete GPU we had to dial back the resolution to boost control responsiveness—but other than that minor detail, the game was completely playable on relic i3s and aging AMD CPUs. Except for an end of stage salute which zoomed in on the game’s textures a little too closely, Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary is a competent visual performer, exhibiting an array of bright colors and minimalistic character designs. Pleasingly, both control pad and keyboard control is equally as responsive, making the title an ideal for work laptops that are in need of a lunch-hour diversion.
Fans of the original game will appreciate Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary despite a few misgivings. Save for some ethically-ambiguous emulation, it’s one of the one ways to enjoy the classic title on PC. Those with only a passing interest in the title might want to wait for a price drop- or at least a deal which bundles includes the two additional DLC into a single even-handed purchase price.
Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PC, previously on mobile
Developer: Tapstar Interactive, First Star Software
Publisher: Tapstar Interactive, First Star Software
Release date: September 13th, 2016
Price: $14.99 via Steam