Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary: The Rockford Files

Boulder Dash is an all-time classic game from the early microcomputer era.

First releasing on Atari 8-bit computers in 1984, it has enjoyed numerous ports, sequels, spinoffs and unofficial level packs for a wide variety of platforms, with the latest at the time of writing being the Nintendo Switch release of Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary. The official website has a nicely comprehensive history for you to enjoy at your leisure.

The astute among you will note that there are more than 30 years between 1984 and 2020. That’s because this port in particular also goes back a few years, too. Let’s take a closer look.

Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary first released in 2014 (Boulder Dash’s actual 30th anniversary) for smartphones, where it was a free-to-play game with microtransactions. It was then ported to PC and Mac as a budget-price title with the microtransactions removed in 2016, and this version forms the basis for the Switch port.

In fact, the Switch port is a little too true to the PC port in places, including as it does both a number of PC-specific graphics options as well as some references to keyboard controls in the in-game tutorial text. Whoops.

For those unfamiliar with Boulder Dash, the concept is very simple. As protagonist Rockford (or any one of a number of alternative characters available to unlock) it’s your job to make your way through a series of caves, collecting as many diamonds as possible along the way. Each level has a minimum quota of diamonds required to open the exit, as well as the opportunity to earn up to three stars based on the score you attain along the way.

The main mechanic you have to contend with in Boulder Dash is Rockford’s ability to dig through the dirt. Passing through a block of dirt turns it into an empty space, and if there were any diamonds or boulders above said dirt, they will promptly fall once Rockford gets out of the way. They will also fall and roll to one side or another if they end up as part of a “top-heavy” stack. Falling rocks will crush and kill Rockford; if you’re playing on the “Hardcore” difficulty level, which mirrors how the original game works, diamonds will too!

As you might expect, the core of Boulder Dash’s strategy is moving these boulders around in order to reach the precious diamonds without blocking your way. This can often be quite challenging in its own right, but as you progress through the game, a number of other mechanics start to reveal themselves.

Fireflies explode when you drop a rock or diamond on them, though they’ll also kill Rockford with a touch. Butterflies also explode, but they turn into diamonds when they do so. Amoebae gradually expand until they can grow no more, at which point they will turn into either diamonds or rocks. Magic walls convert diamonds to boulders or boulders to diamonds if you drop things through them. And numerous other level features gradually reveal themselves the further you go.

There are a ton of levels in Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary, including a recreation of the original levels from the first game and a new world constructed by original game designer Peter Liepa. The “retro” levels have a very distinct feel to them, since they were based around the original game’s mechanics rather than the additions to this new version — so let’s talk a little about those additions.

As previously mentioned, Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary has its roots as a free-to-play mobile game. And you probably know what that means: pay money to get currency, which you can promptly spend on either unlocking things early, or effectively “cheating” in various ways. That is, unfortunately, still the case in the Switch version — though thankfully with the option to purchase currency with real money well and truly removed, as in the PC version.

You have several different power-ups at your disposal, each of which has its own way of making life easier for you. Dynamite allows you to blast through walls or destroy creatures without having to time a boulder drop. A score multiplier doubles the points you receive for a few seconds. A “freeze” option allows you to freely move objects around — including pushing boulders “up” the screen to get them into a helpful position. And a “spyglass” item adds a few seconds to the timer and allows you to look over the whole level.

These power-ups aren’t bad in principle, but their limited quantities and the way in which you acquire them through randomly distributed lootboxes leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. It’s also a bit awkward how some levels are clearly designed with the use of these power-ups in mind — certain areas are completely inaccessible without the dynamite, for example, while others make it all but impossible to acquire the score necessary for a three-star rating without using the score multiplier item, or breaking the rules of boulder movement using the “freeze” power-up.

If you were perhaps provided with a set stock of each power-up for each level, the game would add an additional layer to its already compelling puzzle-like gameplay; instead, what we have here is a game that will make you hesitant to use any of the power-ups because acquiring more is based on either random chance, or repeatedly grinding out levels you’ve already played to acquire sufficient currency to buy packs of them.

This is where the original levels in particular contrast so strongly with those that have been specifically designed for Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary: every single one of the levels from the old game can be completed with a three-star rating without using any of the power-ups whatsoever, and without missing anything. Boulder Dash’s core mechanics are, in themselves, solid enough to carry a whole game, as has been proven numerous times over the last 36 years, so it’s a bit of a shame these power-ups are in here at all — particularly when their origins as a means of extracting money from players are all too apparent.

On top of this, unlocking new playable characters — each of whom has their own passive benefit, such as extended time limits, increased move speed or power-ups that last for longer — requires the random acquisition of various items through lootboxes. In some cases, you’re expected to acquire several hundred of these items to unlock a single character — or spend the game’s gold bar currency, of course, which is pretty hard to come by.

All this said, these aspects of the game can actually be fairly easily ignored. If you just play the game like the original Boulder Dash — i.e. simply try and “solve” each level as effectively as you can by unlocking the exit, and sod things like star ratings, “loot” or getting every single diamond — there’s a lot to like here. About 280 levels of it, in fact, which should keep you busy for a while, particularly as some of those stages are very well designed to tax your brain considerably. And with the short length of each level, it is, of course, absolutely perfect for taking on the go with you to play in handheld mode.

Boulder Dash is still a wonderful game, and its core gameplay feels just as fresh and compelling today as it did back in 1984. It didn’t need all the extra stuff added in the mobile port, and even without the microtransactions it’s a little painfully obvious why features like the power-ups and unlocks are there. I would have personally preferred that this side of things had been stripped out altogether — or at the very least rebalanced considerably — for the PC and console ports, but, well, this is what we’ve got, so this is what we have to deal with for now.

And I’d like to reiterate lest all this comes across as overly negative: what we have isn’t bad; I just wish it was a little better, or more accurately, differently implemented. Thankfully, I might get my wish later in 2020, since it appears that Boulder Dash Deluxe is on the way later in the year, and looks like a much more traditional Boulder Dash experience — complete with the original graphics of the Atari 8-bit version being included for its take on the old game’s levels. Colour me excited.

It’s entirely possible that Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary for Switch is an attempt to test the waters for a potential console port of Deluxe — in which case I sincerely hope the mobile-esque features of this game don’t put too many people off. The core game here is as solid and fun as it’s ever been; you just need to peel off that slimy film of free-to-play residue left behind by the sweaty arse of the mobile version to get to it.

More about Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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