Was there ever a game that came out on as many platforms as Boulder Dash? And that’s before we bring it its sequels and remakes and remasters and construction kits and spin-offs like Rockford and GemJam! Or, indeed, it’s rip-offs on the one system that completely missed out on any Boulder Dash love, which was, of course, the one that I owned! We had Rockman on the VIC-20 though, and while it wasn’t quite Repton on the BBC, it was a great Boulder Dash clone! In fact, considering it was available for the unexpanded, 3.5K VIC-20 no less, and it was a Mastertronic budget title, what we got here was nothing short of a miracle, albeit a ridiculously hard miracle most of the time!
For all of its proper ports though, stemming from the original 1984 Atari 8-bit versions by First Star Software, I will forever associate Boulder Dash with the Commodore 64. And not just because no game was ever more suited to demonstrating its graphical prowess thanks to all that chunky brown action going on! It’s not even because that’s where I eventually played it the most. No, it’s simply because the game made greater demands on the player than it did the hardware, a bit like when Andy Warhol took down his paintings because he was the art! The concept was brilliant and the C64 was a perfect match, and while, when I think C64, I might think Commando first and Winter Games second, Boulder Dash would probably be next. Actually, when I first got my C64 Mini, that was the very first game I scrolled around to and fired up on there (and, behind the scenes, couldn’t resist doing again about 45 minutes ago, as I write, to get me back in the mood)!
Now that’s out of my system, let’s move to what I think was around the start of this very year, when I was still keeping an eye on that new Atari VCS console, and an announcement that not only was there even more Boulder Dash on the way, but 36 years on it was coming back home and launching there first, all over again! I must admit that I lost track of the Atari VCS a bit – it sounded pricey, getting it shipped to the UK was significantly more pricey, and even though we’re way into September 2021 now, if you go to the official store to order one, you’re still being told that the “product will arrive in Spring 2021” and that pricing is subject to change. And none of that is encouraging me to add to cart! Anyway, no matter because Boulder Dash Deluxe has now arrived on Switch, Xbox and PC, and for transparency, publisher BBG Entertainment has kindly sent me a review code, which I’ll be looking at on Xbox Series X.
Let’s start at the beginning though. Boulder Dash is a 2D action-puzzler that has you, Rockford, digging through caves and collecting enough gems to allow you to reach the level’s exit before the timer runs out. On the way, you’ll come up against various dangerous creatures, falling boulders that can quickly turn into an avalanche, as well as explosions and other such underground perils. I guess it could be compared to Dig Dug, but it played way quicker and had more going on, often becoming a real head-scratcher the further in you got. It was crazy addictive too!
Fast forward to now, and Boulder Dash Deluxe is taking the same classic gameplay, giving it all a lick of paint and dumping it into 180 new levels across nine unique worlds with no less than fifteen new enemies to mix up the puzzle action. You’re also getting The Liepa World, twenty new levels from original creator Peter Liepa, and, best of all, you’ve got the original game thrown in too. And honestly, I’d pay the £12.49 asking-price (which I don’t think includes Nintendo Switch tax if you’re on there) to be able to play the original on my brand new Series X alone! Speaking of Switch, when I first installed this I was pleasantly surprised to see the download coming in at about 700MB. Okay, I know it’s only Boulder Dash, and I know it’s hardly the 3.5K we started with here, but all the same, doesn’t happen much anymore, but if I was playing on Switch I’d appreciate it!
What I didn’t quite appreciate so much were my first impressions once I’d actually installed the game though. It looks like a free-to-play mobile game from the off, which is probably down to it being an evolution of the 30th anniversary edition that started life as exactly that a while back. I can set your mind at rest immediately and say there’s no hint of micro-transactions anymore, and everything is unlocked through gameplay, but even so, it’s lineage is obvious. There’s loot chests containing power-ups and character cosmetics and upgrades to collect (including a really cool new take on 8-bit Rockford), and premium currency to uncover, which allows for continues when you die, or acceleration of more levels being available to you… What I found most uncomfortable here though was the level map, which is a series of squares with three blank stars on to try and fill in, and will be very familiar to anyone who’s played Candy Crush and the like.
As you play through the new worlds, the more gems you collect on each level before the timer runs out means the more stars you’ll get, and new worlds will unlock over time as you collect them. In reality, the system works okay even if I don’t like how it’s presented, and as you get close to having enough stars to unlock the next world (which increases the further you get), it actually adds to what’s already still a very addictive gameplay mechanic and ups the ante even more, making it almost impossible to put down until you’ve got it unlocked. And then, of course, you have got try it out…
There’s an insane amount of game here, and absolutely loads to collect, which I’m really not bothered about, but if you are, it keeps on coming every time you play, and from what I can tell, offers another reason to go back and play levels you’ve already three-starred again. As you play, new mechanics appear too, like diagonal movement or being able to grab an item from an adjacent “square” without entering it, and these offer all kinds of new strategy, especially against the enemy creatures you come across. From snow tigers to sharks to hyenas and various creepy crawlies, all of these bring their own dangers, movement patterns and unique behaviour that’s often dynamic too, depending on the lie of the tunnels you’re creating.
The new environments offer their own puzzles too, with all of the familiar mazes and rock action mixed up with new obstacles, and combined with your new power-ups, such as freeze or dynamite, as well as those new enemy mechanics that keep on coming, you’ve got a load of variety on top of that classic gameplay loop. It makes it pretty tough going before long too, so make the most of all those three-star completions in the first world!
On top of gameplay variety, each new world offers its own terrain and textures. You start in the Macmarnua Sea, then you’ll emerge onto beaches and into forests, mountains, castles and more as you collect those stars, but even so, given the underlying concept, there’s not massive visual variety. And I’m really not sure what to make of the visuals – they’re a very polished, kind of rounded-voxel style, not a million miles away from something like the wonderful Lonely Mountains Downhill or that Link’s Awakening remake, but it’s maybe too clean and polished, almost to the point of being a bit clinical. This is especially apparent when you fire up those original game caves, where the difference couldn’t be more stark, but there’s just no escaping how much heart is still to be found in those primitive designs!
Similar for the character designs, which, apart from that version of old Rockford I mentioned, just don’t carry a huge amount of actual character despite a few neat animations, and touches like motion trail and the occasional glisten of light. Have a look at the screenshots and make up your own mind though, because I know that not everyone is looking through this miserable old git’s eyes! On the audio front, I’d say it’s adequate. Loads of spot effects doing exactly what they need to do over a gradually repetitive but perfectly inoffensive plucked-string and piano and occasional woodwind classical piece of gentle background music.
As we established a very long time ago though, Boulder Dash was never about looks or sounds. And it’s definitely not about playing ad-infinitum to collect stuff, which, the more I think about it, is going to take forever if you want to get everything here! What it is all about is that fast-paced, fiendish digging and collecting and arcade-puzzling, and that’s to be found here in literal spades! Behind those obnoxious free-to-play stylings, you’ve got one of the great 8-bit computer games in its entirety; you’ve got a whole new set of levels from the genius mind of its original creator; and on top you’ve got more modern reimaginings than you can shake a stick at. And, despite having never played the 30th anniversary stuff for comparison, I reckon that’s a pretty good deal, whether you already like your Boulder Dash or are coming at Boulder Dash Deluxe completely new.