Ask gamers who began the hobby before the first big video game boom, and most will tell you that gameplay mattered the most. It didn't matter what system you played on, how the game sounded, or how the game looked. If the game played well, it was a good title, and games with terrible gameplay wouldn't even be given the time of day. Such was the case with Boulder Dash, a game originally released on various computer platforms in 1983 and was subsequently ported to every possible platform at the time to great success. With the current trend of bringing back and reimagining old successful franchises, it's not surprising that this classic also went the remake route, and Boulder Dash-XL mostly succeeds.
In Boulder Dash-XL, you play as one of two robots, Rockford or Crystal, as you explore caverns in search of diamonds and other shiny objects. Each cavern is filled with loose dirt that must be dug up before you can proceed, and while you can easily dig through it, you can't dig through some walls and boulders. You may be a metallic being, but you aren't tough because one touch from an enemy kills you. Gravity is also your enemy, as falling boulders wipe you out, though that only occurs if there is at least one space between you and the boulder. While you can't pull boulders toward you, you can push them out of the way to either squash enemies or gain access to other parts of the cavern. To create some interesting avalanche scenarios, you can cause boulders to slide to the side if they land on another boulder and have ample space next to them. You win once you find the required number of gems for each level and locate the exit.
Boulder Dash-XL comes with five different gameplay modes. Arcade mode is the heart of the game, consisting of 100 different levels that are unlocked five at a time — but only if three levels in the previous set have been completed. Though it obeys the rules of the original game, it throws in some interesting power-ups to liven up things. Energy canisters give one of your robots the ability to withstand an extra enemy hit before expiring, though it isn't enough to prevent death from falling rocks. Speed mode gives you a temporary speed boost while powered-up arms let you pull away one boulder per charge. There are also machines that transform boulders into gems and vice versa. Despite the presence of these tools, the game doesn't suddenly become easier. The power-ups complement the levels rather well, making you glad they exist for tough situations.
Puzzle mode charges you with trying to grab all of the gems and hit the exit without worrying about a timer counting down to your demise. While there are only 25 levels, or a quarter of what Story mode offers, each design is interesting since there are several different ways one can solve the given puzzle and several more ways one can mess up. It's certainly a mode built for those who love brain teasers.
Score Attack gives you large levels with the objective of getting as many points as possible and reaching the exit before time runs out. Like most of the Arcade mode levels, the minimum number of gems needed to open the exit is quite low, and while more gems get you more points, you'll also gain a substantial amount of points when the remaining time is converted. You may want to play multiple times to come up with a strategy that mixes gem collection and time management well enough to get the most points. As fun as that is, the only drawback is the number of available levels for the mode. There are only four levels, so you'll exhaust this mode more quickly than the others in the game.
Zen mode is sort of like a replay mode, where you can play any level you've unlocked without the pressure of a timer. Since this mode is dependent on what you've unlocked in Arcade mode, you're not going to get much out of this unless you've played a good deal of Arcade mode. Expect to only play this if you want to plan out some time-saving strategies to get higher scores when you replay the levels.
Finally, there's Retro mode, which is a bit beguiling. Here, the game takes on 25 of the levels — and all of the rules — from the original game. This not only means an absence of power-ups but also the falling gems' ability to kill you. The throwback mentality also stretches to the graphics, where everything from the dirt to the enemies to your robots is done in Commodore 64-style sprite form. That's as far back as things go, though. The pixelated items are actually 3-D polygons, but those expecting a full-on retro experience in this mode will be slightly disappointed.
No matter which mode is chosen, the core gameplay remains the same, and it's good to know that it has aged fairly well. Part of that can be attributed to some good level design. In most cases, the levels feel somewhat open, giving you several different ways to beat a level, whether you're interested in going for speed or for a high completion percentage. Another factor for the game's success comes from its addictive nature. Most of the time, you'll find that the gem requirement for beating a level is much less than the number of gems actually occupying a level. Combine this with the time limit for each level, and suddenly, every level becomes a variation of Score Attack. You'll constantly try to find the perfect route to get all of the gems to the exit in as little time as possible to create a massive score. Finally, the difficulty feels like it hits at just the right level. Deaths never feel like they come about through any fault but your own, and even your mistakes motivate you to try again to find the right way to handle the situation. It strikes just the right balance to motivate players; no matter how hard a puzzle looks, it can still be solved.
For those expecting some multiplayer mode to be added to Boulder Dash-XL, forget it. There's no offline or online version of either co-op or competitive play. Those who play the game will have to treat it as a completely solo affair. To be fair, the original version didn't have any multiplayer, either, so it's not really a knock at the game. As a consolation prize, you get leaderboards for every mode, so those looking to compete with others in that manner should be rather pleased.
Despite this being a modern remake, the graphics are nothing spectacular. Your robot companions and various enemies look fine and give off a cartoony look not unlike early CG animated efforts. The animation also gives off the vibe that it's good but not quite the smoothest thing out there. The environments have a basic level of detail, and they don't overwhelm every other important element on-screen. About the only thing that makes some sort of positive impression is the particle effects when enemies are destroyed or you pick up gems, but since they don't stand out too much, they sometimes get lost in the background. The game isn't painful to look at, but you won't be using it as an example of how far downloadable game graphics have come.
Likewise, the sound is serviceable. The music is cheery, so there's never a sense of impending doom or gloom, even if time is close to running out. It is pleasant to listen to, but it doesn't have a memorable soundtrack. The effects also fall into this realm; they're good and fit the actions perfectly, but you've heard better. Voice work is at a minimum, with a robotic announcer counting down the star of a level and counting down before the time runs out in a level.
Boulder Dash-XL does a good job of convincing its audience that the original idea can still hold up today. The core gameplay is simple but addictive, and the multitude of levels with varying difficulty make it tough to put down once you pick up the controller. The game could have used better-looking graphics and better sound. While online leaderboards are nice, some type of multiplayer, whether competitive or co-op, offline or online, would've been ideal, considering the modern gaming culture. The overall package is good enough that those looking for some simple but endearing fun will find it here. For those who enjoy being challenged by good level design, Boulder Dash-XL is a game that's well worth playing.
Editor's Note: Want to score a FREE copy of Boulder Dash-XL? Then head on over to Twitter and follow @WorthPlaying. We're giving away TEN XBLA copies of the game today (8/12/2011).
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