Boulder Dash is one of those games that, for my entire life, has somehow eluded me (or is it evaded? It's probably neither). For unknown reasons, it's a game that I've never played despite it being released numerous times on numerous systems. So, I've decided that now is as good as time as any to dig it out (ho-ho!) and give it a go. The closest I've probably come to playing anything like Boulder Dash was a game called Rubble Trouble on my Acorn Electron. I say probably as, although I've had the game since the late 1980s, I've never managed to get it to work. I must have spent literally hours of my life staring at the "Bad Program, Rewind Tape," error message in the hope that I could just get past the bit on the tape that was causing the problem. For all I know, Rubble Trouble is nothing like Boulder Dash.
I've chosen to play Boulder Dash on the Commodore 64. This is because it was one of the systems it originally came out on*, and the Commodore 64 is a computer that I haven't had much experience of, so I might as well show it some love now. Plus the C64 has largely been ignored so far on my little blog thing. And also, C64 Boulder Dash is the only version currently available for purchase (it's 500 Wii Points on the Virtual Console - I think it was released on it back in 2008, but it'll probably still show up under new releases seeing as Nintendo nowadays only see fit to release a VC game if there's a full moon on the second Thursday of the month. And that's usually some crappy one on one fighting game for the Neo Geo).**
The aim of Boulder Dash is quite simple. You control Rockford who must collect diamonds hidden in caves. To get to the diamonds, you must clear a path. Littered around each cave are also boulders, and clearing a path below them will cause them to fall into it. Clear too much ground and you'll have a boulder avalanche on your hands. If any falling rocks, or even diamonds, come into contact with Rockford, he dies. Also populating each cave are what are apparently fireflies and butterflies and a strange green ooze. The fireflies and butterflies are lethal on contact, but butterflies produce diamonds when destroyed which is essential for completing some levels. The fireflies simply leave a 9x9 space when destroyed. The ooze will become diamonds if it gets prevented from growing any larger, again necessary for level completion. It'll become a load of boulders if it gets too large.
To look at, Boulder Dash is nothing amazing. As a game from 1984, its graphics are quite primitive and aren't attractive, but seeing as they are meant to depict rocks and dirt, they actually fit the context of the game quite well. The colour palette changes for each level which ensures that you sense that there is a transition from one level to the next and gives each level its own feel.
As for sounds, the title music is quite unique, not memorable in the slightest, but again seems to fit the game. There is no in-game music, although having now played versions that do have music during gameplay, I prefer it without. Rockford sounds like he's sniffing his way through the levels, rather than digging the dirt out of the way, although the falling rocks have a satisfying rumble and crunch to them, and falling diamonds have a nice tinkling effect as they fall. Like the graphics, the sounds aren't amazing, and don't demonstrate any of the funky effects that the Commodore 64's fabled SID chip was capable of, but they really do fit the game.
It's in the gameplay that Boulder Dash shines. The game is instantly playable but quickly becomes challenging. You need to combine skill and strategy to complete each level safely but within the tight time limits. The game is perfectly balanced in this respect. You can't tackle each level like a bull in a china shop, but you can't take too much time making up your mind where you want to go next. It's all about knowing when to pause for thought to plan your route and when to take a risk and plough through the dirt. Death never feels unfair as it is always caused by your own actions. Each enemy has their own attack pattern, and it doesn't take long to understand how to avoid them, and also how to use them for your own advantage. The movement of the ooze and slime is also quite random, meaning that you will have to rely on reflex skills to tackle them, rather than remembering how you've played the levels before. And although the concept of the game remains constant throughout, each level feels very different and throws a new kind of challenge at you. On the Commodore 64, the levels scroll smoothly and Rockford moves responsively, which all contribute to making the game extremely playable.
For a relatively early game, Boulder Dash packs a great variety of gameplay elements into it. It's a great combination of a puzzle game and an arcade style game and everything in it just feels right. I think what makes the game quite appealing, and could be quite an interesting topic of research, is the whole idea of being able to be destructive, but at the same time to collect as many diamonds as possible. Quite often, not all the diamonds are required to complete a level, but I think it could be quite interesting to see if an element of greed might encourage people to attempt to get them anyway. It's no wonder that the game is still regularly rereleased today, and it makes me wonder why it's taken me so long to discover it.
*Apparently, Boulder Dash first came out on the Atari 800. However, as that computer was pretty much non-existent here in the UK, I've decided to ignore this fact.
**The C64 version of Boulder Dash that was available on the Wii through the Virtual Console service has since been removed, along with all of the other C64 games. I would update the article itself, but it seemed like too much effort, so I thought I'd mention it here instead.