Boulder Dash EX
Though Boulder Dash is not the most famous franchise name in the video game universe, it actually has a long and boring history. Read on to find out more!
No, seriously, Boulder Dash began in 1984 and is in fact older than me. It has spawned countless clones on many different platforms with its unusual combination of action and puzzle elements. The newest official addition to the Boulder Dash series, the Game Boy Advance title Boulder Dash EX, presents an interesting look at this series for one reason: it contains a port of the very first game in the series, 1984’s simply-named Boulder Dash for the Atari, C-64, and Apple II, juxtaposed with a brand-new addition, the EX game. Two games for the price of one is always a good deal; it’s even better when both games are enjoyable titles.
The classic mode presents an intriguing mix of intricate puzzles and time-based action. You, as an unidentified stick figure, must plow through a cave filled with unstable boulders. You can dig holes rapidly through the loamy brown soil, but boulders can only be shoved slowly, and only into empty space: trying to push a boulder through soil or God forbid another boulder is in vain. And watch out for the stability of the cave as a whole: if your dirt moving unsettles a tenuously supported rock, it could fall on your head, killing you. Think Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom, but this time escape is even more difficult. You’re far better off choosing a route that will maintain the precariously balanced stones — it’s a challenge much akin to cairn-building or orange-stacking, so experience at Scottish mountain funerals or grocery stores will probably help.
Making it through this cave is not simply about planning a safe way past these dangerous obstacles. For this cave isn’t just a beautiful and amazing natural formation, it’s also a natural resource. And here in America, we do the natural thing to natural resources — we plunder and exploit them. Consequently, part of your goal in Boulder Dash is to gather from this cave all the gems that are lying about. In fact, simply to open an exit from this cave you’ll need to collect a certain number of gems, though in true capitalist spirit extra points can be earned by collecting more. Pressure to keep up with the Joneses and acquire gems is magnified by a time limit in effect on each level of the game. The time limits are effective on two levels, first of course in that they provide an element of tension, but second in that they effectively break up the game into manageable “bite-size” pieces of two to three minutes. I don’t know how well this worked on the Atari, but it’s perfect for the way most people play handheld games.
The classic game is a pretty direct port of the Atari game. Now, the GBA has seen a lot of ports, but many of these are from the NES and SNES, and the top console technology of the early 1990’s is fairly adequate for today’s handhelds. But the Atari is a far cry from that level and this game is noticeably bland in appearance, presenting a monotonous brown and black world, with a little gray and white thrown in for variety. However, it’s your character that is really atrocious looking, as he is composed of about three pixels and looks more like a starfish than a human being. If this cartridge contained simply a port of Boulder Dash, this presentation would be unacceptable, but the Atari port is present here mostly as a historical treat: the meat of the game is the brand-new mode. Nevertheless, the classic game is entertaining and worth playing despite its crappy appearance, and is a nice side dish to accompany your main course here, the EX game.
As one might expect, EX is little more than the classic game with improved presentation and additional features. Nevertheless, one major change is made that really changes the tenor of the game: the time limit on all levels is removed. This has really put the emphasis on the puzzle aspect of the game, a new weighting which I think is highly effective. The pressure of time is not entirely gone — at times you’ll need to speed under a falling rock or swiftly cross a space to escape a fiendish monster — but you’ll also have ample opportunities on most stages to pause, catch your breath, and consider your next step. As far as steps to take, EX offers the player far more options, with the addition of tools that can be picked up throughout the stage. Bombs and pickaxes allow you to plow through otherwise impenetrable rock formations, speed mushrooms give you that needed boost of celerity, and one type of blocks even allows you to rotate the entire map, shifting the gravity and often causing rocks to fall in crazy new patterns.
If you’ve been reading carefully — and God willing, you have been — then you’ll note that a mentioned escaping from a fiendish monster; that is the other major change between the two versions. EX presents you with an imposing crowd of enemies: allowing them to run into you (or if you’re foolish, you running into them) will remove a percentage from your limited health. This cartoonish cast of enemies — fearsomely named but visually unterrifying, like the “Undead” that looks more like a skeleton bobblehead doll — have different styles of movement, some moving vertically, others horizontally, and others chasing you all over the place. Devising ways to avoid enemies is part of the puzzle aspect of the game, but actually defeating enemies, which you can do by causing rocks to fall on them, requires accurate timing, leaving some remnant of an action feeling in the EX game.
In presentation, the modern version is just as well-done as the classic version is behind the times. A lot of color brings the levels to life, and the introduction of different “worlds” through an utterly irrelevant storyline gives the designers a chance to work a lot of variety into the visual appearance: we have a world of water where the enemies are sharks and krakens and the power-ups are shells, we have a forest world where it’s caterpillars opposing you and the items are hidden in tree stumps. It’s all somewhat trite, but it provides a nice background against which to entertain yourself with the fifty or so levels of puzzlement. The sound similarly provides little but background accompaniment, and again that doesn’t feel lacking at all. Admittedly I think people aren’t asking much from a puzzle game’s presentation; Minesweeper and its plain gray grid has after all been enjoyed by everyone. That’s more than a singular instance. It’s cliché to argue that gameplay is the “most important” thing, but with puzzlers it really is — the game’s what addicts you, not the story or the sensual awe of it.
More generally, the public has consistently underappreciated the simple pleasures of puzzle games, unless it’s a game whose name happens to contain the word Tetris. Although, Hatris was pretty popular, so perhaps it’s just the four letter combination “tris” that works the magic. In either case, while Boulder Tris is an intriguing title, Kemco is unlikely to change the name at this stage, so EX is probably doomed to obscurity. That’s lamentable, because this is a great little game.