Boulder Dash-XL is an XBLA game that calls back to a simpler time, choosing to linger in nostalgia rather than attempt innovation. And the “XL” at the end of the name isn’t there for appearances only; it’s a big game. Just looking at three of its distinct modes of play builds up about 150 levels, all of which seek to test your abilities. The graphics may be prettier and more colorful than it’s older counterparts, but there’s no hiding the fact that this is a pure arcade experience.
Though the Boulder Dash franchise has had quite a few renditions over the years, spanning from its roots on computer and arcade, the core functionality hasn’t changed since the original format. The main goal of the game was to collect gems stashed throughout the stage. And while the gems had to be collected, falling boulders had to be avoided and monsters had to be dodged or, for a higher score, destroyed. There was an exit on every stage, only accessible by collecting a certain number of gems.
This new variant does not exist to change the way that the series is played. The objective is still to run through various levels in search of gems, only the little details have changed. As the levels progress power-ups are added in, providing lead robot characters, Rockford or Crystal, a little extra speed, or a telescopic arm to grab distant boulders and do a little pulling instead of pushing. There is also a larger variety in both the level design and the monsters that inhabit it, which does well to eliminate the repetitiveness of performing the same feat level after level.
The main chunk of Boulder Dash-XL lies within its Arcade Mode, complete at a hundred levels, taking place in four unique settings. There is no tutorial for the game, rather it begins with an arbitrary choice between playing as Rockford or Crystal, and then it’s a gem collecting race to the finish. Even without a tutorial the game isn’t necessarily confusing. New power-ups are introduced individually with each new level, along with new enemies and puzzle elements, starting simply with changing the patterns of the boulders and then slowly adding in complexities such as locked doors and teleporters.
To go along with its Arcade Mode is Zen Mode, which allows the player to practice all of the levels that they have unlocked without a time limit, which is helpful when trickier situations start to emerge. Score Attack is a small amount of the game, existing to the tickle the fancy of the arcade purist. There are only four stages here, each starting the player directly by the exit with only a single gem requirement. The stages, however, are hulking monstrosities in comparison the ones found in Arcade Mode, littered with gems to collect and only a short amount of time to do it in.
Puzzle Mode is the most cerebral of them all, providing smaller and more complex stages in which every move the player makes is important. The time limit has been eliminated and there may only be a few gems to collect, but that doesn’t make it easy. This mode builds off of what is learned in the Arcade Mode, exercising the tricks of navigating the levels and creating patterns, requiring the player to try to figure out the most appropriate method of solving the problem at hand. The difficulty comes in when certain false moves might accidentally drop a set of boulders, making a gem inaccessible, or a doorway impassible.
And lastly, there is the Retro Mode, one that at first glance I had assumed was the classic levels of Boulder Dash, coated in a strange and awkward three dimensional take on 8-bit graphics. To that I was incorrect: this mode is actually twenty five new levels with a strange art style that is meant to be reminiscent of it’s origins. In this mode the power-ups mentioned in the arcade mode are thrown out in favor of simpler gameplay. The purpose of Retro Mode is to recreate the experience of playing the original Boulder Dash, though not necessarily with the original levels. It works, if you don’t mind the added frustration.
The main flaw of the whole experience, however, is its lack of innovation. This is a game that chooses to play it safe and continue down a road it established back in 1984. There is also no true multiplayer in the game; not that it’s required, but it would have been nice to have, whether local or over Live. There is, however, a leaderboard, which stands out as more evidence that the large brunt of the game is to acquire the highest score. There is fun in this game and there is frustration, and if both can be tolerated hand in hand then this revamp is worth the time and the investment. It’s a repetitive experience, and the large amount of content does nothing more than raise the issue level after level.
Boulder Dash-XL is for the most part a graphically updated version of a retro game, providing the appeal of chasing down high scores within a game that’s easy enough to pick up and play. There is challenge to be had, racing through the levels with one eye watching whether the acquisition of a gem will call the collapse of a dozen boulders above it and the other eye on the time. It’s a simple game, reminiscent of a simpler time. Minus the quarters.