Every system has little-known titles — packed with content and well-constructed gameplay — that fail to fly off shelves or, in some cases, even get into high street stores in the first place. If Boulder Dash-XL 3D suffers that fate it'll be a pity, because it takes its subject matter and goes beyond the basic requirements, offering a package that should make fans of the original Boulder Dash go all misty-eyed.
Boulder Dash XL has been around for over a year, released on Xbox Arcade and also on PC, so naturally this will be compared against those versions. The content on offer appears to be the same, with the exception that there are no online leaderboards for scores and, of course, the "3D" in the title tells you all about its selling point. Having the same content isn't a criticism, however, as over 150 levels are included, which will keep keen diamond hoarders busy for a long time.
The five modes on offer provide variations on the classic theme, which is to explore caves, push rocks, collect diamonds and safely navigate your way to the exit. The bulk of the content here is in Arcade, with 100 levels that incorporate the modern style for this remake. The aesthetic is more camp sci-fi than grubby diamond mining — the chirpy soundtrack adds to the vibe — where you control a male or female robot and avoid a variety of creatures that are out to stop you in your tracks.
These are typically blobs or wannabe Yeti monsters, but they're cute to look at as you scuttle around them or, if you have enough panache, crush with a well timed boulder fall. This mode takes you to a few different environments and offers a decent challenge for most, as well as a seriously difficult challenge for completionists that simply have to earn a golden tick on every level. Zen mode is exactly the same as Arcade, with the exception that you can play the same stages without a time-limit hurrying you along.
Puzzle mode is the cleverest option, as well as being most likely to cause a 3DS-throwing tantrum. Rather than having an emphasis on running through a level quickly and dodging enemies, these 25 puzzle stages often take place on a single screen or small area, which appear simple until you actually play them. Finding the right timing and tactics to avoid getting blocked — or even worse crushed — by falling objects is rather tricky, and whereas Arcade provides a surplus of diamonds so that some can be ignored, that's not a luxury here. Difficulty does vary wildly, and even at the time of writing one of the early puzzles in this mode, also one of the smallest in terms of its area, is incomplete and mocking our 3DS. Those who enjoy logic puzzles with basic gameplay — it doesn't get much simpler than moving a character with a D-Pad — are likely to enjoy these levels.
Of the remaining two modes, Retro is the standout as a modern take on the original. Arcade moves and items such as dynamite and mechanical arms are gone, and this is a return to the simple roots seen on the Commodore 64 version currently gracing the Wii Virtual Console. The simplistic visuals and colours are recreated with some charm, and these also represent some of the toughest stages in the game; retro gamers will probably enjoy the uncompromising difficulty as an authentic blast from the past. The final mode is Score, which consists of just four large levels with the goal of accumulating a big score, achievable with enough trial and error. The lack of online leaderboards is keenly felt here, as there's little motivation to repeat the levels to simply beat a local score, especially as they're reliant on repetition more than a keen mind or diamond-grabbing skill.
Even if Score is a minor disappointment there's plenty of content to be enjoyed, all with a charming art style to boot; what this title does — single-player retro-style puzzling — is done well. But that isn't always enough. The only major mis-steps are with the choice to release as a 3DS retail game. In terms of the 3D visuals, it's a bit of an experiment gone wrong: we normally play with the slider all of the way up on most games, but the depth here doesn't combine well with the visuals or camera scrolling. The effect is disconcerting, and it feels like it was merely bolted on without a great deal of thought, making 2D the only way to play in comfort.
It must also be said, as alluded to at the start of this review, that the choice to release as a retail title, even at a budget price, does Boulder Dash-XL 3D no favours. The lack of online leaderboards, exclusively single-player levels and a basic concept make this feel like a well-produced, solid download title, which is exactly what it arguably is on the Xbox 360 Arcade download service. While price and format doesn't completely define a game's value or whether it earns a recommendation, it can't be completely ignored, and we feel that the eShop would have been a more suitable home for this release.
Boulder Dash-XL 3D gets the basics right, providing a modern twist on an '80s classic, as well as retro content for the older generation, and throwing in a large number of levels to dig through. It's a one-track experience, however, with poorly implemented 3D, and feels like it should be one of the 3DS eShop's costlier downloads, rather than a budget retail title that costs more than its non-3D predecessor. That said, fans of the franchise or those seeking an action-puzzle fix could do far worse, with enough diamond-hunting on offer to satisfy the most dedicated, young or old.