It’s amazing to us that 2020 is only Boulder Dash’s 30th anniversary. In fact, come to think of it, that can’t possibly be right, because we remember this one back on the Apple II. Indeed, a quick glance online reveals that Boulder Dash was first released in 1984, which would make this Switch version Boulder Dash 36th Anniversary, if anything. Or it would if we weren’t getting hefty “late mobile game port” vibes from this game’s extremely familiar phone-optimised user interface. And yes, it turns out, this was a mobile game. Back in 2014. Which was Boulder Dash’s actual 30th anniversary. Hmmmm.
Still, all things considered, this is assuredly Boulder Dash, and you’ve most likely played it or one of its derivatives (such as the excellent Repton) before. We’ve seen the hero, Rockford (surely one of the most frequently-redesigned characters ever), rock up on Nintendo systems in the past – besides his bows on DS and 3DS (2007’s Boulder Dash: Rocks! and 2011’s Boulder Dash XL), the original Boulder Dash saw a NES port back in 1990 (wait, that must be what this is the 30th anniversary of! Let’s all agree with that and move on).
If you somehow haven’t encountered it before, Boulder Dash is quite difficult to get your head around at first. You have to move around caves collecting items (mostly colourful gems) while avoiding enemies and hazards. The unusual bit is that while Rockford moves as though he's in a top-down game (think Chip's Challenge), gravity is strictly in 2D side-scrolling mode. If you dig out the dirt under – yes! – a boulder, it will fall straight down and crush anything in its path, despite the fact you can still manoeuvre in all directions. Not only are the boulders slaves to gravity, they’re also slaves to momentum, and they’ll roll down “steps” if you’ve left such a path in the dirt, which may require you to – you guessed it – dash out of the way. It’s a little weird, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Graphically, Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary can best be described as “functional”. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t have any real flair. That said, it’s hardly a game that has ever pushed its spectacular looks as a selling point. With something as ultimately demanding as Boulder Dash, the most important thing is the ability to instantly parse what’s available to you in any given situation. And you can. So it’s exactly as good-looking as it needs to be; it’s a simple arcade puzzle game that lives or dies on its lack of visual clutter.
Unfortunately, the menus are a different story. Stiff, banal and strangely confusing, they’re quite frankly hideous remnants of the game’s shameful freemium past. Speaking of which, there’s quite a lot of that about. Each level ranks you one, two or three stars based on your score, with certain numbers of stars needed to unlock later worlds. You can also gather items within the levels that will give you an easier time – the ability to freeze gravity for example, or use dynamite to blow up inconvenient walls.
You get so many of these items thrown at you that we found ourselves wondering if the game had been balanced in such a way that the levels were near-unbeatable without them, and their microtransaction intent became jarringly clear. Of course, it would be unfair to criticise Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary for having previously been microtransaction-heavy, but simply giving the necessary items to the player feels a little bit like a shrug of the shoulders where deeper design tweaks would have been strongly preferable. That’s speculation, of course, but the fact that the game raises these feelings is a symptom of feeling a little undercooked, a little cheap. And, you know, it is cheap. But there’s being cheap and there’s feeling cheap, and only one of those is positive.
You’re certainly far from getting short-changed, mind you. There are almost 300 levels here with extra characters to unlock, classic 1984 levels to play and – perhaps most excitingly – new stages from Boulder Dash’s original creators. There’s a huge amount of content to keep you plugging away and the levels get very difficult, very quickly. If you like Boulder Dash, this is almost certainly the version to get.
It’s a little bit of a cop-out, but if you enjoy this series you are likely to wring a tremendous amount of gaming glee out of Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary. It’s vintage stuff and plenty of it. However, if you’re totally new to the series, you can expect to get viscerally frustrated by the old-school microcomputer cruelty exhibited by many of the levels; it’s also a little tainted by a terrible UI held over from its mobile game past. Still, the price is right and if you’re up for a proper challenge there are much worse ways to get your rocks off – or you could just wait a few years for Boulder Dash 40th Anniversary, which will most likely arrive on a Nintendo console many years after its initial release.