Version tested: DS
Despite its self-congratulatory (and not very amusing) title, Boulder Dash: Rocks! is based on one of those crusty old relics that we genuinely don't mind coming back to once in a while. Although most of us didn't perhaps realise it at the time of Boulder Dash's original release on the Atari 800/C64 in 1984, its genius was rooted firmly in simple, addictive gameplay that made us look beyond the muddy, blocky (but charming) visuals. It was, in fact, the first ever home computer game to be turned into an arcade game - something unheard of at the time.
The concept was (and still is) disarmingly engaging. Taking the side-on viewpoint and subterranean earth-digging concept of Dig Dug, Boulder Dash added the collect-'em-up element of numerous early '80s arcade classics, but with a puzzle twist and tons of fiendishly designed levels. The aim, essentially, is to explore caverns and gather a set amount of diamonds before the time (or air, if you like) runs out. Along the way you'll guide 'Rockford' (arf) around various traps, avoid baddies, and push boulders out of the way without trapping yourself in the process. It's an idea that really hasn't dated a great deal, so seeing a DS remake 24 years on is no surprise at all.
Somewhat embellishing the key concepts of the mid-'80s versions, Boulder Dash: Rocks adds a whole bunch of new ideas into the mix - magnetic guns which can yank boulders out of the way from a distance, one-way doors, dynamite, tentacled boss monsters, projectile firing weapons, and many more as you progress. But all the while, the key 'gather the gems, get to the exit' premise remains at the heart.
The first thing you'll notice is the presentation is far more...jolly. Old hands will wince a little at the rather cheap, Day-Glo makeover, as if designed to appeal to grinning youngsters more than discerning, scowling retro-heads. Fair enough, but it still looks a bit charmless, and it takes a while before you stop whimpering and longing for the muddy old style (which, after all, is a bit more befitting of a guy exploring the dirty depths looking for diamonds).
In true remake style, we also get a rather eye-rolling narrative attached to your antics. Rockford returns to the underground realm to dig for the hand of his beloved Crystal (not literally). Confusing as it may or may not be, Crystal is not the diamonds and jewels Rockford normally tunnels for, but a female C.H.U.D. he's set his big eyes on wooing. Also the object of a big ugly nefarious octopus type thing, called Tentacle, the two macho miners go head-to-head in an attempt to gather the greatest number of shiny things with which to purchase the adoration of the callow Crystal. A pretty flimsy (if cheesily endearing) setup, which reasserts the materialistic nature of the original character nicely.
Perhaps predictably, the game's nowhere near as tough as it used to be, where palpitating time limits and hugely challenging levels were the order of the day, and characteristic of '80s gaming in general. Nowadays, of course, we all expect a rather more gentle learning curve, and Boulder Dash on the DS tries to break you in gently, taking time to explain each new challenge, weapon and trap as you go along. That said, the game has more than enough levels to eventually test you in a manner that you might recall from the old days. After 15 levels, you'll even face a boss, trying to stop a tentacled monster from stealing your booty by blocking off all his routes of attack before he slithers his thieving arms near your stash. Then it's off to a new 'world', and so it goes on.
So, as much as the game initially proves to be easy and rather offensively charmless to look at, persistence reveals it to be a surprisingly decent reworking of the classic concept. Admittedly it might not get the seal of approval from grumpy old retro gamers who won't like the more zoomed out viewpoint, but, well, you can always go back and play them on emulators, or fire up rubbish mobile phone versions or whatever.
Some might feel a pang of disappointment that the DS hasn't been utilised in any meaningful way for this remake, but, to be honest, I prefer it when developers steer clear of pointlessly tacking on touch-screen gameplay for the sake of it. What's more important is that Boulder Dash: Rocks is absolutely perfect for the demands of bite-sized handheld gaming, where playing a couple of levels a day on a dull commute makes a lot of sense. The levels are challenging enough not to be overly frustrating, and strike a decent balance between attracting a new audience and coaxing the oldies back.
Boulder Dash: Rocks isn't everything it could have been, admittedly, and its low-budget feel and glossy makeover makes it come across as a kids' title. But if you can look beyond all of that, this has a lot more going for it than you might initially imagine - and might encourage the new generation to check out the excellent original versions at some point.
7 / 10