Retro Throwback: Boulder Dash

Retro Throwback: Boulder Dash 1

Throughout the history of gaming there have been few games that have been as enduring as or as frequently imitated as Peter Liepa’s Boulder Dash. Over its lifespan the title has been released on over fifteen different systems, reproduced in numerous flash games and cloned by multiple would-be designers. Despite a seemingly simple concept, the game brought with it an addictive edge that only a handful of great games have ever been able to capture.

Much like the concept, the actual gameplay is deceptively simple. The player must guide the game’s treasure hunting protagonist, Rockford, through a series of randomly generated caves filled with gems and the occasional baddie. In order to move through these caves, Rockford must dig his way through the earth that fills the player’s screen. The catch twenty-two here, however, is that digging away the earth beneath any of the multitude of boulders will cause the boulders to drop towards the bottom of the screen, crushing anything they happen to fall on. Though the game mechanics typically allow the player to easily avoid being crushed, one must be careful to ensure that they avoid hindering their own progress with these boulders because a mistep can often block the player’s required path.The game also does make use of the occasional enemy, which can only be vanquished by way of crushing. This of course forces the player to keep track of not only where they need to go in the planning of their path, but also how to best rid themselves of the map’s enemies — enemies who often hold the gemstones that Rockford must collect in order to open the level’s exit.

Boulder_DashThough this terse description of the game’s mechanics may leave the average gamer wondering what all the fuss is about, Boulder Dash manages to bring it all together in a rather unique and interesting way. It provides a gameplay experience that somehow superceeds its fundamental elements and draws a player in, slowly but surely. Peter Liepa, the game’s designer and programmer, has one theory on how the game managed to accomplish this.”It’s probably true that all successful games have to appeal to both our emotions and our intellects.  Boulder Dash combines the action and puzzle genres.  The interaction of Rockford with rocks and dirt is easy to understand, has a palpable reality, but leads to `complex yet predictable outcomes.  So a player feels in control (indeed nothing happens unless Rockford moves), and knows that success is possible without fine motor control or quick reflexes.”

Another possible factor in the game’s incredible longevity and addictive nature could quite possibly be the random way in which the game’s levels were created. Nearly all games produced, puzzle or no, use specifically designed levels in order to provide the player with a challenge. Every aspect of the level is carefully planned and layed out. In Boulder Dash however, Liepa had a different philosphy.

“I was fond of using random generators to create as much of the caves as possible. I would then add a few walls and enemies to channel caves into specific themes. In general, I like randomness as a way to create game scenarios.”

Though it may be hard to accuse the careful planning and design of other games as being a fault, this reltively random method of level creation gives the game a much more organic undertone. It may be hard to quite put your finger on it, but the game just has a different feel, a different tone. Somehow, this random generation bleeds through the game and removes the player’s sense that to beat the level they must simply make their moves as the designer intended. It adds perhaps a slight sense of chaos to the game. It provides this sense of chaos, however, without ever causing the player to feel as though the game is out of their control, as nearly all happenings in the game world come organically as a result of the player’s actions, nothing is scripted.
Boulder_Dash_-_1984_-_ExidyThe game’s organic nature was something integral to the project from day one. Reading over Liepa’s explanation of how the game came to be even the game’s very genesis is marked with a lack of heavy handed planning or presupposition.”A few years after finishing university I was freelancing as a software developer.  A friend was into playing videogames on Atari systems, and I decided that was something I could do.  So I bought an Atari 800 and asked a local publisher what kind of games were in demand.  Another programmer had written a demo of a digging game.  I didn’t personally think the demo was very good, but I started playing with the mechanics of rocks and dirt until I had something fun.  Originally, it was just about excavating and negotiating through the rocks without getting killed or trapped.  The game evolved from there.”

Regardless of how the world first came to know Boulder Dash, the game’s legacy is nothing short of awe inspiring. As previously stated, the original release of the game was ported to no less than fifteen different systems. It has also inspired over a dozen remakes and sequels for systems ranging between the original Nintendo GameBoy and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. It’s been released on every medium imaginable from cassette tapes to CD and everything in between. The greatest mark of the game’s legacy may lie in the number of fan made variations and clones. If imitation stands as the highest form of flattery, then the 182’000 Google responses to “Boulder Dash Clone” should cause the creator of Boulder Dash to feel very flattered indeed. In fact, Superior Software’s 1985 release of Repton, a massive hit in its own right was a game originally inteded as a Boulder Dash clone. The only issue of course being that its fifteen year old designer and programmer had never actually played Boulder Dash and instead programmed a very different game based on what he had assumed the game was like.

Humoriously, considering the game’s Gilligen’s Island like longevity, when asked if he had any idea that the game he was working on would become such a huge success, Liepa replied, “No idea what-so-ever.  I knew it was a good game, but [I] was more concerned about simply getting it published.”

But ultimately, regardless of the initial intent or expectations, Liepa has maintained a clear view of just what’s most important in gaming, remarking, “I’m happy that it connected with so many people.”

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