Boulder Dash is one of those games that has been cloned so many times, the original is all but forgotten. It’s easy to forget, anyway, since this game is older than dirt, and yes, I said “dirt” on purpose. Well, life is complete again, because Boulder Dash is back in this fine-tuned GBA game that not only includes the original above all originals, but also a new and improved version. Hence, the EX in the name.
Boulder Dash gets its name because the core gameplay revolves around… boulders! Each level is an area filled with patches of dirt and boulders. You can dig through the dirt and push boulders, but you must beware of falling rocks: they kill. Your character is immune to the effects of gravity, but everything else isn’t, so you really have to be careful how you play. There are enemies on the prowl, too, and they, too, can be smashed by falling boulders. The point of the game is to collect enough gems in each area, then head to the exit. Some levels throw in usable items like an extend-an-arm, a bomb that can blow up walls and rocks, or a power-up that actually rotates the playfield 45 degrees. It’s actually a simple design that flows smoothly, but this isn’t just a “dig, dig, collect, dig, dig” game. It’s more a puzzle game based on such quirks as, “How do I avoid that enemy?” or “How do I keep from blocking off that entrance?” There’s a lot of trial and error involved, as well as moments where you’ll have to seriously contemplate what to do next. It’s not overbearing in any sense, and the mix between thinking and mindless digging is balanced quite well.
As part of the package, the original Boulder Dash is included. It’s somewhat toned down from the presentation described above. There are no items. The variety of enemies is paltry. The levels are generally bigger and longer, but they work around a clock. The outdated nature of this “Classic Mode” shows, though. It’s really hard to look at due to its ugliness and jarring camera. I can’t imagine you’ll play it for long before the urge to vomit arises.
The EX game looks much better. It’s bursting with bright colors and happy sprites. Each world has a different theme, though, which gives the game some variety. So you won’t always push boulders around; sometimes it will be candlesticks or some other appropriate object. The cut-scenes to the story (ah, yes, let’s put a story in a puzzle game) are done with high-detailed CG models… that move statically. Oh well, it beats most GBA cut-scenes, anyway. The EX version has a lot of music, too, more than you would expect from a GBA puzzle game. Everything is very upbeat and catchy and sounds pretty good, but it’s all too familiar to something that already exists, like Bomberman, Pokemon, and even Final Fantasy. What’s neat about the music, though, is that it speeds up and slows down when you pick up different items that affect your speed. Sure, it’s been done before, but it’s a nifty addition.
The EX version has 75 levels, and the Classic version has about 16. All levels can be played again to get higher scores or to collect all of the gems and not just enough to open the exit. However, the game isn’t very difficult. I think Boulder Dash works on self-preservation: it doesn’t want to frustrate you to the point where you might take the game out and smash it with a hammer. Some of the later levels can rack your brain, but if you’re a regular gamer, Boulder Dash EX shouldn’t be a problem. That’s kind of a shame; I’ve played clones that were really hard, and here we have an official release that seems pretty mild in comparison.
But wait, that’s not all! Boulder Dash includes a four-player mode. It’s true, and to play only requires one cartridge. This Battle Mode puts you and your friends (human or AI) in a basic arena complete with all the essentials, from the power-ups to the boulders. The objective, though, isn’t to kill your opponents. It’s to collect the most gems before time runs out. There is a problem with this, however, because if you die, all the gems you were holding disappear. This can quickly make the game unbalanced. It’s not all that frantic or intense of a battle, either, but it’s a sweet addition.
Final Comments: With over 200 Boulder Dash clones available for free, or close to, I’m a little leery to suggest buying a game that isn’t nearly as challenging as the ones it paved the way for. However, some of you might like this; the game is never that frustrating. It’s a handheld game, besides, which really encourages you to stick it in your pocket wherever you go. It’s a shame it really isn’t that long of a game, despite its impressive number of levels, and though there isn’t any kind of editor included, the multiplayer mode is very welcome and may be worth the investment alone if you and a friend or sibling link up regularly.