Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#119 – Boulder Dash

This action-puzzler gives you more than you bargain for.

Clouds rolling in and Rockford running around!

To Beat: Beat World 24 to reach the ending
Played: 3/16/19 – 4/3/19
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 9/10
My Video: Boulder Dash Longplay

Boulder Dash and I go way back. All the way back to high school, that is. I was very mathematically minded and so I joined the math team. As part of the deal, all of us on the team were loaned a TI-85 graphing calculator. It had some capabilities, including being programmable, so naturally I started tinkering around making small games on it. Things really blew open when we found that some smart people had hacked into the calculator and wrote programs in assembly language that took full advantage of the hardware. I purchased a computer-to-calculator cable, hacked it myself, and started downloading fun games. One of those was Boulder Dash and I spent a lot of time playing it. Now, years later, I finally beat the game on the NES.

Boulder Dash was originally released for Atari 8-bit home computers in 1984. It was originally developed by Peter Liepa and Chris Gray and the game was acquired by First Star Software in 1983. The company is still around and continues to hold the license to Boulder Dash. The game has been widely ported to various home computers, consoles, handhelds, and mobile phones. The NES version of Boulder Dash was released first on Famicom in March 1990. The NES release followed in North America in June 1990 and in Europe sometime in 1990. This port was licensed by First Star Software but was developed by Data East, specifically Sakata SAS. The Japanese version was published by Data East, the North American version by JVC, and the European version by Nintendo.

The story for the game is a simple one. An old explorer named Stoneford is on his death bed. Before he passed away, he called over his son Rockford and handed him a map. He tells his son to do the adventure he couldn’t complete and find the secret jewels among the six worlds. You play the role of Rockford as he plans to fulfill his father’s wishes. Each of the six worlds contains four levels that the game manual calls towns. Within each world, you can play each level in any order you choose. When all levels are completed, you proceed to the next world. Your task is to complete all the worlds.

There’s even a World Map!

Boulder Dash is an action game, occasionally containing puzzle elements. The object is straightforward. Each level contains gems and there is a counter of how many remaining you need to collect. Once the minimum is gathered, a door will open up somewhere in the level and you need to enter it to complete the level. As you move through the levels, you will clear out dirt that is in your path. There are solid boulders that will fall if they are unobstructed by dirt or other objects. You must take care not to get hit in the head with a falling boulder or you will lose a life. Gems fall by the same rules as boulders and you can be killed by a falling one too.

The controls are easy. This is a top-down game with levels that scroll in all directions. Simply press and hold the D-pad to move around. You can only move in the four cardinal directions and the game is grid based. You move from space to space and you can hold a direction down to move multiple spaces consecutively. You move plenty fast. Everything else in the game plays by the same rules moving one space at a time but with much more rigid movement. You can move through dirt freely as well as into spaces occupied by gems. If you press up against a boulder from the side, as long as there is space on the other side, you will push the boulder one space at a time. Holding down either the A or B button combined with pressing a direction allows you to interact with an adjacent space. You can collect gems, dig dirt, or push rocks the next tile over without moving using this technique. Sometimes you will get trapped where you cannot move at all. You can let the timer run out, or you can hold down A and B to suicide.

There are two primary types of enemies in this game. In the original game, they are fireflies and butterflies, but here they take the form of enemies graphically depending on what world you are in. I’ll refer to them by fireflies and butterflies because even if that’s not what they look like, you can tell them apart by their behavior. Both enemies move around the level by hugging the walls. Fireflies move clockwise while butterflies move counter-clockwise around the walls. You can defeat these enemies by dropping either a boulder or a gem on top of them. They explode and clear out all spaces around them in a 3×3 area. Defeated butterflies generate a 3×3 area of gems instead. You need to take advantage of this right away in the first world where you can only harvest gems from the butterflies. The enemies will defeat you not only if you touch them, but also if they occupy the space next to you. You really have to be careful around the enemies.

Wait for the enemies and knock ’em cold!

There is another special enemy type called an amoeba. This one does not hurt you at all, but instead it tries to take over the entire level once space at a time. It begins as a single tile and expands to an adjacent open space or dirt tile. It has some special properties. Fireflies or butterflies are defeated when they touch the amoeba, exploding into either empty space or gems as if you defeated them with a boulder. If the amoeba gets too big, it will transform into all boulders which is disastrous. However, if you can enclose the amoeba to where it is unable to expand, it will transform into gems. Levels featuring amoebas usually require you to turn them into a large pile of diamonds.

Some other levels appear impossible to clear at first look. There aren’t enough gems within the level, there is no amoeba, nor enough butterflies. That means the level probably contains a magic wall. The manual for the NES version calls this a Special Stone Wall. The magic wall takes falling rocks and transforms them to gems on the other side of the wall. The first rock to fall into the wall activates the magic wall and then it wears off automatically after some time. You need to make sure there is enough space underneath the wall for the transformed gems, and boulders must fall at least one space into the wall before it will transform. Otherwise rocks will sit there and potentially block other rocks from falling through.

As levels get more complicated, some techniques begin to emerge. Though the enemy movements may seem erratic at first, they are very predictable. Since they hug the walls, by cleverly digging dirt as they pass, you can get them to loop around constantly within a small area. You can blow holes in the wall by defeating an enemy next to the wall. There can be gems in blocked off areas that you can now access. A little trick I picked up is that you can use Rockford himself in place of a boulder to help block off an amoeba. This also provides you an entry point into the new pile of gems once it transforms. On that note, using your “grab” technique with the A button gives you the ability to harvest gems out of a large pile while helping you stay just out of harm’s way. Some parts of the game require meticulous digging through the middle of a large pile of gems and boulders. These are puzzles that you have to reason your way through in order to collect as many jewels as possible without getting trapped or killed.

Good luck getting through that pile later.

Boulder Dash has a dirty trick up its sleeve. When you clear all levels in the six worlds, you get a pseudo ending but not a complete one. Then the game continues with Worlds 7-12. This is a second loop of the game with all the same levels but with higher gem requirements to reveal the exit. There is also a third and fourth loop of the game that you must complete before getting the actual ending to the game. Altogether there are 24 worlds. The third loop is particularly devious in that some of the level layouts have been slightly tweaked to make them much harder. The very first level in that third loop is a good indicator of what’s to come. That level is normally a quick clear, but this time the walls go all the way across, sealing off the bottom. You have to dig out a firefly and quickly try to defeat it along the floor so that you can blast a hole to the middle section, then you have to do that again to reach the lower section. Aside from layout changes, some of the gem requirements are even more strict. The fourth loop introduces more changes. Sometimes you have to harvest every possible gem in the level to move on. It gets very challenging.

At the start of the game, you get three spare lives. You get to change the color of your character to just about any color the NES offers. You get a map where you can choose which level in the world you want to try. If you die, you go back to the map and you can choose a different level if you want. Rockford earns a new life every 2000 points, which are a little tough to come by until the later levels. You have unlimited continues but you have to replay all already-completed levels within the world. Boulder Dash has a password system and you can get the password for any world, all the way up to World 24. That’s essential for beating this game. Passwords are simple six-digit codes that are easy to jot down.

This game combines elements in interesting ways.

I have played a lot of Boulder Dash casually, but never made a true effort to clear every level in the game until now. I picked up my cart copy of Boulder Dash many years ago. It was a game I knew I had to have. I played a fair amount of it back then but never really got very far. The last time I played Boulder Dash was in 2014 for the Nintendo Age contest. That time I reached World 13 with a strong score from replaying levels and earning enough points to keep up with lives. That was way farther than I ever made it before.

My complete run of the game took a few weeks to complete. I got through the first two loops fairly quickly and then stalled out on the other two loops. I don’t think I spent more than a couple of hours on any single world in the game, even the difficult ones at the end. I just had to keep at it and chip away. Due to my schedule, I cleared about a world a day toward the end, so that’s why it took so long. The whole game was probably a 20-hour completion. For my longplay video, I recorded just Worlds 19-24. It was too much to do the entire loop at once, so I recorded each world individually and just stitched them together into one video. There is plenty of failure there even without seeing any Game Over screen.

After all I went through to beat the game, I would still say Boulder Dash is a great game. I don’t necessarily think it is a great NES game. The graphics are pretty nice with different settings for each world. It is evident what each element is just from looking at it even though they can vary graphically. The music is good. The controls are simple but work just like Boulder Dash is supposed to work. The level design is good and provides you with varied challenges from pure action to puzzle solving. The problem with Boulder Dash on NES is that the game design is from an earlier time and it doesn’t really fit what an NES game should be like. The action is completely tile based with only the player character moving smoothly. There is some stiffness in the controls as well to match the gameplay. You can put a fresh coat of paint on it, but you can’t change the fundamentals of the gameplay and have it work right. This is the way Boulder Dash has to be to succeed as a concept. It’s not your typical NES game, but it is a good one if you can live with its limitations.

#119 – Boulder Dash

Posted In: Finished

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