The European equivalent of Dig Dug comes to Game Boy with an appealing visual makeover.

Not surprisingly, this is another vintage computer game conversion for Game Boy. This has proven to be the single most prolific corner of the platform. Sure, everyone knows Game Boy had a ton of puzzlers, but the fact that most of them hailed from personal computers of the early ’80s (and even before that) doesn’t get a lot of play. A lot of vintage PC games showed up on Famicom in its early days, but most of those never reached America’s NES; so Americans missed out on that phase of history. The same held true for PC Engine and even SEGA’s Mark III—those systems had a preponderance of old computer games in their Japanese libraries, but those of us in the U.S. playing  TurboGrafx-16 and Master System never really saw them.

Game Boy would really be the last system to sport these conversions. Maybe it was the move to 16-bit chips. Maybe it was the fact that, by the ’90s, there were simply wider horizons available. Whatever the case, Nintendo’s handheld turned out to be something of a last hoorah for computer games of the previous decade.

Boulder Dash is practically the platonic ideal of this trend. Not only is it based on an old PC game, the Game Boy release also never made its way to the U.S. Licensed from original publisher First Star Games (which still owns the rights to Boulder Dash and still reworks it through its various modern permutations), Boulder Dash was initially published in Japan on Game Boy by Victor Interactive on September 1990. It made its way to Europe courtesy of Nintendo itself sometime that year, similar to the other Japan and Europe-only release we’ve seen: Othello. But Boulder Dash never made its way to American Game Boys, presumably because Boulder Dash has never been nearly as big a deal here as in Europe. For whatever reason, it’s one of those PC games that has an enormous following outside America but remains mired in obscurity here.

Originally created in 1983 by Peter Liepa & Chris Gray, Boulder Dash looks to have been inspired fairly heavily by Namco’s Dig Dug and Universal’s Mr. Do! As in those games, you control a guy digging around through the earth, viewed through something of a side-on perspective. While you can move freely in all four directions, Boulder Dash observes the same naive gravity as Dig Dug. When you remove the earth beneath indestructible objects, that object—usually boulders, as hinted at by the game’s title—drops freely until it hits the ground again, crushing and destroying any living creature it strikes along the way.

Boulder Dash ups the ante over Dig Dug, though, by incorporating a slightly more complex gravity model. Where Dig Dug included a handful of droppable items per stage, Boulder Dash sometimes crams in hundreds, and you can cause more than one item to fall. In fact, thanks to the cascading property of in-level objects, they often even serve to hold one another in place. Remove a boulder below or to the side of another and you might initiate a chain reaction of bricks and diamonds falling into place. In some levels where the developers egregiously abuse this effect, the boulder cascades play out almost like an 8-bit edition of someone getting carried away with Skyrim physics mods. I suppose seemingly endless streams of rocks and diamonds were to 1984 as free-flowing wheels of cheese were to 2012. 

Honestly, it’s a pretty impressive effect for a game of its age. You can certainly can see the vintage appeal of Boulder Dash. Where many games in the ’80s struggled to simply move a handful of objects around the screen, Boulder Dash could set dozens of things to moving all at once, creating rickety, dynamic deathtraps that players had to avoid and exploit. The game’s PC incarnations often included level editors, so players could concoct their own ridiculous fountains of rocks and diamonds with which to impress themselves and their friends. Sadly, the Game Boy version doesn’t include that feature, but even without the customization option, there’s a lot of replay value here… mainly because this game is bone-breakingly difficult.

While Boulder Dash on Game Boy contains only 20 stages, it’s a challenge to see them all. The game is divided into four worlds of five stages apiece, and you can start with any of those four worlds… but getting further than a level or two into them is another matter altogether.

Unlike the original Boulder Dash, this Game Boy port has been given something of a visual facelift. It’s been made cuter, and more cartoonish—a practical necessity of sorts, because there’s no way the ungainly stick figures of the PC original would have flown for Japanese audiences.  Each of the four worlds has its own visual theme, from the standard rocks of world one to the more exotic designs of the rest. World two features an antarctic theme with penguins; world three a jungle theme with primitive masks and simple huts; and the final world apparently takes place underwater, where you dig through the water of the ocean… you know, as one does.

Your goals in each world remain the same: You need to collect a predetermined number of diamonds in each stage, avoid being crushed by rocks, and safely reach the exit. All the elements of the original PC game show up in various forms, such as the proliferating ooze that shows up here in the ocean world and works as a de facto timer—you need to scramble in order to prevent being blocked off by the ooze’s inexorable spread.

Another major difference between this game and Dig Dug is that in Boulder Dash, enemies move fast. There’s pretty much no outrunning most of them, and they have a tendency to kill you if you stop a space outside their path.  While monsters tend to follow predictable routes—they’ll generally cling to one wall and move straight ahead, turning only when they reach an obstacle—they often appear in huge numbers and leave you no room for error. Not only that, but you have to be cautious when you crush them with boulders, as they explode, damaging everything in the surrounding eight squares of the screen—which may include you.

On top of that, the explosions can also set off chain reaction landslides, just to keep things unpredictable. Success in Boulder Dash generally comes down to a combination of trial and error, careful planning, and breakneck improvisation when everything goes pear-shaped. Still, it’s fairly straightforward, all things considered. There’s no password for saving progress, but you can continue infinitely… though you’re likely to burn through a set of AA batteries for your Game Boy before completing all 20 stages. 

One other notable detail about Boulder Dash: This port comes to us courtesy of Beam Software, an Australian company that would become one of the Game Boy’s development mainstays before being absorbed by Infogrames and later spun off to become Krome Studios Melbourne. To my knowledge, this marks Beam’s first outing on the platform, and while it’s not amazing, it does manage to preserve the source material faithfully while allowing for a whole lot of objects to skitter about the screen at once.

Also of note is the fact that Beam is one of the few developers to get the Game Boy’s screen proportions issue right. It may not seem that way at first, though.

By default, Boulder Dash gives you chunky, detailed graphics featuring a cute little explorer and the whimsical objects and monsters he has to defend against. But even more so than with so many NES-to-Game Boy conversions that emphasize graphical detail over proper screen-object proportions, Boulder Dash is pretty much unplayable with these graphics. There’s so much happening around the screen, and enemies move so quickly and in such huge numbers, that the game is literally impossible in the default view. 

But no problem: Simply press Select and the view switches to a zoomed-out perspective where everything is made tiny and the proportions appear more in line with the PC games. The game is still incredibly hard, but it’s at least manageable. We’ve seen this trick once or twice on Game Boy, but it really makes a huge difference here.

So, all in all, it’s a decent port of a vintage PC creation. Probably not the ideal version of the game, but thanks to its modified visuals and jaunty music, it stands on its own merits and at least justifies its existence.  If that seems somewhat like damning the game with faint praise, bear in mind you can only ask so much when it comes to dusty old computer games being repurposed for sharply limited portable consoles. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.