The secret ancestry of classic games.
No.1 - Boulder Dash

Your correspondent's been known to get irritable when videogame journalists exciteably acclaim the stunning "originality" of games which have supposedly appeared out of nowhere, but about which anyone who knows anything about games knows otherwise. (The most celebrated - if that's the right word - example of recent years would probably be Worms, recipient of all sorts of originality awards despite being simply the latest in a 20-year-old line encompassing scores of previous games playing in exactly the same way.)

But sometimes that ire is a little unwarranted, because some games are so obscure that it's only by sheer dumb luck that anyone would even have heard of them, far less be able to identify that they were the estranged parent of a modern classic. And so it is with Centuri's 1982 coin-op The Pit - the game that gave birth to Boulder Dash.

(Gave birth to Boulder Dash at the scandalously young age of two, in fact - the latter game having been released in 1984 - but let's just skip over that alarming and disturbing paedo-fact for the sake of decency and move swiftly on.)

The backdrops seen around the main game screen on this page are your reporter's
own "bezel" artwork files for MAME, which can be downloaded from here.

Boulder Dash is most commonly associated with the two classic earth-shifting arcade games Dig Dug and Mr Do, but beyond the underground setting it has almost nothing in common with either title. Dig Dug and Mr Do are both fundamentally about battling your enemies, not negotiating your environment. There are no obstacles in your way, and the rocks/apples which can fall down the screen are really there as weapons rather than dangers. The Pit is different, though. While there are enemy characters chasing your diamond-hunting miner, they're pretty much only a distraction. It's perfectly simple for even a slightly-skilled player to conduct the first few seconds of any level in such a way (illustrated in the screenshot above) that the claw-wielding baddies are confined to a small space at the upper centre of the pit, well away from anywhere the player needs to go.

("Any" level is a slight misnomer, in fact. The game only has two different screens, actually the same one except for rock placement, which alternate at ever-increasing pace until everything happens at blinding speed and becomes as much a test of memory as reflex.)

Your problem in The Pit is - like Boulder Dash - chiefly to navigate your way safely around each level in order to collect some diamonds and then get out of the exit without having a rock fall on your head. (Also like Boulder Dash, you don't have to collect all of a level's diamonds, but there are temptingly large bonuses for picking up more than the minimum.) There are walls, bottlenecks, rooms and environmental hazards, as well as the liberal scattering of rocks that constitutes the core gameplay element of both titles.

Oddly, the cabinet art doesn't depict any kind of pit or underground environment at all.

The similarities don't end there, though. For one thing, your miner doesn't just plough through earth like in Dig Dug and Mr Do. To make a tunnel, he blasts away a square of space with his, um, anti-dirt laser, then pauses for a moment before moving into the gap. (This is very much a character-block-centred game, which makes it all the weirder that nobody ever converted it to the Speccy. There were unofficial ports to the VIC-20 and the C64 though, one of the very few advantages of the CBM machines over the rubber-keyed wonder.) The skilled player, however, can use this behaviour to take out a square of earth and then quickly move off in a different direction, in a manner very akin to the Boulder Dash trick of holding down the fire button to dig/push/pick up something without moving into its space. In both games, it's a subtle play mechanic that separates the novice player from the expert.

And lastly, there's the behaviour of the enemy characters. The little grab-robots don't actually chase you - like all the moving enemies in Boulder Dash, they follow fixed movement patterns (if there's a space below, go down, if you can't go down go left, etc) and only kill you if you get very close to them, at which point they leap on you and smush you. And as in Boulder Dash, they can only move in existing tunnels - they can't dig their own. And yet despite all this - their slow pace, limited abilities, lack of weaponry, rigidly-dictated movement and non-vindictive nature, you'll really come to hate the little sods. (Maybe it's the way there's a brief but violent struggle when one attacks you, a bit like in Maziacs but with the crucial difference that you never ever win. It looks like a brutal way to die.) Anyone who's ever cursed a featureless square "enemy" in BD will know the feeling.

Your reporter's unfortunately-decorated virtual arcade in all its glory.

There isn't really much else to say about The Pit. It's an incredibly simple game, and Boulder Dash certainly evolved it a long way - we're not talking about a ripoff clone here. But nevertheless, the family resemblance between the two titles is huge, and there can be little doubt that the creators of Boulder Dash had their creative fires sparked by The Pit. What resulted is a game with a pretty different feel, but all the same DNA. For all their many advanced features and tweaks, there's hardly anything in any of the numerous Boulder Dash games that doesn't have its genesis in The Pit's crude blueprint. Rocks, diamonds, walls, tunnels and regimented bad guys - it's all here.

The Pit is one of the games from the early days of the arcades that does still stand the test of time. Tackle it now and while you'll grasp the rules in seconds, you'll still get repeatedly pasted by the game's inert hazards and semi-accidental enemies, angrily piling in more credits for another try at reaching the adrenalin-pumping later stages. Give it a go (in MAME, natch) and find out for yourself.

And if you want to see where it all ultimately led, check out the superb Boulder Dash Xmas 2002 Edition, which is the finest Boulder Dash game ever (playable for free online, or with a full-featured downloadable version for about 11 quid). But that's another article altogether.

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