Bits from my personal collection – Boulderdash starring Rockford… Rockford who?

So who is this Rockford character? Well, to be honest, not a lot is known about him, we might not even be sure he’s a he, a she, or even a human. All we know is this character is a cave digging, diamond loving, charming little fella.

We might have to go all the way back to the very early ’80s to find the first traces of Rockford. Clues seem to indicate that the first small bits of Rockford’s originally 64 pixels started out in a character editor built by a Canadian, Peter Liepa, in 1983.
Rockford’s as we’ve come to know him might have been a result of some kind of creative process which at some point resulted in the shape and form we know today. Investigating further shows, that somewhere in the process the originally 64 pixels were increased to 256 pixels, probably for allowing Rockford to present himself better – If we inspect Rockford today, with modern equipment, we’re able to measure him to 16 pixels high, 16 pixels wide.
What else seems to have been a part of this creative process is Rockford’s ability to freely move his limbs, it might seem like magic at first, but it could be that father Liepa, with skills not too common at the time, added these flashy abilities in the process as well.
The first reporting of Rockford in the wild clearly shows a remarkably desire for diamonds, this desire could indicate a female character, but to this day we are still to see females digging around in the dirt for rare earth minerals, they are just too classy and clever for that – the conclusion must be that Rockford is a male character but controlled by a female somewhere behind the curtain, very much like we know from the human race.

The best way to describe this Rockford character is if a fairly good looking mole and Indiana Jones in some awkward way had a baby, who then later in life married a Kardashian.
This is, of course, all speculations – it could be that Rockford was sent to earth by an alien species to mine-out all the earth’s diamond deposits.

Unpublished scientific research paper

Rockford was first publicly spotted in 1984 in a game called Boulderdash on a weird but fantastic little electronic device known as the Atari Home computer. The title Boulderdash seemed to fit quite snuggly with the alluring danger presented on Rockford’s journey, full of shiny diamonds, creatures, and falling boulders just waiting to crush his small delicate body when the temptation gets too big. While it at first sight, would seem that collecting enough diamonds before the time runs out, would put Rockford out of harm’s way, soon became evidently clear that this only would lead Rockford to new and more dangerous locations.

It seems Rockford possesses a weird ability to captivate humans, so much in fact that Boulderdash got ported to numerous of other computer systems of the time, given Rockford the chance to charm even more of us – It is even said that Rockford got his own arcade game, yes that’s true, but not one, not two but four, one even named directly after him.

As a kid, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Peter Liepa had dreams of becoming an animator or maybe even a particle physicist. When in high school he had a chance to take a one-week internship at the National Research Council of Canada. Where he applied to work in the physics lab, but soon ended up in the computer center instead. Here he got the chance to experiment with one of the computer terminals hooked up to a mainframe. Liepa quickly learned the machine, how to interact with it and how to program it. This was long before any personal computer would be available and when returning to highschool his only exposure to computers and programming was from studying books.
While attending university Liepa got a chance to embark on a few computer courses and got to play on and with the university’s computer terminals. After graduating in math and getting a master’s degree in Control Theory, Liepa spent a few years in software consulting.
When in his late twenties, he bought an Atari 800 computer after had been playing games on a friend’s Atari 400. Liepa contacted a local publisher to get a feeling of what kind of games there might be a market for. The publisher put Liepa in touch with 16-year-old programmer and designer Christopher Gray, who earlier had submitted a game programmed in BASIC but needed it to be translated into machine language. The project was perfect for Liepa to break ground. While working on the conversion he came to the conclusion that the game needed a more dynamic gameplay and started playing with basic elements of dirt, rocks, and jewels. Within a few days, he had built a basic physics engine and framework. Different caves could be generated at random, and by adjusting the density of rocks and jewels led to different and new interesting gameplay.

Liepa’s alteration to Gray’s original game proved that their design goals and methods were fairly incoherent. Liepa ended up designing all of the graphics elements, physics, caves, gameplay, and music. Gray did chip in at places and had ideas for the game but they didn’t really fit with Liepa’s concept of the game. After 6 months of on and off work and another 6 months of trying to find a publisher the game was released in 1984 for the Atari 8-bit home computer by First Star Software. Both Liepa and Gray were credited as designers on the front cover, but when it was licensed to MicroLabs’ MicroFun label and rereleased for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and ColecoVision, also in 1984, Peter Liepa would be the only name on the cover. Only a small credit to Chris Gray was left on the back with “original concept by”.

The original Boulder Dash published by First Star Software in 1984 and only released for the Atari 8-bit line of home computers

MicroLab licensed Boulder Dash in 1984, converted it and published it for the Apple II, Commodore 64 and ColecoVision

Boulder Dash got three official sequels, with Liepa designing all the new elements for the sequel, Boulderdash II – Rockford’s Revenge. First Star, for financial reasons, went on to develop Boulder Dash III without Liepa which went on to become a commercial failure with poorly designed levels.

Super Boulder Dash, a compilation of Boulder Dash and Boulder Dash II, published by Electronic Arts in 1986 for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 and IBM/PC in the classical album style format – I’ve early written an article on these which can be found here

In the late ’80s, Mastertronic, one of the dominant software publishers in the UK, established its Arcadia Systems name to develop and release coin-up video arcade games. Arcadia created a Boulder Dash spin-off called Rockford which in 1988 was released on the Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and IBM/PC. The IBM version was programmed by Synergistic Software, one of the very first software companies to develop and publish games for any personal computer. Synergistic was acquired by Sierra On-Line in 1996 and went on to create Diablo, Hellfire in 1997.
I’ve written or much more in-depth article on Synergistic and its earliest titles here.

Rockford, a Boulder Dash spin-off by Arcadia, published in 1988
This is a game I thoroughly enjoyed in my youth and still plays today, even thou it strangely seems to have gotten way more difficult with the years

Peter Liepa would be involved in the creation of the puzzles in Arcadia’s Rockford in 1987 before leaving the world of games. Chris Gray would continue to work with games and founded Gray Matter Inc. in 1985 which would at one time become the biggest game developer company in Canada. For a number of years in the 2000s, Gray was VP and Executive producer at Electronic Arts.

First Star Software released a 30th-anniversary edition of Boulder Dash for smartphones, tablets, PC, and Mac in 2016. While it has updated graphics and sounds it doesn’t quite have the heart and soul of the original 1984 title – I’m almost prone to say the original looks better..but I might be a bit biased.

The original Boulder Dash can still be enjoyed today, on the Internet Archives Atari 8-bit Library
For the IBM/PC people, you can play the 1988 spin-off Rockford here.

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