Why is Minecraft one of the most famous indie games of all time? Versatility and near-infinite replayability. Want to accomplish a series of goals and clear the final boss? Minecraft has that. Want to explore a series of underground ruins and caverns, unearthing fabulous treasures? That, too. Want to create a 1:1 scale replica of the battle of Sekigahara using snowmen? Hey, if you have the time, Minecraft can accommodate you. Now, after a development cycle of over a year and a half, as well as many patches, the final version of this long-in-progress phenomenon is finally upon us. So how does the finished product stack up?
Above: Get it? Because of the blocks?
To begin with, here’s an introduction for those not familiar with the game: You start with nothing in a randomly-generated world made of cubes, filled with various types of environments (called Biomes), as well as wildlife like cows and pigs, with no tools or shelter. At nighttime, the kooky cartoon vibe of the game turns more sinister, and monsters such as zombies, skeleton archers, and the dreaded explosive Creepers come out to try and kill you. Your goal is to build shelter, craft tools, find food and survive long enough to create deep mineshafts, where you’ll gather the rare materials needed to reach the end-game goal. Shelter keeps the monsters at bay, while food allows you to regenerate lost health, and keeps you from starving to death.
The presentation of the game is deceptively simple. The blocky graphics aren’t going to strain your video card, but they have a unique charm, and Minecraft’s aesthetic has become the most recognizable aspect of the game. It’s also a key part of the gameplay, as the entire game revolves around destroying blocks of the environment, collecting the raw materials this leaves behind, and using them to build something cool. (And if nothing else, those of us who tend toward obsessive compulsion will appreciate how easy the blocky design makes stacking and aligning things with one another).
Above: Symmetry is the new sexy
Getting through the game means you’re going to be using the game’s simple crafting system quite a bit, which in turn means you’re going to do a lot of mining for raw materials. To mine effectively, you need to make some basic tools out of wood, which can be punched apart with your bare hands. After gathering better materials, like iron ore, you can create iron tools, which in turn allow you to mine better materials, like diamonds. And that’s the essence of the game: one big, positive feedback cycle. Doing one thing enables you to do another better. Once you get good enough at mining and killing monsters, for example, you can build an enchantment table and use your experience points (garnered by killing creatures) to make your tools more powerful… and kill more monsters. It’s this basic wheels-within-wheels design philosophy that’s caused so many to lose hours and even whole days to Minecraft.
Unlike in previous iterations, Minecraft no longer throws you to the wolves, expecting you to find out how to make and do everything on your own. A growing tree of Achievements in the game provides guidance on how to make new items and tools, and how to use them to get to the end of the game. The gameplay itself is rewarding enough in itself, though, and the rush of finding a vein of diamonds or an ancient cave deep in the earth is something no other game really offers.