Experience joy and wild abandon in a big pixely world.
PC Release: November 18, 2011
By Ian Coppock
Right off the bat, I know it seems a bit silly to review a video game as ubiquitous as Minecraft. I speak no hyperbole when I say that everyone knows what Minecraft is. If you haven’t played it, you’re at least familiar with the gist of it. But, until recently I’d never touched the PC version of the game, and as this is a blog about PC games, a title as momentous as Minecraft deserves a spot in my review catalog. I also want to take a look at Minecraft nearly five years after its full release, and see if, even now, we can get the full measure of this game’s impact on on my favorite medium.
Funnily enough, this is the fourth review I’ve written of Minecraft. The first one was something I wrote for Belltow3r Gaming, my old Xbox 360 review site. One was for my college newspaper, and another was for ARPGamer. All of them were reviews of the Xbox 360 edition of Minecraft, so I decided to download the PC version and see what, if anything, I’ve missed in omitting it until now.
Minecraft was released almost five years ago, and since then has grown into the best-selling computer game of all time. Over 20 million copies have been downloaded since the game’s initial release, and that’s just the PC version. An additional 50 million copies have been sold across other platforms. Minecraft‘s developer, a small Swedish outfit called Mojang, has more awards than staff.
Minecraft‘s appeal is so broad because the game is easy to understand: get plonked down into a big world made of crunchy pixels and do whatever you want. Minecraft has several different gameplay modes, the two best-known of which being Survival, where you have to gather all your own materials and not starve to death; and Creative, where you can build whatever you want without worrying about health or food.
To navigate this array of features, we’ll start with looking at a basic round of Minecraft. The game creates a randomly generated world for you to inhabit, and you spawn in with nought but the shirt on your back.
From there, it’s up to you simply to survive. You have health and hunger meters to maintain, but the former will recharge if the latter is topped off. Minecraft‘s worlds are all built out of big blocks of material, which you can gather and appropriate for whatever function you wish. Gather a few blocks of dirt to make a rudimentary shack, or build a mine and dig for rare minerals. Whatever you want to do, Minecraft allows you to do it well. Gravity doesn’t apply to the blocks you harvest, and you can leave them floating in midair.
The most obvious danger to a player’s well-being is his or her hunger, but that all changes once the sun goes down. Take shelter, because all sorts of creepy things come out to play after nightfall. Skeletons, zombies, spiders, the whole potpourri of ghouls. Creepers, one of gaming’s most infamous enemies, will be the absolute bane of your existence if you can’t keep them away.
Nightfall is one of the main reasons it pays to have a shelter, but you can adventure at night if you’ve crafted the tools to do so. Minecraft allows you to create hundreds of items, from swords to spells to basic machinery. Subsequent updates and content packs have added more items, animals and materials to the mix. It’s a lot to work with, but it gives you more freedom to build how you want, and that’s important for a game like Minecraft.
I suppose you could sum that up as Minecraft‘s most essential mechanic. Harvest materials from the world around you and use them to make houses, tools, crazy fortresses, whatever you’d like. Some substances are obviously rarer than others, necessitating more work to find them, but whatever you make will be worth the extra effort. Some materials can only be gathered with certain tools. However you get your materials, Minecraft makes it simple to build some amazing things out of them. The game’s been compared to LEGO toys, and for a good reason.
The problem with Minecraft is that none of these things are explained to you when you’re first spawned into the world. Even five years later, Mojang has not seen fit to put in a basic tutorial on anything. You can consult the wiki for all the tutorials and then some, but that’s lazy game design. Too many developers these days expect gamers to check a wiki, instead of taking the time to put the information into the game themselves. I don’t know for sure if that was Mojang’s intent, but the end result is still the end result. Minecraft is hard on newcomers.
It’s a good thing that the rest of the game is so goddamn addicting, because what you can’t find on the wiki you will find through experimentation. My first time playing Minecraft, I stumbled upon an uninhabited village. I decided to shack up in one of the houses for starters, and four days later I was busy combining all of the houses into a single mega-mansion. Projects like this are what make Minecraft fun; you need to make a goal for building some sort of home or life for your character. I preferred doing this on Survival Mode because there’s an immense satisfaction that comes from taking the time to get all the materials yourself.
Creative Mode does away with your character’s need for survival and allows you to spawn in limitless amounts of whatever items or materials you want. Your character is also given the ability to fly, so that you can buzz around building castles, citadels or other monumental works. Creative Mode allows you to do in a few minutes what might take weeks in Survival Mode, and its versatility lets your imagination run wild.
As most of you have probably seen over the years, some amazing things have been done with Creative Mode. People have built everything from Windsor Castle to a scale replica of the USS Enterprise. I myself have done nothing so audacious, but I have built a few small cities on a map I share with two close friends. A lot of video games will let your imagination run wild, but Minecraft is one of the few games that gives you tools to match your ambition.
Again, you can see why Minecraft gets compared to LEGOs.
Minecraft has added a few more modes and a wealth of additional content since its release in 2011. Adventure mode allows a team of players to adventure through maps created by someone else, while Spectator mode lets you fly around the world and clip through objects as a ghost. Thousands of third-party mods have also been released over the years. The Voltz pack, made popular by the antics of the Yogscast group on Youtube, adds such technology as nuclear reactors and antimatter bombs. Dozens of other mods that tweak Minecraft‘s farming, survival and aesthetic are also floating around out there.
Mods are an obvious advantage of the PC version of Minecraft over its console compatriots. Like virtually everything else on consoles these days, the content of Minecraft is strictly controlled and updates are made markedly slower than to the PC version. For my part, I can say that the PC version of Minecraft certainly runs smoother than the console version, but that’s the norm for most games. I was happy to find that the game still contains a gentle, ambient soundtrack of synth and piano, to accompany you as you move about the world. Minecraft‘s soundtrack makes its world feel more peaceful and matches its game perfectly. For what it seeks to do, it’s one of gaming’s best soundtracks.
I appreciate Minecraft because it stands in stark opposition to a lot of what the gaming media would have you believe. A truly good video game is good not because of its graphics, or because of its sound effects, or any of the other “next-gen” marketing buzzwords that get thrown around. A truly good video game accomplishes something novel, and with a lot of love. Minecraft‘s graphics are not competitive, and its gameplay mechanics are clunky, but the sheer power of its imaginative gaming blows everything else out of the water. That’s what makes it a good video game: it’s an interactive experience that anyone can enjoy, and that places you at the helm of a memorable experience. Minecraft is truly art as games.
If you still need reasons to consider purchasing Minecraft, I will once again play the edutainment card I played with DroidWorks and Zoombinis. This game is an absolute blast to play with children, who are one of, if not the biggest, audience for Minecraft. It doesn’t eschew any particular lessons like DroidWorks or Zoombinis, but it does allow their imaginations to go free, which I think anyone of any age can appreciate.
Minecraft is one of video gaming’s greatest achievements and a beautiful little work of art. Everyone can, and should, enjoy this game. I highly recommend it.
You can buy Minecraft here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.