Minecraft, perhaps gaming’s greatest sleeper hit of all time, has spawned countless imitators trying to capitalize on its unique “sandbox” appeal. It’s hard to say what exactly keeps such a relatively simple game like Minecraft on top with so many competitors, but very few have managed to achieve much success. Sure, their voxel worlds might successfully mimic Minecraft’s and all the same basic gameplay elements are there, and sometimes they even manage to build a real game on top of it. Still, none of them seem to make much of a dent in the marketplace, while Mojang continues to sell untold millions without even appearing in major digital or retail storefronts.
Terraria is the odd exception to that rule. Originally released on PC in 2011, it makes no effort to hide its inspirations, but in forging its own identity, it has managed to achieve a level of success that other imitators have not. Terraria forgoes the distinctive voxel graphics that have become Minecraft’s trademark, and instead uses the lessons of Minecraft’s survival game and applies them to a charming retro platform-adventure. Imagine Minecraft if it were a Wonder Boy spin-off released on the Super Nintendo.
This is, obviously, a purely two-dimensional affair. All the graphics are realized in chunky pixels and limited palettes, with an art style that owes more than a slight debt to the 16-bit Final Fantasy games. You can jump and attack very much like you would in an old-school platformer, and enemies randomly roam the world looking for trouble. The actual jumping and combat mechanics leave much to be desired, and if they were in a traditional Wonder Boy game they’d probably wreck the game, but luckily Terraria has a lot more going on.
The entire Minecraft survival mode formula has been transplanted to this flat universe. You can destroy any block in the game’s world and harvest its materials. These materials can be placed back in the game’s world to build structures, or processed and combined with other materials to craft items, equipment, and new materials. Digging further down into the world’s depths yields more precious materials and treasures, but also greater dangers. It’s easy to get so deep into these caverns that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever see sunlight again. The worlds are randomly generated, so you’ll never run out of terrain to explore.
Although there is still no real objective or game structure, Terraria manages to succeed where even Minecraft struggles using one of gaming’s most tried and true motivators: loot. Compared to Minecraft there’s simply a lot more to build and upgrade in Terraria and you can spend forever trying to get that next piece of better gear. This gives the game a bit of roguelike appeal that makes a perfect compliment to the basic formula, and helps to keep the game addictive where Minecraft might lose the interest of less self-amusing gamers.
Touch controls are seldom flattering to 2D platformers, and Terraria’s “press up to jump” scheme brings back some bad memories of the Commodore Amiga. Despite this, the scheme is still surprising workable. The combat and controls were never a highlight for this game, and the touch-based solution for mining and placing blocks is actually pretty effective. On a small phone screen it does feel a little cramped, even with an automatic zoom view (and pinch-to-zoom functionality), but it gets the job done. The biggest loss in the translation to mobile is multiplayer. This was a huge part of the original game’s appeal and its loss is sorely felt.
Terraria is a charming and utterly addictive game that does a perfect job of baiting players into digging just a little bit further. Like all games with roguelike elements, it eventually succumbs to repetition, and it will only appeal to the sort of gamer who likes constantly fighting to get that next piece of gear or to trick out his mansion, but it does a better job than almost any other game of its kind. Better core action mechanics, more diverse environments, and the return of multiplayer would do much to expand its appeal, but there’s more than enough to explore to justify its $5.00 price.
Despite not being a very good platformer, Terraria successfully recreates the appeal of Minecraft with stronger roguelike elements to keep players motivated.