LEGO Rock Raiders was a formative game for me — it’s the reason why I’m called Rao Dao Zao.
Previously, when playing Baldur’s Gate, I’d made my real name “Robbie” marginally more fantastical by shortening it to “Robe” (shush, I was only 11 or 12). In Rock Raiders, when you hover the mouse over things, the name of the thing is read out, and one of the vehicles is “The Loader Dozer”. For some reason, my mind saw fit to repeat this voice clip over and over and eventually swap “Load” for “Robe” to form “The Rober Dozer”. Finally, if you slur “The Rober Dozer” really hard you end up with… Rao Dao Zao. (I guess it should really be “Rao Bao Dao Zao”, but Bao somehow never entered into the equation.)
Why is this relevant? Because after I rebuilt my Windows XP machine with true 2004-era components, I got Rock Raiders running. So let’s take a step back in time, to before “Lego Game” was a whole genre of licensed tie-ins, to the heady days of 1999…
LEGO Rock Raiders
LEGO Rock Raiders is one of those mythical real-time strategy games that is not primarily about bashing other people. The Rock Raiders are a happy-go-lucky mining crew whose ship accidentally stumbles into an asteroid field — causing them terrible, terrible damage and sending them spinning into a wormhole. Catapulted over to a neighbouring galaxy and running low on resources, they have no choice but to descend to the nearest planet and start digging for the energy crystals they need to power their way home.
The campaign has a branching structure, laid out as caverns in the strata descending from the planet’s surface to its core. Most layers have two or three missions available, but you only need to complete one to unlock the next layer — if you’re struggling with the circumstances of one cavern, you can always find a different route… though if you’re a completist like me, you’ll do them all. There’s no apparent punishment for skipping extra missions nor benefit to completing them (beyond giving you more opportunities to train up your raiders, who can return randomly in subsequent missions with their names and skills intact).
The controls are fairly hands-off. Although individual Raiders can be given a single specific order, you’re mainly selecting pieces of wall or ground and earmarking them for drilling or construction. Your Rock Raiders will then start running about to do the things, before collecting the spoils and bringing them back to base.
And oh, it’s such a delight to watch. The animations are beautiful, and fantastically detailed. When carrying items, Rock Raiders will often pause for a breather, putting the item down and wiping the sweat from their foreheads. When getting trained or upgraded, they’ll go up to a building and do star jumps. When hungry, they’ll produce delightful little triangular sandwiches to chow down on. When scared by a Rock Monster or some planted dynamite, they’ll raise their arms in the air and run away screaming.
Then you have the more obvious joy of seeing Lego models on screen that you also have in your real, physical hands. Although they suffer from the polycount and texture resolution limitations of the era, every model is still instantly recognisable, and even the custom ones clearly show the bricks they’re made from and thus how you might assemble them from your own collection of pieces. (All it’s missing is a bonus section with actual instructions for them, like the Pneumatic Submarine had all those bonus models on its accompanying CD.)
Unfortunately the Rock Raiders can be a bit… temperamental. Raiders will frequently walk halfway across a level to pick up a piece of ore for construction, when there’s a pile of the stuff right next to the building site (and once somebody has decided their ore from miles away is going in, nobody nearer will interfere). They’ll walk to the other end of the map to clear up a landslide when there’s rubble outside your base and Power Paths to be built. Although you can shuffle task priorities around to nudge them into doing the right thing, it’s still quite spotty.
I’ve also repeatedly had trouble with vehicles: although the Rapid Rider and Small Digger have cargo hoppers, for example, nobody ever seems to use them to transport anything, instead preferring to walk the long way home. Vehicles are rarely a requirement for victory anyway, though the Small Transport Truck can speed things up a lot in larger caverns. (Except when it deposits too much ore on a building site and halts construction until you manually get a Raider to clean out the excess.)
Your efforts are naturally frustrated by many environmental hazards. Some rocky walls collapse in regular landslides to hurt anyone underneath, until you either reinforce them or mine them out. And then there’s lava (or should it be magma?), which eats away at the very ground beneath your feet — while erosion can be repaired and then slowed by Power Path, it cannot truly be stopped.
After the first few missions, you are also introduced to a limited air supply: oxygen levels begin to drop as your first Raider arrives, and will drop faster the more you bring in. Thus the first part of most later missions becomes a slightly manic rush to mine enough resources to tech up and build a Support Station before everybody has to teleport out.
Okay, fine, there are also creatures and guns. Small Spiders are incidental and will only cause your raiders to fall on their backsides (with another delightful animation), while Slimy Slugs will attempt to drain your Energy Crystals by sucking on nearby structures, requiring you to dissuade them with a few blasts of a Pusher Beam.
It’s only the walking brick shit-houses that are the Ice, Rock and Lava Monsters that will beat up your raiders and destroy your stuff and so demand a more aggressive response; but even for those, you mostly shoot them until they run away, rather than obliterating them. Even if you do manage to kill a Rock Monster, out of the rubble three tiny versions will run away so… yep, no violence here. (On reaching 0 health, your Rock Raiders are teleported to safety, so nobody ever dies.)
It does, however, have the ultimate RTS feature: you can go into first-person mode. Fed up of giving all the orders? Take control of a raider and do some drilling yourself! Hop into one of those vehicles that you actually own as a toy and drive it around! You cannot do the full range of actions — you can only move about and drill by walking up against walls — but this is still plenty good fun, especially in missions like Run the Gauntlet where you have to navigate a single Raider back to safety.
So yes, it may have plenty of flaws, but the sheer delight often outweighs them. It’s the actual Lego models I have! But in a computer game! The core loop of drilling and harvesting is perfectly compelling, and the surprising number of twists on the central premise of “mine crystals” manages to keep the game fresh through its lengthly campaign. Sure, the frustrating AI puts a bit of a damper on proceedings, but it’s still a really fascinating little game.
Now you know why Project Y4 and Exon featuring mining so prominently (though it was my sister who went on to become an actual geologist).