How Mojang struck gold with Minecraft Dungeons

I’ve got a theory that the Minecraft team are all Endermen in disguise. Only by moving as fast as the game’s long-limbed creatures can they have managed their workload over the past few months.

At the end of last year Mojang released the first Minecraft mobile game – Minecraft Earth – which uses augmented reality to blend a computer-generated world with real-life.

Then came a major update to the main Minecraft game that introduced a host of new features, including bees, to the delight of millions of fans worldwide.

Now, there’s Minecraft Dungeons, a new twist on the franchise that blends the characters and tools that people know and love in the main game with the non-stop action of a top-down, hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler.

Minecraft Dungeons is like stepping into the Nether: it’s familiar and fun but every step could kill you.

“We wanted to make a new experience that you couldn’t get in the main Minecraft game but was still part of the Minecraft universe,” said Mans Olsen, Creative Director on the new title, which is available now with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and across Xbox One, Windows PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. “The main game is a big game and there are lots of ways to play it. To get a new experience, we had to step away from that world. A dungeon-crawler felt like a good match, because you already explore, battle monsters and find treasure in Minecraft.”

Minecraft Dungeons sees you take on the role of a hero who must fight through hordes of zombies, skeletons, Redstone Golems and other nasty creatures on your way to defeating the Arch-Illager – a loner who was shunned by his community, found the Orb of Dominance and now rules over the land with an iron fist … and a shiny, golden crown.

You start out with basic sword and bow but can gather more powerful weapons as you battle through worlds that have playful names such as Pumpkin Pastures and Cacti Canyon. The levels have every detail of Minecraft you can imagine, right down to the torches that light your way through the Redstone Mines.

Daniel Bjorkefors, Art Director for Minecraft Dungeons, tried to stick as closely as possible to what fans loved about the original game.

“From an art perspective, I didn’t stray too far from the base rules in Minecraft,” he said. “We stuck with what people know and love, and we tried to honour the base game. At the same time it’s a role-playing game (RPG), so it has a certain style that’s needed. It’s meant to be a bit more ‘dungeon-ey’. We needed that mood and we think it’s a good fit.

“It’s fun to show Minecraft from this perspective. There’s more motion and it’s a little darker but compared with other RPG games it’s a flower garden.”

Screenshot of Minecraft Dungeons showing Redstone Golem

Players must fight a Redstone Golem in the mines

While the sheer number and variety of enemies means you won’t be skipping through that Minecraft Dungeons flower garden, it is undoubtedly a lot of fun. One of the reasons for that is the simple approach to battles. There’s one button to slash and one for ranged attacks, so no need to remember a four-button sequence to cast a spell. The fishing rod from the main Minecraft game makes an appearance but in Dungeons you use it to pull mobs towards you and stun them so you can start hitting them.

Unlike the main Minecraft game, you can’t craft weapons but you can enchant them using points when you level up, giving you special powers and animals that can fight alongside you.

“We didn’t focus on crafting, we went all in on enchantments,” Olsen added. “Every gear item you find has a set of random enchantments on them. You can select up to three of those and put them in slots and use enchantment points, which you get when you level up. So each weapon will feel very different.”

It creates a much more level playing field when playing with friends, which you can do via local and online co-op multiplayer. But be warned, the more friends who join you in your Minecraft Dungeons game, the harder it gets. It might not be a good idea to venture down a side path to try to find a secret area on your own, while your friends push on to face a boss.

A screenshot of Minecraft Dungeons showing a player's inventory

You can’t craft weapons and armour but you can enchant them using points when you level up

There are day and night sections in the Dungeons, and as with Minecraft, most mobs come out when it’s dark. If you get overwhelmed, your fellow adventurers can revive you, unless they’ve been distracted by the Piggy Bank (a pig that runs around with a chest on its back) and run off to capture the loot.

Those small, unique touches such as the Piggy Bank blend well with the familiar look of Minecraft Dungeons, making it a joy to play for die-hard fans as well as those new to the Minecraft universe.

Olsen admitted that the team “felt pressure” to deliver a great game to such a “passionate community”. Block by block, they’ve created a masterpiece.