Sometimes, a game goes through such a metamorphosis during its development cycle that it's practically a different product from its original release. Thus is the case with Minecraft, a little old building game, inspired by Infiniminer and Dwarf Fortress, and created by Markus Persson (a.k.a. Notch) that we originally reviewed back in 2009. After a huge explosion in popularity and steady development for over a year, the team has evolved the game to add a new branch, a significant update dubbed Minecraft Alpha.*
Mojang Specifications has clearly been doing something right, as Minecraft Alpha has sold over half a million copies. And yet, at first glance, one might think nothing has changed since Minecraft Classic. The game generates random 3D landscapes just like before, still uses the same blocky world with low-resolution graphics, and continues to have no real goal. Even the controls are unchanged, with mouse movement to look around, [WASD] for movement, and [space] to jump. What, then, has changed? Why have half a million people paid money for a game that's still available for free?
The simplest answer: survival. Minecraft Classic is a straightforward creativity tool that allows players to sculpt a world to their liking. With Minecraft Alpha, however, the twin elements of scarcity and danger have been added. No longer do you get a limitless supply of any resource you wish to build with. Now you start with nothing, a limited amount of health, and precious little time to build a place of safety before the sun sets and all the various denizens of the night come out and hunt you. That's right, hunt you.
Your first task in Minecraft: make it through the night. Because you won't have the materials to construct weapons or armor, your only option is to set up a rudimentary shelter and wall yourself off from the various baddies that will soon attack. By gathering a few resources, you can use Minecraft's crafting system to build dozens of items, from shovels to pickaxes to mine carts and staircases. It's a very simple matter of dropping materials into a grid and watching what happens. It's probably a good idea to consult the Minecraft Wiki to get some more details on your first shelter, as it's an important first step in learning to play the game. You can't very well build a castle if you can't live through your first night!
Analysis: Minecraft is one of those games where what you get from it depends on what you put into it. If you come in looking for a way to "win", you will be disappointed and run out of things to do. If, however, you are willing to put yourself in the shoes of a greedy miner searching for ever-greater riches, a heroic warrior fighting off the forces of evil, an explorer in search of new and beautiful areas, and a builder striving to fill the world with the products of his own two hands, you will get endless hours of enjoyment, especially with the new features each update brings. Few indeed are the games that offer a world that is both infinite (or effectively so) and infinitely malleable.
The graphics may look horrid at first glance, but this impression is something of a standing joke among the Minecraft community. Many a player has reluctantly tried it, then found themselves wondering where the last twelve hours went and why the birds are already singing when it surely can't be any later than one or two in the morning.
Minecraft Alpha's biggest weakness is the one revealed in the title itself: it's in alpha. It is buggy, and sometimes demonstrates the programmer's half-joke that fixing one bug creates two more. Multiplayer is available, but is far buggier than single-player, and minecraft.net is famously unreliable, often making updates and authenticated multiplayer unavailable for hours when a new version comes out. However, this is changing rapidly! The website is slowly being hardened, bug fixes have been streaming in for the last couple weeks, and beta has just been announced.
Whether you can only play it for fifteen minutes at a time, or end up devoting hours at a stretch (often unintentionally) to it, Minecraft is intensely enjoyable, and an incredible bargain even at the slightly higher price point it will hit at the end of this month.* Currently, players can buy in for some Minecraft goodness for 10 euros (around $13). When the game enters beta, however, the price goes up to 15 euros (around $20). I cannot recommend this game strongly enough.
*Note: Minecraft Beta will be out on December 20th, so this is your last opportunity to get the game at Alpha pricing and with the promise of all future updates for free.