Minecraft is a phenomenon. Developed by lone Swede Markus "Notch" Persson, this sandbox game hasn't long entered its beta phase but is already grossing a staggering $250,000 a day.
For a game that looks like it's from a bygone era and technically isn't even finished, that's quite something. It's even more remarkable that it really doesn't roll out the red carpet for newcomers.
Survival mode, Minecraft's most compelling single-player option, offers no tutorial; instead, you're dropped into a randomly generated world made of blocks and left to work things out for yourself. Each game world is potentially eight times the size of the Earth and, as it's procedurally generated, is entirely personal to you.
It's tempting to spend time gazing at Minecraft's strange, blocky beauty – everything from grass, trees and rocks to diamonds, lava and glass is constructed from standard-sized blocks – but the mode is called survival for a reason. After 20 minutes, the sun – one huge, yellow pixel – begins to descend. Night falls, the monsters come out, and you'd better hope you have somewhere to stay.
To ensure your survival, you'll have to mine those blocks and delve into the game's deceptively deep crafting system, initially chopping down trees to build a crafting bench. You'll then be able to construct more complex items: wooden, stone or iron tools; tracks for mine trucks; working switches, levers, wires; and, crucially, torches and weapons to ward off terrifying foes.
You'll hear the noises first. Minecraft's black nights are filled with the groans and murmurs of spiders, zombies and skeletons roaming outside of your ramshackle shelter. It's enough to make you pray for daylight, your salvation that arrives to incinerate any foe left standing.
Who's that creeping?
The game's worst enemy, though, isn't vanquished by sunlight. The infamous Creeper is a green, armless drone that explodes – with massive landscape damage and loss of health – if you get too close. He'll hunt you, relentlessly, but also hide in underground caverns, which adds an extra frisson to subterranean exploration: you'll want those blocks, but you'll perpetually fear mining through one too many.
Plough through the first difficult days, though, and you'll soon be crafting powerful weapons and strong armour alongside intricate monster-proof shelters. The game doesn't exactly end – aside from expanding and exploring, there's little you can actually do – but Minecraft's true longevity comes from its multiplayer mode.
Head onto a popular server – Bit-tech.net has several run by eager fans – and you'll see what we mean. Addicted crafters exploit Minecraft's open-ended nature to build structures of mind-boggling size and scope: working dams, castles with map-traversing underground railways, towers that rise high enough to hit the engine's vertical limit and bustling towns with working, barter-based economies.
Admittedly, this requires extreme dedication, but Minecraft's gentle, rewarding gameplay – and its monsters – makes for a compelling risk-and-reward dynamic, and the friendly multiplayer community makes it engrossing. It's difficult to get started and is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but lovers of sandbox games simply won't find anything else like it.