I’ve been playing all sorts of brick-breaking games for years and years and years! Never my absolute favourite genre, but very much a constant since I started playing them, and, unless you’re trying to play an old one with a PlayStation controller, they’re pretty much always guaranteed fun too!
I reckon my first one was Breakout, although it could also have possibly been Super Breakout, on Atari 2600, and that’s a good place to start here. Breakout, the original 1976 arcade game, was very much influenced by 1972’s Pong, but now you had lines of bricks across the top of the screen, and you’d try to break them all by bouncing a ball against them off of your paddle at the bottom. As successful and influential as it was, often being cited as the inspiration for the Apple II computer as well as more obvious game-based descendants like Space Invaders, the concept itself actually first appeared in a 1974 arcade game, Clean Sweep – think Pac-Man without the maze, but a screen full of dots that you have to clear with a ball bouncing off your Pong paddle thing at the bottom. The 2600 port of Breakout came all the way back in 1978, and while the play field has been reduced to what is effectively six coloured horizonal lines, there’s an awful lot here that we’ll find creeping into later games in the genre! It had no less than 12 game modes, with variations on the standard arcade game; then there were timed versions; and we had Breakthru, where the ball just went straight through the blocks; there were three versions where you could steer the ball; others where you could catch it; and finally there were more where the wall of bricks was invisible until you hit them. Still a fantastic port today, and you can’t go wrong with Super Breakout on the 2600 either!
I think we need to move on to about ten years after the original arcade game for the one I played next, and for all the variants I’d play later, it’s probably still the one I’ve played the most, and that’s Arkanoid on the ZX Spectrum. This was another arcade conversion, based on the 1986 Taito coin-op that would go on to be one of the most profitable it ever released, so understandably it’s been out on every other platform conceived since. It’s got a story too! The space ship Arkanoid has been attacked by the Doh, so it sends out the Vaus (your little paddle) to stand up to them. Somewhere along the way that then translates to you bouncing balls against their space bricks to get rid of them across 33 levels until you get a shot at Doh himself. As well as the very eighties neon sheen given to everything, it mixes up the Breakout action with throwing in a few actual aliens up to no good about the place and a bunch of power-ups, some of which are directly inspired by all of those 2600 game modes like catching the ball, laser cannons, level jumps, bigger paddles and so on.
The Spectrum version, by Imagine, arrived in April 1987, though I think I picked it up much later in the year – Enduro Racer, also out that month, was definitely the priority for my birthday a few weeks later! It’s a wonderful conversion, and the nature of the game allows for a lot more colour on one screen than we were used to on there, but having since discovered the Commodore 64 version, that’s probably where I’d play it now – it’s visually closer to the arcade game, and it controls marginally better too, with the joystick feeling more responsive, which, re-reading the Computer & Video Games magazine review again just now, they seem to concur with!
I think I’d say the same about the 1988 sequel, Arkanoid – Revenge of Doh, but I didn’t play a great deal of that, so I’m going to quickly jump to another C64 game that C&VG actually mentioned as their preference over Arkanoid back in that original review, Krakout. By its inclusion there, I assume it came out some time in early 1987, with Gremlin Graphics bringing a literal twist on the formula and going full Pong, with your paddle now optionally on the left or right edge side of the screen. It’s very good too, but although the C64 version looks and sounds ten times better than the very bare bones Spectrum one, it’s the latter that I still go back too – somehow it’s just more fun!
There’s a bunch more I’ve played but don’t recall with any great fondness – the isometric 3D Ball Breaker and its sequel; Ricochet, a decent budget release from Firebird; another Mastertronic budget variant called Pulsoids; and we’ll stick on Traz, a late Spectrum release that always reminded me of Bubble Bobble! The one I think I have the most fondness for, though, arrived later in 1987, just as I was starting my GCSE year at school (which was actually the very year that they were introduced), and that was Batty. And it arrived free of charge on a Your Sinclair cover tape, no less! This was when cover tapes were still a real novelty, and not the ten-game greatest hits compilations attached to a couple of bits of paper they’d become in the early nineties, and I think this one was Your Sinclair’s third. I must have skipped the second, which had a demo of Rasputin on it, but the first – offered as an Easter present earlier that year – was Ocean’s Road Race, a very generous 3D racer set over thirteen different cross-country courses that I also have a real fondness for! Speaking of greatest hits compilations, at Christmas that year I did get a second copy of Batty in one of my favourites, 6-Pak Vol. 2, which also included World War 2 Gauntlet-alike Into the Eagle’s Nest; an early future-runner I covered here, Shockway Rider; glorious looking vertical shooter Lightforce; cool flight sim ACE; and one of the few games I can truly say I was an expert at, International Karate! Interestingly, I think that compilation also came out the same month that Batty was given away as a cover tape.
To find out a bit more about Batty, let’s now head inside the October 1987 issue of Your Sinclair (which, incidentally, was the very issue also responsible for my crazy levels of hype about Renegade just before it launched!)… Hang on a minute though, no story to intrigue and entertain us with? Doh!
Regardless, the basic idea is much the same as all the other games we’ve mentioned so far, with a bat patrolling the bottom of the screen that you move left and right to deflect a ball to break down the bricks that stand between you and the next round, but miss and you lose a life. You’ll be eased in with bricks that take a single hit of the ball to destroy, but soon enough there’ll be blocks that take multiple hits, or speed up the ball, or are simply indestructible. Some do release helpful power-ups when you break them though, and you’ll need to catch them before they disappear. These include an extended racket, a slow ball, a triple ball, smart bombs to destroy the creatures that float about dropping bombs on you, a hand so you can hold on to the ball and a gun to shoot blocks and creatures. There’s also score bonuses, extra lives, rocket packs to move you straight to the next level and, my favourite, the smash ball, which destroys everything in its path.
Each screen has a different layout, and the blocks aren’t colour coded, so it’s trial and error on each one to find out which are indestructible, and which take multiple hits and so on. From the second level onwards you’ll sometimes get occult-looking circular symbols on the screen that seem to click on and off at random, and these create a kind of gravitational pull around itself to divert the ball off its path, and the same can happen if the ball hits the little creatures flying around. There’s fifteen screens altogether, but to finish off with our copy of Your Sinclair… “Already two regular visitors to the YS offices have been dragged away screaming by men in white coats after spending entire afternoons trying to get past level 3. Only two of us have done it, only to be confounded by the horrors of level 5. Can you do better?”
Yes, I can, but only thanks to lucky level-skip rocket that dumped me into the even harder level 6! When I said a little while ago that Batty was the brick-breaker I looked back on most fondly, it was all rose-tinted spectacles talking, because, playing again now, beyond the first two screens it’s a nightmare, and not in any kind of masochistic challenging yourself to get better kind of way. The level layouts stink and it’s just no fun anymore! Your Sinclair even had a competition that month to win ten recent Spectrum games if you could tell them how many screens there were in the game and what the final one looked like because they never did make it past the fifth one. The bricks on the last level spell out developer “ELITE” if you’d still like to enter, but I only know that from looking it up. I can’t even get past level 6 using incessant save states on an emulator!
It’s such a shame because even if it’s turned out to not actually be my favourite in the genre, it’s certainly still one of the best-looking! Every screen is a mass of colour, and not that wishy-washy colour you might find in the likes of Arkanoid, but solid, bold colours, with light glinting off the bricks to give them a metallic sheen. Each screen is set on an equally bright yellow or green, white or cyan geometrically-patterned background, which the ball glides just above, indicated by a simple but effective shadow effect. There are some other nice details, for example in your bat there’s a little mass of particles moving about its middle, and when you take out one of the aliens or UFOs you get a lovely, almost slow-motion, multi-frame starry explosion. The power-ups are very clear too, with lots of information packed into their unique icons. The literal graphical highlight for me is the way light moves across multi-hit or indestructible bricks when you hit them, especially when they’re a darker colour like red or black. The whole thing is just so slick, and I reckon wouldn’t be far off a few best Spectrum graphics lists! Sound isn’t quite so much to write home about – a pleasant enough plink as the ball bounces, but otherwise a few squishy, farty noises and nothing in the way of music. Which is often a blessing on the Spectrum so let’s move on!
Unfortunately, the only place to move on to at this stage is back to the gameplay! The bat feels great to control, whether you’re using keyboard or joystick (or even a PlayStation controller!) and the ball – initially at least – is perfectly paced. The first two screens take the traditional Breakout style, with the bricks set up in a fairly regular pattern in the top third of the screen, giving you plenty of time to react as they introduce you to the various power-ups and brick types. And they are an absolute joy to play, to the point that they will stick in your mind over the course of decades as you blank out what’s next! Level 3 then brings the bricks further down the screen, and they’re mostly indestructible. What you need to do is manoeuvre the ball into four tiny gaps to get at the destructible ones, but before you get to even trying to do that, you’ve got the high-speed bounce from those initial low-placed bricks to get by… While an alien is dropping bombs exactly where you need to be! Clear a space in the vertical shaft where the destructible bricks are hiding, and then its mostly down to chance whether the bounce will take the ball where you need it, and because of the way those bricks are placed, you’re going to have to get that lucky bounce at least eight times to clear the level. The chances are you’ll have lost all of your lives long before that though, because it goes on forever! No thrill, no fun, and lack of interaction with the ball is the best you can hope for. Where the first two levels (and any other level from any game of this type) are over in a minute or two, this one is going to take at least six to eight minutes, which are just torture!
Level 4 isn’t so bad, though these low-hanging bricks certainly know how to suck the fun out of a game! Level 5 is reliant on you clearing a single brick in a corner immediately, but you’ve got to bounce it there three times at speed using more low bricks to create a gap to send the ball up to do its business, and if you’re really lucky you’ll get a pass to the next level, but I can’t imagine many people getting any further. You’ve now got a butterfly-shaped brick layout, with the lower ones complemented by Satan’s gravitational circles below them – immediately above your paddle – and it’s now ridiculous.
Looking at a “map” of the rest of the game, level 7 is another one reliant on finding a tiny gap before you can make progress, but once you get there it looks do-able. Similar for the rest – those gravity circles appear to end up in the worst possible places, but otherwise it’s all very striking to look at and seems beatable. It’s a shame that most people won’t ever seen Pac-Man making a screen-filling appearance on level 14 though, or the seven levels before it for that matter!
Even though it was a Your Sinclair cover game, it did review elsewhere. Crash loved Batty when they covered it as part of the 6-Pak compilation. “Batty is everything Arkanoid should have been” apparently, though they do explain that while fourteen screens might not seem a lot, “the first half dozen will keep you busy for a while!” Your Sinclair later came back to it too, when it got a budget release, and still hadn’t got beyond level 5, but for as much as they still liked it, Arkanoid – Revenge of Doh now did it better. Interestingly, they did also note that it was originally deemed unreleasable by Elite because it resembled the original Arkanoid so closely.
Which only leaves us with our new-found dilemma of my favourite Breakout game. I’d love to say it’s now Breakout itself, but it’s so hard to play on modern controllers, even when you mess about with relative and absolute analog sensitivities, that it can’t be anymore. Arkanoid 2 never did really grab me despite what Your Sinclair just said, so I reckon I’ve got to go with the Spectrum version of Krakout for not being quite as polished as the Commodore 64 version but slightly winning out on fun-factor! At least until I forget about life beyond level 2 in Batty again!