Few years back when I was looking at old game footage with some of my friends, one of them could not get his head around how games like Breakout and River Raid could be called games, they didn’t even look the part. I never understood what he meant, but I’m guessing it has everything to do with him growing up with PC games of mid-90’s. Granted, I didn’t specifically live grew up with Atari 2600 either, if anything it was the Atari computers and C64.
It’s been few years since that, but it never left my mind for whatever reason. It doesn’t even look like a game, was his exact words. To him, it looked too simple to be enjoyed. Is the current cultural mentality expecting games to look complex and reflect reality whenever possible?
Breakout is a 1976 game headed by Nolan Bushnell. One of Atari’s biggest hits, Bushnell conceptualised Breakout as a single player Pong, and prototyped by none other than Steve Wozniak. Single player Pong in itself sounds dull, but what Bushnell and Steve Bristow made a significant change; the tiles.
If Pong is an example of pure core game design without any extra elements hampering the competition between two players, Breakout is similarly an example of pure single player game design. There is nothing unnecessary in Breakout, there is nothing in-between the player and the game. There is, quite simply to put it, only the game and the player.
Breakout is a game I played a lot during the mid-90’s and early 00’s on computers in my local library and whenever I had the chance at schools. It was, at a time, very popular game to code for aspiring game designers and coders, as Breakout‘s apparent simplicity hides relatively complex nature. For example, the paddle that bounces the ball is often split into five sections, each sending the ball to a different angle trajectory. In the Atari 2600 version, each 12th bounce would increase the speed of the ball. Things like that you wouldn’t consider consciously, unless you found yourself obsessed with the game and wanting to rip it apart. Breakout, as Atari designed it, has no random elements to it either, and there is nothing to keep the player from having a perfect, calculated game.
Breakout, compared to modern games, tends to look rather bare bones. That is, of course, due to technological limitations of the era, but on the other hand anything else thrown in there would be unnecessary to an extent. The classic Atari sound effects also have a function rather than just filling in silence. I’ve read reports from years back how some players were able to complete a game just by the sound alone. That’s a key to one of the most mesmerising elements of Breakout; it hooks you.
Breakout‘s apparent simplicity is easy to understand. Send the ball flying off, hit a tile, calculate where the ball will land and bounce it back up. Rinse and repeat. However, the actual game is challenging and involves more skill and eye-hand coordination than it appears. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but ultimately hard to master. Once you get into the game, it doesn’t let you go easily. Watching the ball rhythmically hit the walls and tiles with each blip from the speakers announcing a contact is something only other similar games can ultimately replicate. Some people talk about getting into the zone with games, and Breakout is a game where you can find yourself in very easily. This has happened to be with Breakout’s few descendants, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange. To some extent, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach volleyball can induce similar effect once you get into how the ball goes over the net, how it’s returned and in what way. DoAX really is just Pong with prettier graphics and more physics thrown in.
There is nothing in your way to blame the game for in Breakout either. Modern games have animation management, random element management and God only knows how many more elements thrown in there just to drop a monkey wrench in your gears. Technology has allowed games to represent motion and reality to a larger extent than what they could in 1976, and with that certain design elements in game development have been lost. Certain instantaneous elements in gameplay has become a rarer element as natural animation has taken its place. Link swings his sword more realistically in 3D, but there is a lack of satisfaction that you got from a well placed near instant stab from the original game.
Breakout’s design has been copied few times over. By few times I mean more than anyone can count. However, across all the Breakout-clones out there, the core gameplay is very much the same. Whether or not it has been realised well is a whole another thing. A lot of times I’ve heard people first experiencing Breakout on computer, either as a some sort of unofficial clone or browser version. Most browser versions out there are shit, without a doubt, and to find a well coded version that would improve from the original are essentially non-existent. I had the chance the play the Atari 2600 version once with the a paddle. There is nothing quite like finding yourself having an absolute control over the paddle’s movements on the screen, something that no controller has managed to replicate. Even with mouse controls it feels just inaccurate enough, even when it’s competently done. Google launched a version of Breakout you can still play today, but it’s slower than the original and mouse controlled. Ultimately, Breakout’s clones have a very hard time to beat the original paddle nub, because it simply works the best. Mouse control is the closest you can get to it, but it still can’t top the original intended controller. There are Breakout clones that do work with other control methods, but this is because the functions and speeds have been altered to accommodate these controls, which is just a good thing.
Much like Tetris, Breakout is a perfect game in its simplicity. While many mistakenly label it and Tetris as puzzle games, neither are that. Both of them are more or less unique entities of their own, something that could only be realised through a video game. The only way to continue from either from these games would be break that perfect, balanced simplicity by either changing the core rules, or with additional things. Super Breakout was the first sequel released few years after the original, but perhaps the most famous Breakout clone is Arkanoid.
I recommend everyone to read a book called Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow. The book is his autobiography, detailing his obsession with Breakout and how he manically spent his time to understand the game. He went to the extent of visiting Silicon Valley and interview the programmers to gain insights about the game. He understood how a game could become addictive, an obsession without being a gamer. Sudnow was a pianist. He came from outside the gamer culture of the era, someone who didn’t really saw their appeal until he stopped to learn about them, first by sight, then by trying his hands on them. It’s not only a fascinating glimpse into one’s mind how they saw a game, but also how Breakout’s design, simple as it is compared to the modern games’ overblown layers of complexity, can capture a person’s fascination.
Complexity fascinates people. Things and people themselves are not complex, but we make them to be. There is beauty in simplicity, but by our nature we want to mess with that simplicity. Breakout was a perfectly simple single-player game and effectively created a sub-genre to Pong games through its innovation. You can’t really add more depth to Breakout without changing its gameplay and design, which changes how it ultimately plays out. Super Breakout was the first official sequel to Breakout, adding new game modes and such. Still, it didn’t touch on the design itself.
Ten years later, in 1986, Arkanoid was released. Either it or Breakout are used as an example for the genre, and as such Breakout or Arkanoid clone is not too uncommon to see around. Nevertheless, Taito’s Arkanoid stands apart from Breakout due to its expansion to the formula. Arkanoid did not add any depth to Breakout, and by its extension, to Pong, but it expanded how the game is played and approached.
Arkanoid wasn’t the first Breakout clone, but it sure was the one that stroke true. Its expansions are basically power-ups that adds on top of the existing gameplay rather than changes it. There are some Space Invaders influences in there with a power-up capsule that adds a shot option, and thus another way to break the tiles. Other power ups affect the length of the paddle, adds a multi-ball mode and add a ball capturing ability.
These of course change how you approach the game. Do you pick up certain power-ups over the other, or will you stick the current ones you have? What will serve you best in what situation, and are you able to utilise them all equally well? As the game has become arguably safer to play with these additions, Taito added falling planet debris that spawns at the top of the screen. If the player’s paddle hits one of these debris, it affects how the paddle controls. Another addition is unbreakable tiles and tiles that require multiple hits, adding a way to prevent player from hitting certain spots with ease.
Breakout’s stage design follows the same simple idea as the rest of the game, whereas Arkanoid’s one of the best things are the stage layouts. Arkanoid abandons the idea of breaking out and increased difficulty and adopts progressive stage-by-stage transition. Progressing through the game is done by entering a door that opens up with a certain capsule or automatic progression when the screen is cleared.
Arkanoid got a slew of sequels pretty soon and was ported to pretty much all popular systems at the time. Out of them, Arkanoid DS is the most divisive entry due to how it changed dynamics of the core gameplay. It narrowed and lengthened the play field, making it far higher than in previous entries, and changed the tiles into squares. This changes the dynamics of the game, especially now that there is a loss of information. Breakout is a 100% information game; everything you see is what you get. Arkanoid’s slight variation in the planets debris’ motion adds a random element to the mix, but with Arkanoid DS you have a dead zone where there is no visual information for the player to latch unto. With DS, if the developer wants to use both screens in gameplay, they can either simulate the space between the two screens or ignore the space. Taito decided to include this screenless space, which does add unknown factor to the gameplay. The paddle doesn’t seem to have any changes to it and feels larger due to the narrower field.
Arkanoid DS seems to play in a lacklustre way without an additional paddle controller. Complains I’ve seen regarding the game range from lacklustre ball physics to amateurish visual designs to irritating elevator music used in the game. I have to agree with most of these points. Because there are far better Arkanoid clones out there, games that play reasonably well even without a paddle controller, I never bothered tracking one down to my library. Its presentation isn’t all too appealing,
Taito’s success with Arkanoid stems from well planned expansions on pre-existing game design. This made Arkanoid stand out from other Breakout clones. The additions were important and no other Breakout or Arkanoid clone has managed to beat them in how these two defined the genre. There are numerous good Arkanoid clones out there, and we’ll be taking a look at one next time.
Within the game industry there really isn’t a comparative example to Breakout-Arkanoid relationship. The closest ones that hit the mark are Doom clones that run on the same engine, but there are not straight up analogies. Perhaps one of the best examples is Star Wars: Dark Forces, as the rumours say that the Jedi engine was made from reversed engineered and largely modified Doom engine. The difference in comparison is difficult to make between Breakout-Arkanoid and Doom-Doom clones is because the technology has become advanced enough that such changes have become more or less meaningless. Well, another one would be Street Fighter II compared to earlier fighting games, of course, but SFII did far more than just expanding from the base gameplay.
Most modern games are essentially derivatives from GTA-3D Zelda style games as simplicity and certain level of abstract worlds have been all but abandoned. What use is technological advancement if we can’t obsolete old games and still recycle the same exact methods of gameplay and progress we’ve had over two decades now? It’s no wonder that the general audience liked the Wii and the DS, it had games that deviated from the standard formula a bit, like Brain Age.
Perhaps rather than designing the expansive and complex game systems each and any game seems to go for, there should be a slight paradigm shift to concentrate on the core gameplay over everything else. Such approach is impossible for the modern Triple A game development mentality, I’m afraid.
After Arkanoid, Breakout styled games become hottest shit again. While people mostly remember that time as the boom of NES era and arcades were in a weird moment in time, when home consoles started usurp them. Not to say that the arcades didn’t have their share of awesome games, but less people remember any arcade games from 1986 than console games. PC had its own fair share of games from the time, and Arkanoid was ported to basically every major PC of the era.
Where do you go from Arkanoid? From Breakout it was a simple task just to expand with options, or vary the gameplay rules by changing the tiles or the ball. Arkanoid DS was less successful in changing everything from the physics to the shape and dimensions of the playfield. Nevertheless, Arkanoid stayed true to the idea of keeping it simple, but not all Arkanoid clones followed this path, at least not in visual design. Of course, it was just a matter of time until a porn version of Arkanoid would surface.
The Japanese PC scene was very different from the western one, until it was basically taken over by the IBM standard, a thing that seems to bother some people a lot. I understand these people very well, there are a lot of things that fascinate me in these old PCs, be it how the visuals or simply the how they work out. Even on emulation there’s some nicks here and there that need to be figured out, but luckily most modern emulators are straight forward. Once the IBM standard began to take foothold in Japan, some games had both PC98 and DOS support.
Japanese computers were not technological marvels when it came to screen scrolling, which is why Super Mario Bros. Special opted for screen-to-screen transitions instead. This is also one of the main reasons Visual Novels became a thing; it was easier to showcase one picture with bunch of text than code gameplay in. By 1990 people had got around how to make scrolling work, the year when Cyber Block Metal Orange was released on NEC’s PC-8801 series of computers.
Metal Orange is not really an expansion on Arkanoid‘s gameplay, but a modification. It takes the same basic gameplay as Breakout and takes the idea from Arkanoid, but mixes things with its own method of power-ups and progression. The gameplay is really tight and stands well throughout comparison, especially its Sharp X68000 port.
First thing that you may notice that the overall design of the screen is more expanded than what it usually is with Breakout titles. One third of the screen is dedicated to a HUD with score display, the operator of your spaceship and power-up indicator. It all looks really lovely, with that Japanese 80’s sci-fi flavour to it.
Nevertheless, there are three major flaws in the design of the visuals. The first one is that the power-up capsules increase a bar that indicates which power-up you have an access to. The capsules don’t straight up grant you a boost this time around, but you need to collect them certain amount get certain level power-up. From one capsule to seven and grant the usual Arkanoid like power-ups. The interesting one Silhouette, that gives you after images. The most expensive one creates a Barrier that bounces balls up. Unless you can keep up how many capsules you’ve collected and in what order the power-ups are on the bar, you’ll be eyeing that bar from the playfield to check what the current status is. While you can play Breakout just with the corner of your eye, most people want to focus on the action. Placing this bar underneath the playfield would’ve made it easier to keep an eye on, as players would still check where the spaceship paddle was located.
The second is the spaceship itself, and this is largely a personal issue I’m sure. The spot that bounces the ball up and down is the top of the craft, and doesn’t go deeper than the front of the ship. Sometimes I try to bounce the ball with the side of the ship, underneath the hitbox, with no avail. It’s a visual cue with no attributes. This is more an issue with the X68k version with more detailed graphics.
Third is a minor, but with the stuff that’s going on the screen, tiles breaking, balls bouncing, enemies falling and whatever power-up you have, the animated background can actually make you mistake one of the stars as the ball. I’ve heard this to happen some people who’ve played this game, so it’s a minor issue, but an issue nevertheless.
Depending on your worldview, you may dislike the porn aspect of the game, but that also gives it its rhythm. Each Stage is divided into smaller sections, first having two stages and then increasing each opened image until the player has to beat four stages in one go. Not that it matters really, there are infinite Continues and a Game Over doesn’t send you back to the first stage of a smaller section. The CGs themselves are decent and look very much in-line with other Custom games, like TEEN.
One last thing that Metal Orange does that Arkanoid didn’t was the music, as in there’s quite a lot of it for a Breakout game. Each Stage has its own theme, each character has its own theme, there’s the opening and ending themes and they’re all pretty damn good.
Nevertheless, Metal Orange’s greatest changes really do lie in the visuals and in the sound department, and these two are really what Breakout games can do without completely revamping the game system. The simplicity that started with Pong has not aged one bit in our modern-day games, but we’re seeing it less. Whenever Nintendo got back to basics with Wii and the DS, they faced great success, similarly how the NES and GameBoy become phenomenal.
After all, hitting the Blue Ocean market with attractive products always seems to yield hits.
This post was originally posted in three sequential parts, now collected for easier reading.