Monday, April 30, 2012

Gee Bee

I am going to be reviewing a few of the Breakout clones that followed the standard-bearer, Breakout, but only up to when Arkanoid came out.  This is because Arkanoid is also featured in the "1,001 Games" book.  And for good reason.  It was the first real advance on the classic Breakout formula, and many features that are prevalent in the Breakout clones that have been released since owe a large debt to Arkanoid. 

But that's for further down the road.  For today, I wanted to mention a Breakout clone that came out a few years after that game, back in 1978.  This game is called "Gee Bee". 

This game is noteworthy for a few reasons.  First, it was the first game developed by Namco.  I'm assuming that most of you need no introduction to Namco, but for the one or two of you that do, it will suffice to say that Namco is a pioneer software developer in the video game and arcade business.  They are the development house behind such monumental classics as Pac-Man, Dig-Dug, Galaga, Galaxian, Rolling Thunder, Ridge Racer, Tekken, and many, many other games.  They are still going strong today. 

Also, this game was designed by Toru Iwatani, who would later go on to develop that granddaddy of 'em all, Pac-Man.  Originally, he wanted to design pinball machines, but Namco apparently wanted no part of that business.  So, in a form of compromise, Gee Bee ended up as a somewhat odd mix between Breakout and pinball. 

The game struck that impression on me as I first booted it up.  Obviously, in 1978, the graphics were still primitive, and it looked pretty similar to Super Breakout.  However, games of this period were noteworthy since they were among the first to be in full color, rather than the colors being overlaid over a black and white screen.  But right away, you notice some differences.  First, there are some features you would associate with pinball, like a spinner in the center of the screen, two bumpers and five rollovers that spell out "N-A-M-C-O".  Hitting these could net you big points.  Also, in addition to blocks being placed vertically, there are also blocks on the left and right side.  You hit these using two paddles, so it's sort of similar to the doubles mode in Super Breakout.

I appreciated that even back then, game developers, if not coming up with totally innovative and fresh ideas, were at least willing to put a few new spins on a classic formula.  Unfortunately, I don't think that it worked too well here, and Gee Bee's relative obscurity seems to bear me out (there seems to be no port that exists of the game).  Probably my biggest gripe is that after you lose a ball (you get three), the board resets and all the blocks you knocked out before you lost the ball, come back.  I am not sure what the logic was behind that design decision, but it just did not work for me at all.

Also, pinball was never my game, and I think the inclusion of some of its features in Gee Bee made the game less enjoyable for me personally.  There are side gates like in real pinball, and it's very possible for a ball to go through there.  This leads to a lost ball, through no fault of your own.  And there does not appear to be a tilt button that could have helped somewhat allay this issue.

Finally, the ball doesn't appear to gradually build in speed like in other Breakout-style games, but will veer from manageable speed to speed-demon fast.  The spinner will keep you on your toes, as it will change the ball's direction.

But despite those flaws, I still somewhat enjoyed Gee Bee.  Design flaws notwithstanding, the pinball aspect meshed better than I thought it would have prior to playing it.  Although the graphics and sound were obviously nothing extraordinary, you can still see subtle evolution if you'd played earlier games.  There were two sequels released to Gee Bee, which I will be reviewing in the very-near future.  It doesn't seem like these games caught fire either.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Super Breakout

Sorry, I know it's been awhile; been working a lot and I came down with a pretty bad chest cold.  Anyway, I am back to review the sequel to "Breakout", known as "Super Breakout".  Unlike the first game, Super Breakout is programmed via a microprocessor, meaning that it's been much easier to port it to other systems.  Hence, it's been included in numerous compilations, unlike the original Breakout.

The only version of Breakout I'd played was on the 2600, but from what I'd heard, Super Breakout is the same game with some added new features.  I used the "Atari Classics Evolved" game for the PSP to play it.  The first thing that I noticed, and that took some getting used to, was that you have to turn your screen to the vertical side in order to play.  I'm not sure why, maybe the screen wouldn't fully fit in the default horizontal position?  Anyway, as a result, the controls take a little getting used to, but I got the hang of it, to a degree.

Unlike the 2600 Breakout , Super Breakout is more in line with the Breakout gameplay that I remember.  You use the paddle to hit individual blocks with a ball, and you must intercept the ball so that it hits more blocks until there are no more blocks.  The graphics are basic, and the sound is pretty sparse, but that's in keeping with the time.  However, there are three different modes of play that you can choose from.  In Progressive Mode, once you destroy a wall of blocks, other walls come down to the center and gain in speed the longer the ball stays in play.  In Double Mode, you control two paddles (one on top of the other) and two balls, only losing a life when you lose possession of both balls.  In Cavity Mode, you get one paddle and ball, but there are two additional balls that are trapped within the blocks.  Once you free those balls, you can use them to destroy more blocks.  In the latter two modes, you get extra points if you can keep the additional balls in play.

While I was glad to take this stroll down memory lane, I thought what brought the experience down for me was the control.  As I may have said previously, the analog nub on the PSP is infamous for how small and useless that it is, so I went with the digital pad to move the paddle.  It turned out being no replacement for the traditional paddle/trackball setup that was popular at the time, and hence was close to mandatory for many games of that period.  So, I flat out sucked at Super Breakout, missing many balls.  I don't know if I would have missed them anyway if I was playing on the original arcade cabinet, but I will probably never know.

I thought the Evolved version of the game was pretty cool.  Regrettably, there is only one type of version included for the Breakout game, unlike the four included for Pong, but I still enjoyed it.  The graphics look slightly better, with a glowing ball, sparks that fly when you hit a brick, cool sound effects and music.  Maybe it's my imagination, but I found it slightly easier to play than the original version.

I wasn't happy with the one clip that I found of this version, but it was all that I could find.  I recently purchased a Playstation Vita, which has a pretty cool camera built in that you can use to record videos.  I tried doing that with this review, but holding my Vita in one hand to record, and the PSP in the other to play a round of Super Breakout and show you how it looked on the system, was difficult and awkward to say the least.