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.