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Breakout
Score: 93%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Hasbro Interactive
Developer: Supersonic Software
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 2 (3 - 4 Multitap)
Genre: Arcade/ Action/ Family

Graphics & Sound:
I canít say the trend toward 3Dizing retro arcade classics hasnít left me a little jaded. Not that the games have been bad, but the expectations brought forward by people who grew up playing games like Frogger, Pac-Man, Galaga and Asteroids have just been too high. Itís partly our fault... We just arenít wowed enough by 3D to give up our romantic notions about how the old games looked and played. Well, hereís a different angle on things.

With Breakout, you have a game that many people may not remember looking memorable, if they remember it at all. It was even more unassuming to look at than games like Pac-Man and Frogger, with nothing more than a paddle, a ball, and a wall. Coming in without the heavy assumptions I had in other retro-remakes, I was pleasantly surprised at how fun and playable Breakout was. The characters are just the square blocks from the old arcade game, but now they have personality. How anyone conceived of a french-fry-lookiní little dude named Bouncer that pals along with a ball named Coach Steel is beyond me, but the crazy thing is that it works. The levels are set in various wacky locales, from a barnyard to a castle to outer space, and they all look nice. The soundtrack is lighthearted stuff, but fun to listen to and not annoying in the least.


Gameplay:
If you remember the arcade version, Breakout was and is about moving a paddle to reflect balls that can knock down walls. The walls are typically made of smaller Ďtilesí that fall or break when hit by the ball. I wasnít exactly sure how Breakout would work until I saw it in action, but the basics are that Bouncer just lays down and throws Coach Steel into the fray, using him like a battering ram until the wall falls.

And better still, thereís actually a story behind the action. We tune in to Bouncer and his friends playing at the beach -- bouncing balls, of course. Bouncerís girlfriend and paddle-friends are abducted by Batnix; Bouncer himself is captured, but manages to escape with the help of Coach Steel. So, the story begins in Batnixís dungeon, with a little training from Coach Steel. After that, youíre in the action going full steam! Each stage is made of several levels, and by completing the stage, you save one of your friends. After this, you can choose to play as one of the friends. Itís not given away in the manual, so you have to learn the strengths of the other...paddle-people, as you work through later levels. Sometimes, switching from Bouncer to a friend can turn the tables and give you a critical edge.

The levels boil down to a bunch of obstacles that Bouncer and Coach Steel pound their way through. However, not all the obstacles or bricks are standing still. Not only the choice of brick themes, but also the behavior of the level is what really makes Breakout super-playable. In one farm level, you face off against several rows of chickens that slowly advance toward you and sometimes shoot green flaming eggs at you. All the while, thereís the familiar ďbink-bink-binkĒ of another Atari classic that had spaceships instead of chickens. Little references like this are really cool, but other levels require that you aim the ball precisely or follow a pattern to get the target, giving you a win. Precision is also required to grab power-ups that appear during each level. They only last through one level, but can give you moves that make the ball stick to the paddle or send it off like a rocket, along with other effects. Actually hitting the power-ups tends to be the hardest part, but once you have them, itís up to you when to activate them. The variety is excellent, and the design of each level is balanced and intuitive. My only gripe is that there arenít more levels! Sometimes, youíll even find yourself in the upright position, running down a path being chased by a wolf. These levels are somewhat contrived, but still fun. I just wish they had put all their energy into making more good classic-style Breakout levels, instead of the over-the-shoulder-wolf-chase levels.

Once you beat the game, thereís a whole new world in Multiplayer or Challenge Mode. Challenge is like the Time Trial Mode in a Platformer, except the only trial here is Coach Steelís grade of your performance. After you complete a level in the Story Mode, Challenge is where you can try to improve your ranking. Multiplayer for two or more takes you through four levels where you basically defend a portion of turf against obstacles thrown up by other players who are trying to clear all your bricks. What worked as a power-up in Single-Player Mode is now a brick or something else in the other guyís field, and the competition can be maddening. Even though Story Mode is a little too easy to beat, Multiplayer and some sucka friend will give you all the Breakout action you can stomach.


Difficulty:
Breakout has a great, adaptive way of adjusting difficulty. Coach Steel gives you a ranking during completion of a level, after you clear any small section. The better you do, the higher the ranking. The better the ranking, the harder the difficulty. And, if you fail a section of any level, your ranking and the difficulty drops. So, after a few losses on the battlefield, difficulty will drop to a setting that you can handle, and you can always go back in Challenge Mode to improve the ranking later. Itís a nice system, and makes the game challenging for anyone. The best players will always be facing the extreme difficulty, and the beginners will settle in where they need to be. Very slick, Hasbro!

Game Mechanics:
Control of Bouncer and his friends is not as straightforward as you might expect. One of the things that always amazed me about Breakout in the arcade was how responsive the ball was to the action of my paddle. If my paddle was moving fast when the ball hit, the angle was extreme. Slow paddle, and the ball took a wider angle away from the paddle or lost speed. It definitely was a tennis concept, like slicing to give a ball spin. The dynamics of motion offer interesting possibilities in Breakout, and I liked the way Hasbro set up the controller options out of the box. First, you have your analog stick to control left and right. Using the R1 or L1 button gives the paddle a lean in one direction or the other, for those times when you need to correct the path of the ball or target a certain area of the screen. Using both R1/R2 or L1/L2 gives you more extreme lean. And thatís all without moving the paddle. Lean + paddle motion = different trajectory on the ball. Itís harder to explain than to learn by experience, but especially in levels where the Ďwallí is coming toward you slowly, youíll find the ball takes on some weird spin and goes out of control because there are so many way it can be hit.

Different characters control differently, feeling faster or slower and having some special properties. Also, any paddle can be changed to be square or slightly bowed. This is just a preference thing, but a nice detail anyway. All ďnon-movementĒ action, like throwing a ball or activating a power-up youíve stored is as simple as pressing a button, which is nice when you have flying projectiles to keep track of. Just like the arcade, there will be times when the single ball multiplies and you have to manage three or more at one time! I wasnít sure I liked analog at first, but I got used to it. If anyone really hated analog, digital is fair game also.

PS2: With PS2 running on Fast/Smooth, I definitely noticed a few textures smoothed and load-times shortened, but nothing outrageous.

Retro gaming has its disappointing and sometimes illegal (emulation, anyone?) side, but Breakout really strikes me as an example of what can happen when things are done right. The Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man games felt the same way, holding elements of classic gameplay in a world very far from anything we ever saw in the arcade cabinet. I guess it comes down to the fact that weíre not all so desperate to play games that weíll settle for a weak remake of a game we loved just to feel nostalgic. And some games (Dragonís Lair... ugh!) should just stay buried in memory. If a game is good, we like it. Breakout would be a fun game even if the original had never existed, and thatís my test. For a puzzle-game fan, retro junkie or brand new gamer, there are plenty of good times to be had with Bouncer and Coach Steel. Please, Coach Steel, I coulda been a contender...


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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