This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
There is nothing in gaming simpler than Breakout. You’re a paddle with a ball, and you need to knock out bricks. It’s single player Pong, and Pong was easy. But here’s a dirty little secret about the original Breakout: it was terrible. The original game was so simple, it was literally on a logic gate (basically, picture a game on a single transistor), and even the sequel had severe issues that would make it virtually unplayable to today’s audience. However, Arkanoid was actually a good Breakout clone as it featured power-ups, enemies, and other goodies. It was so good, in fact, that it ended up being cloned itself into games ranging from Reaxxion to LBreakout 2, the latter of which is open source and free.
The Nintendo version of Arkanoid was unique in that it came with its own controller, the Vaus, that made gameplay as close to arcade perfect as could be expected on a home console in the ’80s. Games have advanced significantly since those days, so does this old-school game with the clunky controller match up to today’s standards?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Though simple, Arkanoid for the NES was as close as a console game could get to arcade perfect. The arcade cabinet came with a dial that could be used to move the paddle left to right, and the NES Vaus controller simulated that well with less moving and foilable parts than a trackball. The NES version played beautifully, and the Vaus controller worked just as well as the analogue dial that the cabinet had.
As for the game itself, it was about as addictive as a Breakout clone could ever be. The ball physics, if that’s even the right term, were dramatically improved over the original Breakout games. Additionally, the board layouts were intelligently designed for their time, showing a need for strategy to rack up the higher scores. These strategies were often thrown out the window by the randomly moving enemies that spawned from the top of the screen and who could either benefit or harm the player. Nonetheless, no game of Arkanoid was ever the same, and in a simpler time, that was just fine.
HOW IS IT NOW: Judging Arkanoid‘s place in 2012 starts with a simple question: does the player appreciate Breakout-style games? If the answer to that is no, then nothing I say will change any opinions; this game isn’t for them. But anyone who does like Breakout games would be in for a treat here. Simply put, this is as good as Breakout gets on a home system.
I was shocked at how natural the dial controller felt. I’m used to playing Breakout on a PC with a standard mouse, and it’s not very intuitive; I sometimes have to pick my mouse up to recentre it, for example. There’s no problem like that for the Vaus, which is calibrated to perfection. Within two seconds of starting a game, it felt just right, and I was able to play with no adjustment period.
This seems like a non-salient point, but in a game that requires both the reflexes and the precision like Arkanoid, it’s crucial.
Of course, technology has bypassed the NES and Breakout for some time. On a thumbdrive, I have Portable Apps installed, and with it a game called LBreakout2, which is a free version of Breakout that has fan-made tables in it. Arkanoid doesn’t have this, naturally; you have the tables that came with the game, and that’s it. There’s also the portability factor, with Arkanoid DS coming out in 2007 with multiple control schemes and an optional, importable dial controller for the purists. Finally, there’s the fact that Arkanoid for the NES simply isn’t playable without the Vaus controller. That’s a key point: most of the copies on eBay only have the cartridge, and these people are outright stealing money. Without the Vaus, the game runs about $8, but with it, it’s $40.
With that said, this is one of the few games that RGP has given me to review that I’m buying after the fact. It’s a tremendously enjoyable take on a timeless classic that plays just as well now as it did when it was new.