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Breakout (Arcade) artwork

Breakout (Arcade) review

"Brick-Breaking Beginnings"

In the mid-seventies, Pong fever was still going strong. After the initial success of Atariís classic table tennis/air hockey simulation, just about every electronics company in the world jumped on the bandwagon, producing too many Pong clones to count. Atari responded by releasing several official Pong sequels, including Pong Doubles, Super Pong, Quadrapong, and Pin-Pong. By frequently improving and evolving the Pong formula, Atari was able to gain an advantage over its rivals in the video arcade game industry. They still put out other types of video games on a regular basis, like racing games, but most of their revenue came from the Pong series, thanks to its easy controls and high accessibility. Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell knew he couldnít rely on Pong forever, so he began to brainstorm new ideas.

While the rest of Atariís staff prepared for the eventual release of the first official home Pong console in 1975, Nolan Bushnell and fellow Atari employee Steve Bristow devised a concept for a single-player counterpart to Pong. The objective of the game would be to use a paddle and ball to gradually break through a massive brick wall near the top of the screen. The pair formed plans for a prototype unit, but Bushnell wanted to see if another engineer could build it with as few transistor-transistor logic chips as possible, in order to cut down on the cost of hardware production. The engineers chosen to design the prototype were none other than the future co-founders of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak!

Wozniak did the majority of the work on the prototype unit, serving as the main programmer and engineer. Jobs actually had very little involvement other than breadboarding, but apparently, he took most of the credit and payment for Wozniakís work. Wozniakís 44-chip prototype turned out to be too sophisticated for Atari to manufacture themselves, so they ultimately went with a design using about 100 chips for the final product, built by another engineer named Gary Waters. In terms of gameplay, Watersí version had no noticeable differences from Wozniakís prototype, despite using over twice the number of chips. Atari named the game Breakout, establishing it as a separate entity from Pong.

After Breakout was released in May of 1976, it quickly became another victory for Atari. Competitors started designing their own clones and variations of Breakout, though not to the same extent as Pong at first. In 1978, Atari updated the gameplay with Super Breakout, which added three new game modes and an improved score system. Taito expanded the Breakout formula even further in 1986 with the release of Arkanoid. This game set new standards with its additions of modern video game concepts, including hidden power-ups, boss battles, and even some narrative elements. In the face of such significant advancements, does the simplicity of the original Breakout retain its charm? Letís find out.

Much like its multiplayer precursors, the primarily single-player Breakout has a very simple premise. A multicolored brick formation is situated near the top of the playfield, and your job is to break it down, piece by piece, using a paddle and ball reminiscent of Pong. Why do you need to do this, exactly? Well, the game itself does not appear to contain any narrative elements, but the artwork on the game cabinet depicts goofy caricatures of prisoners smashing through brick walls with sledgehammers. Therefore, the game can be interpreted as having a prison escape scenario. Once the first brick formation is destroyed, an identical brick formation will appear in its place. Your ultimate goal is to destroy both formations.

Once you have inserted a coin into the machine, you may begin your Breakout session by pressing the large white button on the control panel. Your paddle is located near the bottom of the screen, and it can be shifted to the left and right with the analog dial, allowing for smooth and precise movement. The serve button on the left is used to summon the ball to the playfield. There is always a brief delay before the ball actually appears on the screen. When it arrives, the ball descends swiftly and silently from just above the paddleís field of movement. The ball appears without warning, so try not to get distracted.

Breakout is a prime example of Atariís ďeasy to learn, difficult to masterĒ philosophy that defined many of their video arcade games. The aforementioned controls are just as simple and easy to learn as those of Pong. But donít think this game will be a cakewalk. At the time of its release, Breakout was one of the hardest video games around, foreshadowing the common trends of the golden age of video arcade games. Most of the challenge in Breakout comes from keeping the ball in play. At first, the ball will move very slowly, but it speeds up after breaking a certain number of bricks. Also, it will instantly reach its fastest speed upon hitting an orange or red brick. When the ball touches the ceiling, your paddle shrinks, changing from a small rectangle to a tiny square. If the ball falls past your paddle and touches the bottom of the screen, you lose a turn, and the ball speed and paddle size are restored to their defaults. Lose all of your turns, and the game is over. Depending on the hardware settings, you will begin the game with either three or five turns. The number of the current turn is displayed near the top-right corner of the screen. There is no way to earn any extra turns, so donít get careless!

Aside from the main objective of destroying all the bricks, Breakout also presents players with a secondary objective, which is to defeat the target score. Although Breakout does not track high scores, it does display the last playerís score during the attract mode, challenging the next potential player to beat it. During gameplay, your score is displayed near the top-left corner of the screen, with constantly blinking digits. Points are earned by destroying bricks; each brick is worth a set number of points, depending on its color. The yellow bricks in the two bottom rows are worth one point each. The next two rows are made up of green bricks, which give out three points each. Further up are the orange bricks, worth five points each. Finally, the red bricks are worth seven points each. When adding up the points from all of the bricks in both brick formations, the highest possible score for one player is 896.

Unfortunately, Breakout has two major problems that prevent it from being on par with its successors. The first is a programming error. The walls on the left and right sides of the screen have inconsistent hit detection. The ball bounces off the right wall normally, but when it reaches the left wall, the ball appears to go through it and bounces off the edge of the screen instead. This annoying quirk can and will throw players off, and tends to result in many lost turns. The game is supposed to be very difficult, as it should be, but the challenge should come from what was intended by the designers, not glitches.

The second issue is the lack of replay value. Attempting to beat the scores of previous players can be fun for a while, but once you manage to clear both brick formations and earn the aforementioned 896-point score, thatís it. A floor appears at the bottom of the screen, leaving the ball to bounce around the room until someone starts a new session. Super Breakout allows skilled players to play indefinitely as long as they donít run out of turns, and it also fixes the previously mentioned issue with the walls, so if that game is available to you, itís unlikely that you will have any desire to play the original again. Breakout does have a multiplayer mode, but itís of the alternating variety, which isnít as interesting as the simultaneous multiplayer games that were common at the time. A co-op mode wouldíve been nice.

As one of the last video arcade games to use transistor-transistor logic chips, Breakout had a very basic presentation factor, and was just starting to look dated when paired next to microprocessor-based games, such as Gun Fight. Technically, the graphics in Breakout are monochrome, but the bricks appear to be in color, thanks to the strips of colored cellophane on the monitor. The ball is rendered as a tiny white square, and the paddle appears to be blue under the cellophane. Sound effects include the usual assortment of beeps and boops that play when an early video game ball bounces off of solid objects.

Although Breakout was successful in arcades and established a new, long-running video game genre, the original 1976 arcade release does not hold up very well. Itís easy to see how it would have been popular in its prime, as it was a fairly new concept in a market dominated by increasingly forgettable Pong clones, but its iffy hit detection and lack of incentive to keep playing after earning the highest score allowed it to quickly become outclassed by subsequent brick-breaking games. Even the seemingly watered-down Atari 2600 port of Breakout had better gameplay, thanks to its variable modes and options, as well as improved programming. Save some quarters and play either that version or Super Breakout instead. Or, better yet, give the Arkanoid series a try. That series will really test your skills!


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Featured community review by Midcore (June 21, 2018)

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