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Alleyway (Game Boy) artwork

Alleyway (Game Boy) review

"Breakout the Game Boy for the utterly average Alleyway and you'll soon wonder why you bothered."

In addition to being a famous plumber and saver of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario has served as a pitchman for all sorts of activities ranging from boxing to golf to kart racing to typing, but did you know that he once tried to make block breakers seem like a reasonable use of your time? It's true! Back in 1989, he took a break from stomping turtles to appear in a little Game Boy launch title known as Alleyway, which frankly needed all the help it could get.

Developed by the usually talented folks at Intelligent Systems, Alleyway looks plenty exciting in the North American box art, which depicts Mario riding in a pill-shaped spaceship and careening toward a menacing wall of blocks as what appears to be an explosion sends a ball zipping toward the suddenly airborne drain fixer. This, you can hardly help but think to yourself, will be quite the game! Which only goes to show how wrong you can sometimes be.

That sensational artwork puts the best possible spin on the fact that what your money gets you is a barebones Breakout (or Arkanoid) clone. That feels borderline deceptive to me. Mario jumps into the ship at the start of the first stage, and he appears in a congratulatory message when you clear the final stage. Images of various Koopa foes also appear as bonus stages. Otherwise, there's no real connection between this action/puzzle game and the more memorable adventures Mario had saving the perennially abducted Princess Peach.

If you haven't played one of the other games I mentioned above, a quick rundown would seem to be in order. After all, it's not like such an exercise requires much time. The way things work is that you move a bar back and forth along the bottom of the screen like a ping pong paddle, occasionally batting the ball upward at an angle so it can break away blocks until none remain. That's pretty much it, with one addendum you can probably already guess: if the ball drops off the bottom of the screen because you failed to intercept it with your paddle, you lose a "life."

Alleyway does try to mix things up a bit. But let's not credit the developers with too much ingenuity, not when numerous other Breakout clones have taken things further. Some of them have introduced power-ups, for instance. Here, there will be none of that nonsense! The most you can expect are a few twists to make things more challenging. The block formations scroll left or right, for instance. Or after awhile, your paddle width shrinks by about 30 percent. Perhaps the block pattern starts to descend, so you have less room to work if you aren't clearing things quickly. Sometimes, barriers appear within the midst of a particular formation, which you don't need to break but which you should still watch carefully since they cause the ball to rebound.

There are 24 regular stages in all, and every third one is followed by one of those bonus grids I mentioned. The bonus grids have a time limit in place, and they're a great way to increase your score... which gives you access to extra lives every 1000 points or so. When you clear the last stage, you receive the aforementioned note of congratulations and then you are encouraged to keep going for as long as you can endure. The game lets you continue increasing your score by replaying the same selection of stages you already conquered with (as far as I can tell) no modifications. What a treat!

There was a time when games were simpler and Breakout was genuinely amusing, but that time was relatively brief. Alleyway debuted right near the tail end of that limited window, just as developers started showing some ambition with their genre innovations. The passage of time really hurts this particular release because it feels pedestrian and unnecessary. It's in black and white, there's no background song to speak of (even Tetris had that, times three), a lot of the 24 standard stages are basically repeats with a slight wrinkle added and there's no strategy or flair to make the process of breaking blocks more exciting.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all is that Alleyway grows dull well before you're likely to have any reason to quit out of frustration. Difficulty ramps up at a reasonable pace, and a skilled player with decent reflexes should have little difficulty getting through half or more of the available puzzles on even the first serious attempt. If a puzzle is giving you fits, it usually just means you haven't cleared away the last block or two because they're oddly positioned, so you have to keep batting at the ball and sometimes you might have to watch it rebound all over the place for 10 or 15 fruitless seconds before you can interfere again with hopefully better results.

The score component, which might have added interest by encouraging intuitive rather than reactive play, doesn't do anything meaningful to the rote process. There are no combos to rack up that I could see, so a player who just barely lasts through 24 stages will have about the same score to show for his trouble as a skilled master of block breaking. Aside from the limited appeal of seeing Super Mario Bros. enemies presented as block collections, the only thrill comes from those rare moments when you manage to send the ball up along the side of a block formation--or perhaps through a chimney of sorts you've cleared away--and then get to watch it break a few pieces and clink merrily before it descends toward your paddle once more. On occasion, I've gotten more enjoyment from a sheet of bubble wrap that an eBay seller used to wrap a superior game he sent me.

Ultimately, you either like Breakout and its ilk or you don't. Or, perhaps more precisely, you like the block breaking experience when it is handled properly, with enough modifications so that everything feels fresh and new. Whatever the case, know that Alleyway has nothing more to offer than a bit of arcade action in its most rudimentary and repetitive form, with no significant frills to keep players coming back for more. I feel sorry for any kids who talked their parents into buying them a new Game Boy back in the day and were stuck playing this competent but uninspiring filler instead of Super Mario Land or Tetris. Can you imagine it? I wouldn't even blame them if that sort of trauma turned them into Sega fans. It would certainly explain some things.

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 03, 2020)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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dagoss posted May 07, 2020:

An alternate opinion: this game was intended for audiences looking for a simpler experience. My 6 year old likes alleyway but not Tetris or SML, and I can see why. The concept is easy to understand, and it isn't particularly difficult. I don't think Tetris was an original launch title in Japan, so this probably filled a casual niche at launch (and given the simple design, it was probably dead cheap to develop)

I kinda find it fun, when I'm on the mood.
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honestgamer posted May 07, 2020:

Thanks for that perspective, dagoss, and it's good to see you around! I know there's something to be said in favor of the game's simplicity, but I think the same things could be said of maybe other Breakout clones that offer about the same experience and more besides. To me, it just feels like the kind of game you purchase to venture off the beaten path with your game library, once you've already gotten to the must-haves. Has your kid tried Kirby's Block Ball?
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dagoss posted May 08, 2020:

Thanks! I have so little time for games these days, let alone writing reviews. She hasn't tried Kirby block ball yet (we don't own it). She'd probably like it a lot though.

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