Breakout, for my 6-year-old self, was a game of solo squash survival rather than conquest. Each whack of the ball was a few more seconds I could hold onto the paddles as Game Over meant it was Dad’s turn. Once you broke through to the deeper bricks – orange through red – the ball would overdose on steroids and zip around the screen at speeds close to 0.9c.
Dad always managed to aim the ball precisely at the rank of bricks along the edge of the playfield, so he could trap the ball above the wall and make it do half the work for you. With this well-honed technique he could get through the second wall of bricks and complete the game – my fuzzy, malformed memory tells me I never did.
Breakout was fast and a little terrifying – a combination that could conceive the bastard child of frustration if the player was missing a symbiotic attachment to the paddle controller’s potentiometer. And Heaven fucking help you if the pots had been broken by some 6-year-old friends who had been round to visit a few days earlier. It was a cruel game: once you were out of balls, you were out of balls. There’s a life lesson in this somewhere.
I’d improved my eye-to-hand-twitch when Arkanoid appeared and this successor to Breakout had improved the usability of the game: the pace felt slower and game-easing powerups were dropped from felled bricks, such as extra lives and lasers.
But these powerups were just another way to kill you, really. The fruit in Pac-Man. The flying saucer in Space Invaders. Designed to distract, encouraging suicide by misadventure. They could have just had a woman flash bare chest at me from behind the television – the effect would have been the same. Given the choice, I probably would’ve chosen breast over powerup, but YMMV.
There were other variations too: wandering obstacles; different wall arrangements; strong bricks; an end-of-game boss. But still the Breakout formula remained somewhat infuriating.
I guess I’m not a natural at Breakout because I have never mastered ball aim. When down to the last few bricks, I could end up bouncing the ball around for minutes trying to take them out. Luck was my cheerleader in Breakout and she was no good towards the end of a wall. The degradation of the experience into a mindless back and forth of the ball is what bored me.
So the question this week: has the Breakout template evolved in the twenty years since Arkanoid? On Savygamer’s recommendation, I swiped Sidhe Interactive‘s Shatter, just after it was released to PC last year.
Shatter takes the basic template and does everything it can to eliminate what makes Breakout frustrating. Run out of balls too quickly? Catch the 1UP free balls which Shatter throws at you like a philanthropic ball billionaire and, if you still end up kissing Game Over, just start the game again from where you failed. Not great at aiming? Use the power to blow and suck to steer the ball while its in the air. Loved the Arkanoid laser but disappointed it turned up too infrequently? Shatter is built around the laser, the “Shard Storm”, now morphed from regular powerup into a better, sweatier cheerleader than luck ever was.
There are all sorts of little adjustments Shatter makes to the Breakout model, but the ability to blow and suck the ball – as well as other objects in play – really does transform the game into something less twitchy and more empowering. It’s a big change. Shatter is about progress and fun, not challenge and awkward repetition. There’s plenty of variety from start to finish – from floating bricks to repulsors, from explody destructobricks to circular arenas. And there are several bosses.
As the game is relatively easy, the real challenge is optional – finding ways to get that score multiplier up and boosting your points each level. This is easier typed than done and will kill you with the risks it coaxes you towards – such as unleashing multiple balls at once and becoming dementedly focused on catching every single shard.
(Pro-tip: Strongly advise using the mouse instead of the keyboard for precise control, brilliant for getting megabonuses in the hyperspace intermissions.)
Beyond the skeleton mechanics, the execution of Shatter is pitch-perfect. Graphically it’s just right, retaining clarity even when the screen is flooded with shards. The audio is solid and crisp – the sound of bricks shattering is satisfying and the total hardcore smackdown of a Shard Storm feels good all the way down to my bones. There’s not much of a story to the story mode – it’s more to provide theme and texture than deliver Citizen Bloody Kane.
The soundtrack by Module deserves a special mention. It’s a sublime fit for a game of unfettered freestyle play and reminded me of Daft Punk in places, an airy and emotionally upbeat set of electronic tunes. Yeah, I went and bought the soundtrack too.
So has the Breakout template evolved in the twenty years since Arkanoid? I’d have to say yes. Shatter is Breakout that’s pick-up-and-play casual. It’s a game I keep returning to. Shatter is Breakout I enjoy.
You can purchase Shatter on Steam right now. It’s also on PS3.
Post-game buzz: Bubbly, forgiving game seeks fun time with kind-hearted player.