In 1976 a game called Breakout was released in the arcades by Atari that was oft copied over the next ten or fifteen years. I never played Breakout, I wasn’t out of nappies when it was released and I certainly can’t imagine my dad popping the odd 10p into an arcade machine either.
Arkanoid is a Breakout clone from ten years later, first in the arcade and then on the home computers.
In case you were wondering, yes, it was the same Psion that went on to make the PDAs. They started off in 1980 as a software company, making quite a few of the early games I played on the Spectrum.
By the time I got my C64, even Thro’ the Wall was old hat, and Breakout was completely a museum piece. Arkanoid though sexed things up a bit. It was bright, colourful, had power-ups, and a rather baffling story that started with a bit of exposition:
“THE TIME AND ERA OF THIS STORY IS UNKNOWN. AFTER THE MOTHERSHIP “ARKANOID” WAS DESTROYED, A SPACECRAFT “VAUS” SCRAMBLED AWAY FROM IT. BUT ONLY TO BE TRAPPED IN SPACE WARPED BY SOMEONE……..”
Yes, for some reason that obviously made sense to someone at Taito, the arcade manufacturer behind Arkanoid, it turns out your bat is actually a spaceship. A bat shaped spaceship. Lucky that, given you have to hit some sort of space ball at a space wall.
Still, the controls on this one couldn’t be simpler, a left, a right and the fire button to release the ball when you get one of those power-ups that will stick it to the “bat”. After the complicated waggling of Wizball last week, this should be a walk in the park. Just for a giggle, I don’t tell Sam anything about the game as we load it up…
Sam: A shooty game! I’ve wanted to play a shooty game ever since you said we were going to do this!
Sam has watched me playing UN Squadron, most of the 19XX games and a host of others on MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) over the last few years and has been desperate for a bit of hot shoot ’em up action. Boy is he in for a shock.
Me: Erm, not quite fella. It’s a bit like tennis.
Sam: Tennis? Like Mario Tennis?
Me: Perhaps it’s not like tennis then. You know when you kick a football against a wall? It’s a bit like that.
Sam: Are you sure? The screen says spaceships and shooty stuff.
Me: Trust me, it’s lying. Badly.
Sam: Oh, am I going to be upset? Again?
Me: No no no no no, you’ll love it. Probably.
Sam: You pick stupid games Daddy. Stupid. Games.
Me: Oh boy, you don’t know the half of this. Sam, this was an arcade classic when I was growing up. Everybody wanted to play it and when the home conversions came out, we were all wowed by the Commodore 64 version. I even bought it again on the Atari ST because I loved it that much!
I wonder if I’m selling it well enough to him as his facial expression is still rather sceptical. He knows me rather too well.
Me: The controls are dead simple, the joystick moves you left and right, the fire button does some stuff, depending on whether you’ve collected a power-up that needs you to press the fire button.
I’m desperately trying to keep it simple to win him over, can you tell?
Sam: You go first dad, I want to watch you play it.
Me: prepare yourself mine son. Prepare to be dazzled.
The Vaus launches from wherever it is it launches from. I’m not too clear on that. There’s a chunky almost spherical metal ball attached to it. Game on.
Me: So what I have to do is bounce the ball off those bricks. When I hit a brick, it gets destroyed, although some might take more than one hit, but I lose a life if the ball goes off the bottom of the screen.
Sam: What’s that got to do with spaceships?
Me: Not a great deal.
Me: just watch. Watch and learn bub.
It’s colourful, the sound isn’t anywhere near as annoying as Wizball was, and shock horror, I seem to be quite good at it!
Sam: Do all the games on the Commodore sound awful?
Me: Awful? They sound a lot better than the speccy beeps don’t they?
Sam: Well, they sound whiny. I’m not sure I like how they all sound.
Best not let the retro game community in general hear this one, chip tunes, using the Commodore 64 SSID chip are massively popular.
Me: Those capsules that drop out when you break certain bricks are power-ups, the do stuff like make your bat, I mean spaceship bigger, slow the ball down, or make it stick to the bat. I think there’s even one that works like a gun. There’s definitely one that gives you multiple balls.
Sam: What stupid spaceship doesn’t have a gun to start with?
Me: One that’s shaped like a giant space bat?
Me: Anyway, I’ve shown you either how incredibly awesome I am or how easy it is, I think it’s time we started the game again and you have a go. It’s a lot more about hand to eye co-ordination than simply button mashing, so you’re probably doomed?
Sam: Yeah? Yeah well, well, you drink out of the toilet!
There’s no real way to compete with the insults an 8 year old can through at you without getting into far too much trouble with the lady wife, so I let that one slide but for the record, no, I don’t drink out of the toilet.
Me: Sam, just take the joystick.
Sam: Okay but can you turn the sound down a bit? The beeping whenever the ball hits something is really annoying.
He’s right, the main tune only plays briefly when you die and a new life starts or when you finish the level but there is an incessant beepy noise whenever the ball comes in to contact with anything, spaceship, side wall, bricks or aliens.
Me: That’s it, once you’ve broken through the top row, you can try and get the ball up there. It’ll bounce around for ages if you’re lucky…
Aliens descend through the hole in the wall.
Sam: Argh! The blobby blue things are going to get me!
Me: I honestly can’t remember whether you can hit them or not.
A ball pings off an alien, killing it.
Sam: Take that blobby thing! Muhahahaha!
Sam accidentally hit an alien. It dies but he’s okay.
Me: Ah, okay, you can whack them with your bat but be..
Sam: I’m dead. Why does the spaceship blow up is a ball goes off the bottom of the screen? What makes it blow up? It doesn’t make sense.
He’s right you know, it doesn’t make sense but not a lot in this whole spaceship/ball world really makes much sense. It must be worse for the worlds most literal child.
Me: You’re nearly there, keep on going.
Sam: Oh yes, oh yes, I’ve done it.
And he has, he’s completed the first level. Level 2 has some sort of terrible flock wallpaper effect as the background and starts with a layer of bricks really close to the spaceship but it’s only one brick deep to the far left. I grab the joystick in an attempt to break through the wall (see what I did there? No? Go back to the opening bit and pay attention next time).
Me: I’ll just bust the brick at the end and… bugger…
Sam: And lose two lives really really quickly? How is that helping?
Me: Shush. That’s better, watch the ball ping around up there and get all the bricks.
Sam: My turn.
Me: Oh, you want to play it do you?
Sam: Yes, this is actually quite fun.
Quite fun. That’s about as good as it gets in the world of Sam, so it’s a qualified success. It’s interesting to see how one of today’s kids views the “story” aspect of Arkanoid and how little it makes sense. I suppose back in the day we didn’t need a compelling story like kids do today. Nevertheless, we’ve both had fun and that’s almost a first, two months in!