Opinions of modern updates to classic games are widely divided. Many people prefer that software designers take the original game, modify the graphics to a 32-bit color palette, add a magnificent orchestral score, and release it as a "what could have been" title had technology allowed it. Others would like to see the theme of the original modified to an unrecognizable mishmash in the name of "upgrade," hopefully with the result of separating players from their money in the name of nostalgia.
Breakout's modern translation, designed by Supersonic Software Ltd. and published in a joint venture between Atari and Hasbro Interactive, mixes old-school gameplay with absolutely ludicrous unrelated action sequences. What were they thinking?
The game fails to impress from the opening cut scene. While entertaining in a general sense, the animation is minimal, as is the overall design. After the intro, events become even more problematic when the game begins and configuration beckons. The options menu provides only one: sound. The control scheme is set in concrete and, while it might not seem like a problem in a simplistic game such as Breakout, there are a surprising number of different keys required to achieve expert gameplay, none of which are particularly intuitive. To make matters worse, the one option available doesn't work. You can adjust the volume of the sound effects and music, but they have absolutely no effect on the game other than making the music even louder if you turn it all the way down.
The initial few levels are faithful to the spirit of the original game, and fall nicely into the "original idea with modern technology" update category. As the paddle, you hit a ball into the distance where it breaks some bricks or crates. The selectable camera angles add to the enjoyment, offering a 45-degree view, a moving perspective, or the classic original Breakout top-down view. Environments look appropriate in an extreme cartoon-like style and are much more detailed than the relatively bland intro movie. A training mode helps you become acclimated to various intricacies of the updated controls, but the instructions are wrong. The game repeatedly states "press 3 to change puck modes," but, unfortunately, pressing said key produces no effect -- "B" is actually correct, begging the question of how much quality control was wasted on this game.
Lest you think this merely a font problem, once the fourth level hits, all the problems suddenly start materializing in full force. For absolutely no reason, the game shifts from a Breakout update to Super Track & Field, as Bouncer suddenly has to flee from a pursuing wolf. You're thrust into this situation with no more advice than "press 1 to run, briefly release 1 to fling a ball!" Surprise -- pressing 1 does absolutely nothing, nor does pressing "I" or "L," both potential font-mistakes. Indeed, "Enter" is the key you need. After encountering a few dozen deaths trying to figure out the basic move function, gamers may well think the worst is over -- not so.
Unfortunately, this level is one of the most aggravating endeavors in recent gaming history, though still less frustrating than later levels in the game. You can't see where you're running, and yet you must be able to instinctively find and toss balls at the pursuing wolf to keep him from devouring you. The level is nothing more than an elaborate game of Simon, where the only way to win is to remember where the balls are on one of your failed runs and pick them up the next time. Rote memorization is not generally high on the list of "fun gameplay ideas."
After the interminable level is over, gameplay settles down to normal. Your "score" ranking (1 of 11), is now undoubtedly as low as possible, since you just failed 100 times on the wolf level, but at least you're back to hitting bricks with a ball, playing Breakout again. Many such fun levels crop up throughout; one brilliant bit of design has a steady stream of chickens and ducks pour in a barn window while the Space Invaders sounds play as part of a background song. Unfortunately, this level also segues into another random exercise in unbearable rage, as you must knock increasingly larger numbers of angry ducks off a platform while they try to do the same to you. If, perhaps, these ducks were at the top of the screen, and you were shooting balls at them with your paddle, it might be a fun level.
Ignoring for a moment the vicious cycle of fun levels interrupted by ill-conceived mini-games, the sensory aspects of the title deserve a mention. Throughout the game, graphics are often delightful. The various supporting characters in each of the game's six mission areas are usually rendered nicely and have fine animation. But other areas of the game look flat-out terrible, like the wolf chase sequences. The wolf, the trees, and the path itself are ugly, which only adds to the frustration caused by the utterly annoying levels (plural, there's more than one wolf chase).
The soundtrack is a strangely mixed bag. The quality is not particularly varied, and, in fact, the music is nicely composed, but it seems appropriate for the setting on only about half of the levels. While at times the songs fit in nicely, such as the farm levels, other levels full of castle walls, knights, and a dragon will have a strange pulsing techno beat. Sound effects seem universally appropriate, with "boings" and "thuds" throughout the levels that never fail to satisfy!
The worst aspect of Breakout is how fun it can be when not frustrating players to the point of screaming and punching the monitor. At least a couple of the levels in each mission area are truly enjoyable, and would be fun to play more than once. Conversely, a couple of levels in each mission have the potential to incite a vengeful rage towards the developers in even the most docile gamer.
The eventual reward for toughing it out through the entire game is a very satisfying bit of nostalgia in and of itself, but most gamers will likely not progress that far, even though the game takes only a few hours to complete. If Supersonic Software Ltd. were to release a "director's cut" of Breakout, featuring more of the good and none of the bad, Breakout CD-ROM would definitely be a worthy addition to paddle-and-ball enthusiasts. As it is, there's far too little game and way too much frustration to waste time on.
Graphics: Graphics run the gamut from an excellent cartoon-like feel to a "we ran out of money to pay the graphic artist" vibe. Outstanding examples of polygon animation are seen in the castle mission levels, but other levels are blocky and bland.
Sound: The audio quality easily outshines the horrible problems plaguing the game. The sound staff did their jobs with appropriate effects and good music, although songs seem occasionally out of place for the action.
Enjoyment: Had Breakout offered levels that could be played in any order at any time, the game would likely rate above average. The general idea is sound and some levels are quite enjoyable, but the sheer agony gamers will experience in the sadistic action sequences goes a long way toward canceling out any enjoyment, and the entire game takes but a few hours to complete.
Replay Value: The mere thought of struggling through the wolf level will deter most gamers from playing again. Although individual levels can be played once you've beaten the game (and a few are actually enjoyable), playing the entire story through a second time is meaningless.
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Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty, Pong: The Next Level, Atari: 80 Classic Games in One!, Atari Anniversary Edition, Bugs Bunny & Taz: Time Busters, Call of Juarez, Bubble Bobble Hero 2
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