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Homebreviews - part 43: Paddle Battle

Nathan Strum


It's time to get out the contact cleaner and get those paddles working!

Or is it... ?

Brik (Atari 2600)

Brik by Repixel8 features two paddle-based games on one cartridge. Or rather... one paddle-based game, and one that should have been.

The main game, Brik, is an attempt at an Arkanoid clone. You move a paddle (called a "bat" in the manual) back and forth across the bottom of the screen, bouncing a ball off it to knock out patterns of blocks above you. If you let the ball get past you, you lose a life. There's an enemy that comes out and floats around, sending your ball off course if you hit it, and there are two bonus items that fall from some of the blocks: extra points and an extra life. However, there are no actual "power-ups" like catch, multi-ball, expand, and so forth. So even though the level layouts resemble Arkanoid, much of what made that game unique is missing - even the original Breakout had a "catch" feature.

There are two display modes for Brik: flickering and non-flickering. Flickering is used to draw vertical lines between columns of blocks to divide them up to be more brick-like. Unfortunately, it not only causes flicker, but it actually makes the entire screen vibrate annoyingly. Fortunately, you can shut that off, which is what I would recommend. Once you do that, the graphics behave themselves and still look decent. Sound is minimal, but adequate. There are no continues, so you always have to start a new game back at the first level.

Brik would be a decent enough game in the Breakout genre, except for one fatal shortcoming - you can only play it with a joystick. There is no paddle controller support. The whole point of a ball-and-paddle game is how it plays, and paddles are essential for the speed, control and precision needed for this type of game. I don't know what sort of compromises would have been needed to add paddle controller support, but it puzzles me why someone would develop a game like this without it. Brik is somewhat playable with a joystick, but even that is poorly implemented. Traditionally in Breakout (or Pong, for that matter), the ball will change its angle and direction based on where it hits the top of the paddle. But in Brik, the ball usually just bounces off continuing in the same direction and angle it was already traveling - regardless of how you hit it. To get the ball to bounce in the opposite direction actually requires hitting it with the very edge of your paddle, and the controls (and collision detection) in Brik are nowhere near precise enough to do that reliably.

The second game on the cartridge, Brik 180, actually supports paddle controllers (making the lack of them in Brik all the more puzzling). Brik 180 appears to be a cross between Pong and Breakout. There are Pong-like paddles on both sides of the screen that move vertically, and between them, running down the center, are patterns of blocks that you knock out with the ball. So you have to clear out the blocks, and not let the ball get past you. Two great tastes that taste great together, right?

Except Brik 180 has even more problems than Brik.

First - despite its Pong-like layout, it's a one-player only game. You control both paddles simultaneously (they're linked together), so you're effectively playing Pong by yourself with some Breakout blocks in the middle. While this would be fine as a one-player variation, Brik 180 would have been far better as a two-player competitive game (or one player vs. AI).

Second - if you're used to playing any of Atari's Pong variants (eg. Video Olympics on the 2600), you'll note that when you turn the paddle counter-clockwise (left), you move down. If you turn it clockwise (right), you move up. Always. Even on the original Pong console. But in Brik 180, it's backwards - you turn left, you move up. If you turn right, you move down. This may seem trivial, but it's not. The games were designed the way they were for a reason: it was intuitive. Plus, you don't just throw away 45 years' worth of peoples' muscle memory for the sake of a lack of research. Consequently, using a joystick to play Brik 180 actually works better.

Finally is the collision detection. It's catastrophically bad. I can't count the number of times "something weird" happened, and the ball went through the corner of my paddle. After awhile, I had to adapt how I was playing just to finish reviewing the game. Brik 180 seems buggy and unfinished. Even the ball distorts as it moves across the screen, as if you were viewing it through a chainlink fence.

Brik and Brik 180 are based on solid ideas, but the execution just isn't there. They seem only half-finished. Even the manual has issues, in that the pages (which aren't numbered) were out-of-sequence. It took some flipping back and forth to figure out which page belonged to which game.

There's a real need for more good paddle games on the 2600. When well made, they offer a unique gaming experience you can't get anywhere else. Unfortunately, Brik just isn't one of them.

Brik gets a 2/5.

Crazy Brix (Atari 7800)

Crazy Brix by Bob DeCrescenzo is a paddle-based game that's essentially a successor to Super Breakout. You move a paddle horizontally across the bottom of the screen to hit balls upward and knock out patterns of blocks. If you let the balls get past you, you lose a life. Clear all the blocks, and you move onto the next level and a different pattern. The level layouts resemble those in Arkanoid, but there are no power-ups in the game.

You always start off each level with two balls in play, and you have to lose both of them before your turn is up. While this can make it easier to clear more blocks out, it also serves as a distraction if you focus too much on trying to keep both of them in play. On some levels you'll also be given two (stacked) paddles to use, adding another element to the game. The action gets very fast pretty quickly, even on Normal difficulty. So to get used to how the angles work and get a look at some of the later levels, you might try practicing on Easy.

Crazy Brix is built to use paddle controllers, and the responsiveness is precise and silky-smooth. You can optionally use a joystick, but I wouldn't recommend it. Crazy Brix has crisp graphics and nice sound that makes good use of the 7800. The level designs are generally well done with a few nice tributes to Atari mixed in, although there are a few (such as a series of back-and-forth horizontal tunnels) that become more of a grind than a fun challenge. The game seems to help you out as you get near the end of a level, as if there's AI changing the path of the ball slightly to favor hitting those last few stray blocks (but I could be imagining that).

One feature Crazy Brix desperately needs is a Continue option. There are 32 levels in this game, and being able to start your next game where (or near where) you left off would have been a welcomed addition. As it is, you have to work your way through every single level, every time you start over.

If you have a good set of paddles, and enjoy Super Breakout, then you'll enjoy Crazy Brix. If you're looking for an Arkanoid clone, you might be disappointed. It's nice to see a dedicated paddle game developed for the 7800, and while the extra paddles and multi-balls are a good start, there's a lot of untapped potential here. Crazy Brix actually started out as a port of Namco's Bomb Bee - a cross between Super Breakout and Video Pinball. Had that been brought to fruition, it would have made for more interesting and varied gameplay, and given the 7800 a truly unique title (and possibly paved the way for a multi-cart featuring Gee Bee and Cutie Q). For what it is, Crazy Brix is very well done, but I would've liked to have seen it taken further.

Crazy Brix gets a 4/5 (3.5 on a half-point scale)

Up next: Arcade Assault, Vol. 1

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