Review by Jaspertine

"How remakes of classics ought to be done!"

In the beginning, there was Pong, and it was good. Then Pong naturally evolved into Breakout, and it was really good. Then, games gradually became more sophisticated, and players moved on. Not content to simply let the classic paddle game die, Taito gave Breakout a complete overhaul in the late 80s, and the result was Arkanoid. It wasn't just good, it was freaking awesome! Big for a while, Arkanoid mostly survived as a niche game, catering specifically to people who were fans of the original, and while the latest version, Arkanoid DS, is not likely to break the game back into the mainstream, it's still as addictive as ever, and brings an entirely new and unique flavour to the table.

The core of the game still follows the rules of Breakout to the letter. You have a ball, a paddle, and a pattern of multicoloured bricks that need to be cleared off the board. The ball bounces around the board, and destroys whatever bricks it collides with, you move the paddle back and forth and deflect the ball so as to keep in in play, and in the process, try to aim it at the remaining bricks. Arkanoid then builds on top of this solid foundation and adds all kinds of new twists, such as indestructible bricks, more intricate patterns, a linear progression of stages, a story that no one gives two tosses about, and best of all, a whole slew of wild powerups. More on those later.

Arkanoid DS keeps this style of play intact, but there are a lot of tweaks present that give this new title it's own personality. The most noticeable change is the fact that the game is played with the touch screen as opposed to a rotating paddle, although there apparently was a rotating paddle add-on that came with the Japanese version of the game. If you, like myself, are to settle for the touch screen, you'll be happy to hear that it is still offers reasonably intuitive, tactile control. Anyone whose tried to play this game with a mouse or track ball will probably know what I mean by that. You can also use the shoulder buttons if you're more comfortable with non-analog control.

Once you get to the game itself, you'll notice that the board is a bit narrower, and the paddle (in-game, it's referred to as the VAUS) is wider. This change is offset by the bricks becoming slightly smaller, and the patterns all the more intricate. The ball also speeds up at a more gradual pace, but reaches a noticeably faster top speed, and perhaps the biggest adjustment to the gameplay is the addition of the barrier. If you happen to miss the ball, instead of it falling off the board and causing you to lose a life, the ball now deflects off a thin barrier at the bottom of the board, weakening said barrier in the process, but otherwise remaining in play. Once the barrier has been hit a certain number of times, it is destroyed, after which, a missed ball means game over.

All these various changes add up to create a game that is much faster, both in actual speed as well as in it's pace. It's considerably easier to keep the ball in play, which, along with the addition of the barrier, keeps everything moving. So whereas the older Arkanoid games were largely about persistence and luck - keep the ball in play long enoug and it "should" eventually clear the board - this one relies on your taking control of the ball and using it in a much more sophisticated manner. The gradual speed-up then has the same effect as would a time limit, in that it punishes players who take too long to clear a particular stage. Instead of just killing you off after a set time, however, it makes the game progressively harder.

And make no mistake about it, this game does not screw around. There's a few easy stages for you to learn the ropes, then you're just thrown into the proverbial fire. Aside from many situations where the ball moves in angular patterns that go all around that one remaining block over and over again, there are often points where you need to somehow get the ball into narrow corridors of indestructible bricks and then somehow have them handle sharp turns and enter other corridors when they do. Needless to say, the later stages can be absolutely brutal, but there are a few stages earlier in the game that can throw you for a loop as well, which leads me to wonder how many of these designs were chosen solely for their appearance.

Mind you, you do get some help in this task, as many bricks will drop powerups for you. The most basic of these are things that incrementally slow down the ball, or extend the size of the paddle, standard stuff, others will do things like add laser cannons to your paddle, allow the ball to plow through the bricks, or add two extra balls to the action. The latter, of course, can be a bit of a mixed blessing at a particularly hectic moment in the game, and other powerups can be more of a hindrance than help at times. There's one that reduces the size of your paddle, but also doubles any points you receive, which is widely regarded as more harm than good, but there's also one that lets you "catch" the ball, re-aim and throw again that, while technically useful, can wind up complicating matters. There are also fairly rare powerups that let you clear entire colours off the board and one that lets you skip directly to the next stage. Keep in mind, as well, that when you pick up a new item, it effectively means losing your current one, so you'll need to think strategically about what you need at any given time.

There are essentially three modes of play. Clear is the real meat of the game, where you progress from one stage to the next, and every five stages your path branches off, allowing you to mix things up a little each time you play. Any stage you beat in Clear mode gets unlocked in Quest mode, which gives you a simple goal and a limited amount of either time or rebounds within which to pull it off. VS mode can be played against the computer, or with up to 4 friends over either local wireless or Wi-Fi.

The goal in VS is to clear either all the blocks or a particular colour before your opponent does. Powerups are treated a little differently here, as some will cause bad things to happen to the other player's game, as opposed to making good things happen to yours. Since it's a race, for instance, the slowdown item can be a real nuisance, so you grab this little gem and force other players to deal with it, same with the one that shrinks the paddle. Other items will cause more blocks to appear on the other player's board. Of course, much like 1 player mode, the effects of an item can be negated by collecting a different item. Thus, sending a "present" to your opponent will allow you to, or instance, bring the size of your paddle back to normal.

Playing against friends is pretty awesome, and believe it or not, playing against the computer is pretty decent as well, but don't expect him to give you a break. This guy doesn't let up for a second, even on the easiest setting. If there were any doubts as to whether this were a game of skill and not of luck, they should be quickly shaken off after you consider how fast the computer will whoop your butt. Unfortunately, there's no way to actually see what's happening on his board, even though it could have offered players like myself a few pointers. Despite these problems, VS is still a lot of fun, and the best way to go if you're looking for a quick fix.

As you play through the game, you will earn points that go towards a potential high score, but you'll also earn what are called "game points." These are basically the currency of the game, and can be used to purchase things like new backgrounds, sound effects, block designs, even different paddles, all of which can be used to decorate and/or customize the game to your personal liking. There are a great many varieties of things you can choose from (my favourite are the Bubble Bobble backgrounds) and you can mix and match them as you like. Doing so, however, can wind up being a bit tedious, even if it makes the game look cooler in the end. One last warning about game points. If you use a continue on Clear mode, your score will be brought back to zero, and any game points you'd earned will be lost. I told you this game doesn't screw around!

There's a crude story that goes along with all this, but in true Arkanoid fashion, who really cares? The only notable thing about the game's alleged plot is the character artwork, which I find rather charming. Much of the visuals in this game will likely seem bland at first, and you pretty much have the default settings to blame for that, but earn yourself some game points and start customizing, and soon, everything will look quite nice.

The music stands out greatly. Each stage starts off with the original Arkanoid intro music, and the game music kicks in when you launch the ball. While the tunes are hardly unique or particularly high quality, they are very catchy and maintain the tone of the game. Earlier stages are given much happier sounding music, and it gradually speeds up and become more rocking as the stages become harder. Some tracks contain singing, which can be a bit cringe-inducing on your first go, but even that subsides as the songs get stuck in your head.

Sound effects start off being very faithful to the original, but more can be purchased. In the end, however, they all suffer the same fate. The problem is when the ball starts crashing around at high speeds, the ensuing noise will overpower your senses and leave you forcing the volume down to zero, no matter how high or low quality they might be.

If anyone out there is looking to remake a classic game, take note of Arkanoid DS, because this one gets it right in so many ways. The game does noticeably differ from the original, and suffers from a lot of the fluff extra content that many remakes use to cover up the lack of effort that went into making them, but it's right there that this game differs. Clearly visible is the attention to detail, the upgrading of the mechanics, the tweaking of the gameplay, and so on. Arkanoid DS was given the same kind of effort and affection that normally would only befall original titles, and it shows on every level.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 07/12/08

Game Release: Arkanoid DS (US, 06/17/08)

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