SPOnG had been hearing rumblings that some of the cheaper games from D3 Publisher in Japan were making their way westwards, with the DS line-up looking especially promising. D3 announced plans to make a lot of its games low-budget, highly-playable and somewhat disposable offerings available outside its native shores. We were pleased by this. Cheap, quick-fix gaming is what the DS demands, and with mooted price tags of $15 in the US and as low as a tenner in the UK, it looked as though everyone was in for some pocket-money glory. A Hit Squad for the new millennium we might say, if we were a bit more pretentious.
There was just one problem. The D3 games were - to put it as delicately as possible - utter shite. Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi: Genie And The Amp made it (really!) and one other title, Break 'Em All, released in the UK as the slightly less inspiring Brick 'Em All.
It's like Arkanoid on drugs, has multiplayer and is a beautiful game. We'll get to all that in a bit. There are few things you need to know first, though. The first is that in the US, the game is about $15 in a lot of stores. At CostCo, it's a shade less. In the UK, a somewhat short-sighted and greedy move from publisher 505 Gamestreet pushes it up to a ridiculous £29.99. Basically, it's not worth it. The DS has enough premium software at this price to make the game redundant. Brick 'Em All was never meant to be 30 quid and sold on normal game shelves. It was meant to be a tenner and sold in newsagents. Idiots. We'll provide you with a buying guide in the forum of this review in the coming days.
Right. Assessing the above you'll probably have noted that, before our blurt
over the price of our review specimen, we cleverly made a very pretentious comment on a videogame that we self-countered with a disclaimer. This enabled us to take credit for the well-placed addition of some retro context while avoiding the need to be seen with a man-bag and matching iPod carry-case, such are the pitfalls of modern life. If you had your cringe-o-meter set any higher than three, you will have been less than impressed with us saying, 'It's like Arkanoid on drugs' in the next paragraph. And you'd be right to. What a horrible, lazy phrase. However, drugs are cool and we wanted to get your attention. We hoped it worked. And if you'll forgive us another disclaimer, 'Arkanoid on drugs' was the first thing we actually thought
to ourselves when we saw this game in action.
Basic videogame evolution is at work here. Pong, a million clones; Breakout, a million clones; Super Breakout, more clones; Arkanoid...clones...more Arkanoid, Alleyway, Questor, more clones, millions of Flash games, and now Brick 'Em All.
Known as The Block Kuzushi in Japan, a long-standing part of D3's hit and miss Simple Series, Brick 'Em All is a new take on the first ever major videogame and offered for the first time in a long time to a global market to have a play around with. It is for this reason that it warrants inspection and probably why gamers across the world have been slowly but surely sniffing it out.
In a series of classic errors, the baddies in Brick 'Em All's confusing and not-at-all-explained game have built themselves fortresses of bricks. Little did they know, the goodies have spaceships which bounce balls around and can break the aforementioned bricks. Exactly how this became a workable scenario in the world of gaming, we'll never know, though we guess it's a slightly more interesting than 'Do this because that's the game we designed' and everyone likes killing baddies, an assertion totally undermined by the success of Grand Theft Auto and the stinking darkness in the collective heart of the SPOnG writing staff.
Brick 'Em All has one major difference from everything else that comes before it. Something that is simple, subtle and easy to understand, but somewhat awkward to explain. Though if you manage to trick someone into giving you a job writing about games, you have to make some attempt at it.
In any of the scant reviews you might read of Brick 'Em All one point is sadly lacking. With UK reviewers far too busy thinking about their real imagined lives as superstar DJs and American reviewers too workmanlike and press release-focused, everyone seems to have missed The Main Difference the Warashi-developed theme update offers. Spin. Proper spin. Bad bat and ball games (such as the wasted opportunity that (dis)graced iPods) and the aforementioned Alleyway from Nintendo, the ball follows a set flow and the player simply stops it from going off the bottom of the screen. Arkanoid was the first game to offer true player control, though this was done in a somewhat hashed way.
If the ball was coming straight down towards the bat (yes, we know that didn't even happen in Arkanoid, but just imagine...) the ball's point of impact dictated its departing angle. Slightly off-left meant a slightly left of centre return. The ball hitting the end of the bat returned it at 80 degrees or so. The problem with this was that it didn't work so well in the intuitive part of your brain. During hectic moments when the player struggled to just catch the ball, gliding at full pelt from one side of the screen to the other, the contact made with the ball made reference only to the point at which it made contact with the bat. The direction and of travel of the bat was not taken into account. Spin did not exist. Brick 'Em All fixes this. And friends, it's a wonderful thing.
Now, everything is different. It's better. Smile, it's all true! However, it's not all spin. The Arkanoid method, so painfully outlined above, is still in place. It's more subtle, less acute, but is there as the basic method of control. Only now, the fact that the object is a ball capable of non-lateral movement is included. The counter-intuitive days of old are gone. Hopefully forever.
Controls brings up some bad things, some good. Brick 'Em All uses the touchscreen of the DS to move the bat around. This works very well, although you have to keep the stylus low to see what's happening. If you wander up the screen, it still works, but you can't see anything. You can also tap the screen and the bat will appear at that point. This fact is important and illustrative of what Brick 'Em All is really all about. More of that to come. You can also control the game using the shoulder buttons. No option is available to use the D pad.
We'll get the bad out of the way first. Brick 'Em All is a Simple Series game, though this does not excuse the fact that there's no option screen. Really, no option screen. At all. You start the game and it has four choices: Tokoton Mode, basic on-rails play with the choice (dare we say option) to have randomised blocks; Quest Mode, complete with bosses; multiplayer, survival mode with multiplayer; and Record which keeps track of your progress. You can't change anything.
Now the good. There's quite a lot of it, though there will be bits of badness interspersed. Just so you're warned...