Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Arkedo Studio
Release Date: June 26, 2007
Everyone's played Breakout, or one of the millions of clones thereof, with Arkanoid being one of the more classic examples. Even seemingly unrelated games, such as the Xbox Live Arcade release, Astro Pop, are playing off the Breakout vein in their own way. The Nintendo DS has already seen the game released as part of the Retro Atari Classics collection, but Arkedo Studio apparently decided this was not enough, so they took the classic game and turned it on its ear. Then, they decided that wasn't enough, and did it again, and called it a very intriguing day with the final product, Nervous Brickdown.
Given the words "Breakout" and "DS," the basics of play should be quite obvious. You tap-drag a paddle around the touch-screen to tap a ball around the stage, the ball hits targets of varied shapes, and the targets disappear. Once all of the targets disappear, you go on to the next stage. Clear nine stages in a theme, and defeat a boss fight unique to that theme, and you unlock one or two new themes to keep going.
The interesting thing about Brickdown is that the 15 themes aren't just cosmetic differences. On only the second theme, Paper, the entire game changes, as you have to draw your paddle (and its curves will affect your ball path!), and frantically scratch certain areas on the touch-screen to fill scrawled-on patterns. The Ghost theme has you scrolling through a moving stage, and any block you don't hit can get in the way of your paddle; luckily, you can tap blocks that have gone onto the touch-screen to remove them. The Ocean theme's objective centers around catching falling stick figures rather than simply hitting targets, while at the same time very strongly recalling Feel The Magic xy/xx. Things only get more and more varied as you progress, and each of these looks completely different, with new paddles and balls for each theme, and different art styles, music, and sound effects.
In the boss fights, don't expect to just drag the ball around. The first boss attacks in true Arkanoid tradition, with 15 crystals which break when struck by the ball, but after that, you can expect no modest array of strange and unusual hazards and methods of fighting your rather unusual foes. For example, Paper's boss can only be finished by filling up jars of paint, and then tossing them on him.
Needless to say, Arkedo spent no modest amount of time coming up with creative twists on Breakout, and then spent the time to make each look as creative as they are. With each of 15 themes having nine stages and a boss, there are 150 different boards to clear. Unfortunately, the DS' small screen turns from one of the game's greatest advantages (smooth, easy-to-understand controls) into one of its greatest liabilities here. To keep the ball and targets large enough to be seen, the game can't fit too many targets on screen. This, in turn, strongly limits the length of stages, making even the longest ones only three minutes apiece. Admittedly, this does add to a "bite-sized" structure well-suited to typical portable gaming, but Arkedo's design prohibits the saving of individual boards until you've completed an entire theme. It only lets you start at any set of three, limiting this advantage's practical use, in spite of the DS' ability to suspend itself when closed.
To make things a little more frustrating, Arkedo treats the two DS screens as a single "tall screen," rather than recognizing the real gap between them. This produces some strange effects, forcing the player to make no modest leap in logic to adjust to having to handle the screens differently than many other games, where both screens share purposes like this. It doesn't take that long to adjust to it, but it's still a little annoying. (Then again, since there are different gaps between the DS Phat and Lite, this may have been the easier solution.)
As if to admit that Breakout clones can be surprisingly difficult in practice and that certain areas might not interest certain players, Arkedo provided a fairly clever unlock system based on number of bricks struck in each region. If you're having trouble in an area but keep trying, you'll first unlock an extra life with which to challenge the zone. You'll then unlock the ability to blow on the DS microphone and push the ball upwards, and finally, you can unlock the next zone without besting the boss, letting you skip a problem spot if you are truly, mightily stuck. The design is clever and well-suited to the game, and is further complemented by the ability to gain "medals" in stages where you complete certain above-and-beyond directives. Many of these sound a lot easier than they really are, and getting every medal will require enough attempts and planning out of exactly how you'll confront each stage, thus offering a decent, if not incredible, amount of replay value.
Multiplayer options are, unfortunately, rather limited; gameplay is strictly cooperative, with players taking turns bumping a single ball, which isn't nearly as intuitive or fun as it sounds. The good news is that someone outside of Nintendo has recognized the possibility of download play being useful for games like this, and provided it in full. Further, it's pretty easy to get going. You simply Host, and the game will scan for both players who have the cartridge and DS download players. Just don't expect it to last for too long.
In terms of the presentation, Arkedo spent as much time on the creativity as they did on the graphics and sounds, if not a lot more in favor of the latter. Each theme is designed — blocks, background, ball and all — to evoke an image. For example, the Paper theme has the ball reminiscent of a marble, and the paddle looks like it's been drawn onto a large piece of paper, with ink blots as targets. In the Ghost theme, you scroll through a haunted house background, with "ghosted" pieces and coffins which must be broken to end each level. Sound effects mix a collection of classic generic sounds and more modern designs to suit the stylations of each level; anyone who's played a large number of DS titles is bound to find several music tracks that feel familiar, causing their entire style to seem so, too.
Overall, Nervous Brickdown isn't a game built to last. It is beautifully creative, taking a classic formula and twisting it on its ear again and again … until it runs out. Then there is some replayability for those who get into it, and that's really about it. It's a very fun and beautiful trip while it lasts, and it shows off a truly inspired array of styles, but it's too short, the design hurdles just aren't set right, and ultimately, you'll get the sense that you didn't get full value out of that $30 you spent. Nervous Brickdown is a solid rental and worth looking through the used bins for, but it's not worth the buy.