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NDS Review - 'Arkanoid DS'

by Keith Durocher on July 26, 2008 @ 5:09 a.m. PDT

Arkanoid DS updates the classic block-busting gameplay of the 1986 original, with the Vaus vessel, balls and bricks all still intact. Different game modes provide unique challenges including. Points won in the game can be used to customize the game further, with new backgrounds, blocks and sound effects waiting to be unlocked.

Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Taito Corporation
Release Date: June 17, 2008

It all started with Pong in 1972. Who knew digital ping-pong could coast so far on novelty alone? After that, it was the single-player version known as Breakout in 1976, and then the most-known and successful clone, Arkanoid in 1986. Here we are, 22 years later, reviewing the fourth expansion to the clone of a clone. Could anyone in 1972 have ever guessed that in 2008, we would be playing the same game on a handheld device? Probably not, if only because we were too busy envisioning a future filled with flying cars and spandex unitards.

The original Arkanoid was essentially the story of an escape pod called a "vaus" escaping from a mother ship that was in the midst of imploding. In a classic example of "out of the frying pan and into the fire," this plucky little pod avoided the destruction of the Arkanoid mother ship only to be warped straight into an alternate dimension of bouncing balls and bricks. Now, in Arkanoid DS, we are once again presented with a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the Arkanoid itself. I realize it's a fun word to say, but can't we at least once include it in a game named after it?

This time around, "Arkanoid" is a planet (instead of an exploding spaceship) surrounded by eight satellites, each of these piloted by a little alien being called an Ananke. Seven of these satellites get randomly sucked into an intra-dimensional vortex, leaving one Ananke to pursue the others in vaus. This is the story, such as it is, that explains why you're bouncing balls at bricks.

You must understand my predicament in taking on this review: This is single-player Pong. It seems to me that there isn't much in the way of subject matter to comment on. Like all prior versions in this franchise, you have a little barrier at the bottom of the screen, and you move it back and forth to deflect a ball upward toward a series of multi-colored blocks. Each block struck by the ball disappears. Some drop power-ups that assist or detract from your ability to deflect said ball back upward. Repeat. Unlike the original, you are given between three and five barriers underneath your vaus. Instead of losing a life every time you miss a ball, your sphere will bounce off of one of these shields.

The differences we have to work with here lie in the Nintendo DS itself. The touch-sensitive pad is the control input for the vaus (although you can use the d-pad as well if you wish), and both screens are utilized, with bricks at the top and vaus at the bottom. This works fairly swell, even with a half-inch black strip bisecting the view. What is odd however is that, while both screens are being used, neither one is being used to its fullest extent. Each level is a thin strip of play area with empty columns of unused screen real estate on either side. Hmm, perhaps I have more to work with in this critique than I thought.

The original Arkanoid had little enemy crafts that would come down from the top of the screen, and you had to strike them with the ball to destroy them. This has been excised in Arkanoid DS. There are more power-ups in this version than the original, but nowhere near as many as are required to bring this title to contemporary standards. Present are: barrier (adds another layer to your shields), catch (makes the vaus "sticky," allowing you to aim each shot), disruption (splits the ball into three), extend (makes your paddle longer), laser (gives you the ability to shoot straight up from the vaus), megaball (makes it so that all normal bricks in the path of the ball are destroyed with no resistance to the ball itself), reduction (shrinks your vaus), slow (reduces speed), vanish (when you get this, the next color of brick you strike will all vanish) and warp (finishes the level automatically).

It's worth pointing out that none of these abilities are unique to Arkanoid DS. When you factor in the sheer volume of Breakout/Arkanoid clones that are present in the casual games market, then it becomes clear that a little extra TLC is required to stand out. This particular design chutzpah seems to be missing in this game, sadly. Compare, for example, the superlative Ricochet: Lost Worlds by Reflexive entertainment. That title has 18 different brick types and 17 power-ups to Arkanoid DS's three and 10, respectively.

Arkanoid DS doesn't bother with clever or interesting challenge, opting to escalate frustration levels instead. The basic pattern is one of increased bricks that are unbreakable. That's it. You begin with a small selection to clear away, and as the levels progress, you're presented with more and more that can't be cleared, until you happen across some areas that are almost entirely indestructible blocks with one or two hidden squares tucked away. This forces you to spend far longer than is entertaining trying to get your ball into the insanely small hole in the hopes that you might just strike one of those few bricks. It's not fun. It's not clever. It's just forced annoyance, and in my opinion, it is a sign of woefully inadequate game design.

Arkanoid DS also suffers from exceptionally poor pathfinding physics. The ball has very predictable trajectories that it travels along, and it is extremely difficult to move it away from those well-defined lines. What makes this particularly galling is that the developers are clearly well aware of this fact, since most of the previously mentioned gold bricks have been placed in front of the most common paths that the ball will take. This combination of poor physics and the eager exploitation of those poor physics is again a show of very poor design. It's not fun. It's not clever. It is, once again, merely forced annoyance. Wait, there's more! This shoddy pathfinding also results quite frequently in the ball getting stuck in a loop as it bounces back and forth on one of those rail-solid trajectories, lodged in between two of those conveniently placed indestructible bricks! You see how these two "features" combine to form a high blood pressure-inducing nightmare? Not good times, not at all.

As a final nail in the coffin, as it were, Arkanoid DS makes the dreadful mistake of including extra skins, sounds, etc., in the form of purchasable items. The only way to make the "money" necessary to buy these bonuses is to play through the game over and over. You receive roughly 300 coins for each Ananke rescued, and the average price for skins for bricks, new animated backgrounds, new sounds, and new vaus models is between 300 to 500 coins. There are over a dozen different background images alone, and comparable numbers for other such skins. This means that, in order to see any interesting changes or differences (ephemeral though they may be), you need to play the game so much that by the time you can afford these extras, you probably won't actually even want to continue playing, despite your snazzy new appearance. Instead of doling out these rewards throughout each cluster of levels, you're forced to repetitively grind. Any of us who played the original EverQuest know exactly how much "fun" is to be had in grinding.

There are other minor points about Arkanoid DS that got under my skin, but I don't need to go into that much more detail; I think my point is more or less clear by now. As a child of the 1980s, I remember the original game quite well. As a fervent fan of this genre in my later PC days, I also know how far this genre has come. This particular offering utterly fails to capture the magic of its predecessor or even to meet the standards set by contemporary offerings. If you're in the market for a new amusement for your Nintendo DS, don't be gulled by the promises of the past. Arkanoid DS is a good example of a title coasting on the good will of its name alone — and that just isn't enough to justify this game.

Score: 5.0/10

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