i rather enjoy game boy games in all their greeny grayscale glory, but since i never had one growing up there are so many that i’ve never played. i took a step back to the white plastic brick’s earliest days with alleyway which was actually one of the launch titles, way back in 1989. (that reminds me, a lot of places commemorated the game boy’s 20th anniversary with retrospectives. you can find gamespite’s series of articles here.)
alleyway seems to get universally panned and dismissed as a decidedly inferior clone of arkanoid which came out in the arcades in 1986 and on the NES a year later. in many ways this game seems like a huge step back as it doesn’t feature any powerups whatsoever, or even much level variety: each level repeats 3 times (with variations due to moving blocks). there are eight of these trios of levels, and each group is followed by a bonus board featuring a mario character, ending in a showdown against the king of the koopas, bowser himself. the game does get somewhat harder since the ball travels noticeably faster in the later stages, but for the most part there’s not a whole lot to keep your attention. the sprites are small and undistinguished (much like its fellow launch title super mario land which i reviewed last year). even the physics seem a little stiff: according to wikipedia “the ball will only travel at 15°, 30° or 45° angles”. this leads to some extremely repetitive patterns, although “the ball cannot be locked in an infinite loop of ricochets. … the ball will travel at a slightly raised or lowered angle depending on its current trajectory, and will break out of the loop.” the game also includes different speeds for your paddle (faster if you hold the A button and slower if you hold the B button).
despite all of these shortcomings (i seem to say that phrase a lot), eventually i rewound my mind to the game boy’s early days and began to enjoy the game for what it is instead of what it isn’t. as a launch title it definitely had major limitations, but it provides enough entertainment and challenge to make it worth playing, and the mario cameos and variations within each set of levels provide just enough personality to distinguish it from similar games. i found it interesting to compare this not to arkanoid, but to atari’s arcade classic breakout from 1976 (which in turn was directly influenced by that granddaddy of them all pong from 1972). this video of the atari 2600 version of breakout made me think of alleyway as coming before arkanoid instead of after, which it didn’t, but given the technical limitations of games for the game boy at launch the comparison to breakout seems a bit fairer. in any case i’m looking forward to trying out more old-skool game boy games sooner than later.
psst. want some cheap alleyway links?
– gamefaqs has GIFs of all the levels
– text of the manual at world-of-nintendo.com
– this fan review at retrogamer.net will make you want to play the game. this review at meanmachinesmag.co.uk will do just the opposite.
– video of the less-than-thrilling ending
– yup, this is another one from nintendo R&D1
– the game had a cursory mention in nintendo’s game boy player’s guide, receiving scores of: graphics and sound: 3.3, play control: 3.9, challenge: 3.3, and theme and fun: 3.2. i’ve archived the scan here.
– the game also got a brief mention in nintendo power #9. scan archived here.
– the official nintendo page (in japanese) doesn’t have much info, but here’s the google translation if you’re interested.
– bit of trivia, also according to wikipedia: “Years later, the game’s designer Gunpei Yokoi would reuse much of Alleyway’s source code (such as paddle behavior and adapted physics engine) for the Game Boy game Kirby’s Block Ball while working with Shigeru Miyamoto’s team.”