My Perfect Videogames #1 of 4 – Super Breakout (Atari 2600)

To claim that a videogame is perfect is quite bold. But I’m going to name four that I consider to be so – simply because they require no further adornment. In this short series of articles I will name 4 games that I think are perfect – evidenced as such by the fact that I have yet to see any successful attempt at enhancement. These games are sequels themselves though – they are in fact the product of thoughtful improvement of a beautifully pure idea where the improvement has been made without bespoiling the original concept. I will start with the first to appear – Super Breakout on the Atari 2600.

Some of my earliest video game experiences are around old dedicated Pong consoles so the paddle control scheme is something that still resonates with me. This isn’t only because of the nostalgia associated with it; I honestly believe we lost something when the control style disappeared from gaming quite early on. The Atari 2600 came with a pair of paddles along with a pair of joysticks and although the joystick soon supplanted its elder sibling, and for good reason, a precise and responsive method of game control was lost.

The 2600 library is peppered with some games that make good use of the control scheme over and above a pong variant compilation called Video Olympics that was a launch title. 2600 paddle games also offered 4 player modes as a pair of paddles were plugged into a single controller port ; a feature that was used in Video Olympics (in its Quadrapong mode for example) but is utilised to greatest effect in Warlords.

Breakout was originally an arcade game and it was highly accessible to those who cut their videogaming teeth on Pong despite its relatively high difficulty level. But Breakout is hampered by a lack of variety and longevity. Even for the hardcore player there is a 2 wall limit and a maximum score which once achieved strips the game of any replay value. The 2600 got a fairly accurate port and it even used the 4 player capability of the console to implement 2 vs 2 team games, but it retained the 2 wall limit.

Super Breakout came out in 1978 and it could be argued even by then it was too late; but it is a game that has aged extremely gracefully. The arcade version of Super Breakout features 3 modes:

Double – the player controls a pair of paddles stacked vertically and has 2 balls to juggle. This initially feels like a pointless addition to the game but one soon finds out that it is an exercise in synchronisation. The 2nd ball is served after you hit the 1st ball allowing you to keep both balls in play with some practice. But the ultimate aim of Double mode is to take out the last brick while one of the balls is at the top of the screen; ensuring it becomes trapped in the space behind the new wall so allowing it to demolish it from behind whilst the player only has to control one ball on the other side. The game scores double points when both balls are active so great variance in scores is possible.

Cavity – the wall of bricks has 2 cavities each of which has a ball trapped within. So the aim is to release these balls in a controlled way to ultimately achieve the x3 multiplier by keeping 3 balls active as long as possible. Liberating the trapped balls from above is optimal but requires a fair degree of skill to achieve with any level of consistency above pure chance.

Progressive – in this mode the player is presented with a series of walls with gaps between them that slowly move down the screen toward the player’s paddle. At first the wall drops by one notch every 8 hits but it eventually cranks up so that the wall moves with every hit of the ball. As bricks move down the screen they become worth less points and they will disappear once they pass the point at which they are very close to the level of paddle – where they can cause ball deflections that require an extremely high degree of skill to deal with.  This is an early example of an endless mode and probably enjoys the most replay value of each of the 3 modes.

Super Breakout on the 2600 implements all 3 of these modes AND the original classic mode with the 2 wall limit removed. Two player alternate turn modes are implemented in classic, double and cavity modes; with progressive only supporting one player – likely because of the restriction of the 2600’s 128 byte RAM.

The unwritten aim of each mode is to roll over the 4 digit score. Achieving 10,000pts in any of these modes provides quite a challenge – and anyone who achieves it in the extremely tough progressive mode would deserve acclaim.

The 2600 difficulty switches can be used to reduce the size of the paddle. Given that the game reduces the original size of the paddle when the ball first hits the top of the screen, the game is tough enough at default paddle size so the more difficult option would provide a stiff challenge for the hardcore.

Control is faultlessly implemented with the 2600 paddles – their accuracy and responsiveness (in spite of their age) embue the player with the feeling that any life loss is not the fault of the game.

Atari also added a little feature that changes the sound effect “pallette” – one of 8 sets of sound effects is selected each time a new game is started – a simple scheme that prevents the blip blop sound effects from becoming too monotonous.

This genre died after this game. And apart from an arcade cameo appearance in the popular Arkanoid, it never became a viable game style again – although coding one up is probably a rite of passage for game developers. The 4 modes offered by 2600 Super Breakout deliver a complete package of everything the genre has to offer requiring no further adornment such as that offered by Arkanoid and its variants.

It remains a beautifully pure game  – the simple act of keeping the ball in play whilst trying to chip away at a desired part of the wall is in equal parts hypnotic and satisfying. The simplistic graphics – well within the capabilities of the humble host hardware – and attractive colour palette means I still find it aesthetically pleasing to the eye as well.

It also happened to get a proper PAL port running close to the NTSC original and I also happen to own the game complete with packaging and manual. I still play this game today – 30 odd years on – and as long as my woody console and CRT work I see no reason why I will stop.


A retro gamer and occassional writer..

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