Both Nintendo and Sony’s recent handheld-centric excursions into the download sector, with DSiWare and the PSP Go respectively, feel very much like experiments; testbeds before a more robust, intelligent model for digital distribution can emerge with the next iteration of hardware. Sony’s strategy, undeniably bolder, appears to have crashed, whilst Nintendo’s introduction of DSi downloads needs more than the one treasurable classic (that’d be Mighty Flip Champs!) before it can really hope to connect with gamers.
Although AlphaBounce isn’t quite that elusive second gem, it’s nevertheless a witty, exhaustive take on the age-old Breakout brick-breaking genre. The basic gameplay is as it was back in the 70s: you control a paddle on the bottom screen with your stylus, and have to move it from left to right to return the descending ball until all the bricks on the top screen have been destroyed. When you first start AlphaBounce you’re given a choice of difficulty levels, each of which is represented by a different character. These characters are each prisoners of an evil mining corporation, introduced with text-heavy psychological assessments that seem slightly out of place when you consider the basic game that lies underneath. Imagine if every Tetris piece had its own backstory, only not as funny. Admirably this initially bizarre setup isn’t entirely superfluous; Mad Monkey Studio have gone to great, somewhat crazy lengths, to construct an entire universe around one of videogaming’s oldest mechanics.
Firstly it isn’t a paddle that you use, but a ship. Secondly, AlphaBounce doesn’t resort to anything as staid as a standard menu. Instead the main game uses a grid system, with each square representing an individual level. Dotted around this screen are various temptations, such as upgrades (including more powerful launch balls and missile launchers) and access points that expand the field. Because you can only move one square at a time, traversing across the world requires you to clear a succession of screens, creating a path to the next reward. There isn’t, understandably, a huge amount of difference in the levels; even with enemy guns attacking you there are only so many ways you can arrange a wall of bricks. What this system of progression and reward does is mask something that would otherwise get boring very quickly. Failure to clear a screen merely returns you to the same square to try again, whilst squares that you’ve already cleared allow you to pass without playing them again. It’s all nice and fair.
The actual gameplay shows as much imagination as this overlying structure. It’s not long before a cascade of power-ups falls from the broken bricks, each marked with a single letter. These help inject some strategy, some colour and – as seems to be most frequent – some chaos into proceedings, with their effects ranging from the traditional introduction of multi-balls to more eccentric consequences such as your ship being placed on autopilot, the balls in play turning into green meteors or the launching of mines which clear several blocks in one hit. Crucially the core gameplay, the shuffling from left to right to frantically collect the balls, is perfectly fine, allowing the developers room to expand with the myriad bells and whistles mentioned above. Tied in with the absorbing and unique practice of continually upgrading your ship by collecting enhancements (after all, there can’t be many Breakout-clones which afford the paddle their own inventory screen?!) and AlphaBounce is an excellent advertisment for what can be done with ancient concepts given a fresh aesthetic (or: how creating a surface impression of depth can hide innate repetition).
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