Breakout is a rarity in gaming. It’s a title that, despite being over three decades old, requires no improvements. The concept is easy to grasp: you bounce a ball off of a controllable paddle and use it to break as many onscreen blocks as possible. Oh sure, you can make the game run faster, include different kinds of blocks, or add all kinds of special effects. It doesn‘t matter how you dress it up, though. Regardless of any tweaks and alterations, the fundamental gameplay remains completely unaltered; it is still the paddle, the ball, and blocks. That’s all you really need. It’s simple, fun, and addictive.
Making it interesting, on the other hand, is something else entirely. How do you sell a thirty year old concept to a new generation of gamers? Especially an audience who expect far more from their games than what a Breakout clone can offer. It’s all about presentation and style. Make them think they’re playing something different by hiding the basics behind a lot of pretty graphics and what will hopefully pass as creative design. In that sense, Nervous Brickdown is a success; it takes an old idea and adds a few new twists to the formula. You won’t notice it initially. The first ten levels are nothing more than a blatant, brightly-colored throwback to the original. Everything’s glowing neon, the blocks are shiny, and the generic techno music blares out of the speakers. The controls are equally impressive; the stylus provides enough precision to keep up with any frantic or jerky movements. Compared to Break ‘Em All and the other Breakout clones on the DS, this is one of the most engaging versions of the original game.
The nostalgia fades quickly, though. After you’ve finished off that first set of stages, you’ll be whisked away to a giant notebook. Rather than having a paddle already on the screen, you’ve got to draw and shape one with your stylus. Instead of smashing bricks into smithereens, you’ve got to push away stickers, erase spreading inkblots, and eventually reveal a child’s scribbled drawing underneath all the mess. Another series of levels forces you into a shooting mini-game in which you bounce the ball against your ship while dodging enemy fire, complete with your own screen-filling laser cannon. Another has you manning a submarine, launching your torpedo-balls at floating islands, and catching any innocent bystanders that happen to fall into the water. Not to mention the boss battles, which range from a giant frowning emoticon, a couple of psychotic sock puppets, and a UFO shaped like Darth Vader’s helmet. The varied and clever level designs are more than enough to distract you from the fact that you’re still playing a retro title.
The game gets tripped up by its own complexities, however. For every great level, there’s a crappy one to balance things out. Take the ghost-themed stages. You bounce the ball up a vertically-scrolling shaft, dodging walls and tapping any blocks that impede your progress. It’s a brilliant twist on the Progressive Mode from the original Super Breakout. But then the ghosts and the see-through blocks start popping up. The only way to get rid of them is by blowing on the Touch Screen. While it makes use of the DS’s features, the concept is gimmicky and awkward. When you’re trying to smash through a screen full of bricks and obstacles, the last thing you want to do is take your eyes off of it and temporarily lose control of the paddle. That goes double for the miniature golf stages, which force you to frequently blow onto the screen to activate the little windmills to uncover the hole in one. Even the retro-style stages fall prey to this; you’ve got to manage one or more Breakout games on the Touch Screen while playing a basic platformer on the top screen. It’s distracting, and it makes the stages needlessly tedious to complete.
If you’re patient enough, you might win something. Getting high scores in each level nets you medals, which leads to the unlocking of the sound test and music tracks. It’d have been more interesting if there were secret bonus stages or more modes, but at least you’ll be given something for your efforts. You won’t have to go at it alone, either. Nervous Brickdown supports a single-card multiplayer mode. While the co-op feature lets you and a friend tackle a level together, you can also compete by seeing who can survive the longest with differently colored paddles and balls. There’s nothing mind-blowing about it, but at least it’s accessible for anyone who might be curious enough to play.
That goes for you, too. If you’re looking for something easy to pick up and play, you might want to check this out. It takes the tried and true Breakout idea and tries to make it into something fresh and new. To its credit, it pulls it off pretty well. There are a great variety of stages, both in terms of sheer amount and designs. Vertical shooters, inkblots, miniature golf, boss stages…it’s much more appealing than similar games on the DS. There are plenty of clever twists applied to the old formula; sometimes you’ll forget you’re playing something decades old. Unfortunately, the game occasionally sacrifices substance for style. Some of the best stages in the game are ruined by gimmicks and poorly implemented ideas. It doesn’t make Nervous Brickdown a poor title, but it drags it down from being a truly great Breakout adaptation. Sometimes simplicity is a good thing.