Every game system that has ever existed has had a handful of lackluster or underwhelming games, either at launch, or during the “launch window”, an indeterminate number of weeks or months following a console’s relese, where games are released that are among the system’s earliest titles. Some of these games are still fondly remembered, or at the very least, are sought after because of collectibility. In particular, I’m thinking of the Nintendo Entertainment System “black box” titles. There probably aren’t a lot of people who would stand up and say Clu Clu Land, or perhaps Gumshoe, are among the best early NES games, but they’re still sought after as collectibles.
Then you have console launch titles that aren’t particularly well regarded or remembered. There might not be anything inherently “wrong” with them, per se, but they didn’t set the world on fire, so they tend to be relegated to bargain bins and priced to sell. Mom & pop retro game stores might have 15 copies in their back room, but only 2 on the shelf, so they don’t make it appear that there are as many copies in circulation, hopefully to help them sell a bit faster. Shortly after they finally sell a copy, they bring out another to take its place, in hopes that they won’t have 3 more copies traded in before they can clear some of the inventory out. Alleyway exists in this space, perhaps somewhat unfairly.
At its heart, Alleyway is a simplistic Breakout clone. It offers very little in the way of features or exciting gameplay mechanics. As pointed out in the excellent write-up Jeremy Parish did on Game Boy World, Alleyway is actually based upon an old Nintendo IP called “Block Kuzushi”, which was one of a number of single-game consoles released in the 1970’s. I won’t go into more detail, since Jeremy pretty much covered everything, but Alleyway plays more like a love letter to the earliest “paddle and ball” brick-breaking games than any of the more advanced games since, such as the excellent Arkanoid. As a simple “paddle and ball” game, it succeeds and can be quite fun.
The setup of the game is very simple as well. You begin with a basic stage, consisting of a grouping (or several groupings) of blocks, and as soon as you press a button, the ball is in play, and you’re bouncing it off your paddle and up to bricks or against walls or other obstacles. Once you clear that board, you’re treated to the same level again, but where the brick grouping(s) will scroll to the right or left, necessitating a minor adjustment in strategy to get the ball to go where you want it to destroy all the bricks. The 3rd stage offers the same layout again, but after every few times the ball hits the paddle, the screen moves down a bit, and the brick grouping(s) will begin to disappear, in favor of a 2nd grouping that will come down from the top of the screen. After these 3 stage iterations, you’re treated to a timed bonus round, each of which has a giant brick group shaped like a Super Mario Bros. character or enemy. The bricks in the bonus rounds don’t send the ball bouncing back down, and it essentially “collects” these bonus bricks as it passes through them. If you collect all the bricks in the bonus round, you get an additional batch of bonus points. There are also 3 types of bricks: “white” bricks garner 1 point each, “gray” bricks are worth X points, and the “black” bricks are worth Y points. For every 1,000 points you earn, you earn an extra life. Also, when the ball reaches and touches the top of the playing field, your paddle shrinks in width by half.
Graphically, the game is almost as simple as it gets. The paddle, though not a single shaded rectangle, like in the original Breakout, is very simple in design. Most bricks have a basic outline around them, and there are some unbreakable bricks with a sort of “pyramid” look about them, with an “X” on the block and slanted, triangular sides. Other than the ball bouncing around, the brick groups moving, the paddle moving left or right, and Mario jumping out of the paddle when you’ve lost your last life, the animation in the game is almost nonexistent. Given the context of the era, however, and how previous handheld games consisted of LCD games, this can be somewhat forgiven, since this was a more fully realized product than those earlier games could boast. Still, even for a launch title, it’s a bit underwhelming.
Sound design is very basic. The only time music plays is at the title screen, at the beginning of the bonus stage, and then during the bonus stage, once you press a button to launch the ball. You also get a short ditty when you complete a level, or when you’ve lost your last life and the game is over. Sound effects are mostly higher pitched beeps and things, such as when the ball hits various bricks, the paddle, the wall, unbreakable blocks, etc. There is a decent explosion noise when the ball is lost, or when the time runs out in the bonus round. In keeping with the inclusion of Mario in the game, you also hear the traditional 1up sound from the Super Mario games, each time you get an extra life. Otherwise, the sound is underwhelming as well – it’s just all very functional.
There are 2 things that elevate the game above a standard Breakout clone. First, the A and B buttons can be used to affect the paddle’s speed. Holding down the B button will slow the paddle’s movement, and holding down the A button will speed it up. I find that 90% of the time, I don’t need those things, but on occasion, I’ll use the B button to move the paddle ever so slightly so I can get a different angle of reflection on the paddle so the ball will go elsewhere, or will use A to speed the paddle up if the ball went somewhere I wasn’t expecting it to, and I have to traverse most of the screen width to catch it. That gives more depth and control than you’d get from a paddle and ball game without using an analog controller. Second, the varied brick groups and level designs help keep the game from being the same rote exercise each time through. True, you see each layout 3 times, but the way you interact with them changes a bit each time, so it helps to keep it fresh. The bonus stages add a bit of fun, and the game does pose a challenge. In all the years I’ve had this game, I’ve still never been able to beat it. I always make too many mistakes about 2/3 of the way through the game’s 32 levels, and lose all my lives.
I feel like Alleyway sometimes gets unfairly panned, simply because it’s not an outstanding title, or because it’s not that memorable. It’s true, the game is very basic, and only hints at what the Game Boy was truly capable of doing, but to any kid just buying his or her first real handheld gaming system, it was still far more impressive than that Castlevania: Simon’s Quest Tiger handheld they might have received the year prior. The game doesn’t do anything remarkable, but then, it doesn’t really need to. It’s the perfect kind of game for a system like the Game Boy, because it’s a pick-up and play sort of game, that you can play for a bit and put down, but there are enough levels and challenge that you can continue to play and it gives enough content to keep coming back to it for a while, until you complete it. Once you’ve beat all the levels, there’s probably not a reason to play it again, unless you’re in the mood for this type of game, but then, lots of games are like that. I’ll give this one a casual recommendation, because loose carts can be had for $3 or $4 usually, and it’s worth that much to experience it at least once, to get perspective on what the launch library was like, compared to what developers could get out of the hardware just 2 or 3 short years later.