In many cases the games that are part of D3 Publisher’s sprawling budget-price Simple Series are enjoyably experimental, while in others they simply represent traditional gaming genres brought up to date with modern (for the time) visuals and sound.
Bust-a-Bloc, or The Block Kuzushi Hyper as it was known in Japan, occupies a space somewhere between these two approaches: it’s an adaptation of one of the oldest types of game around, but it adds some interesting and experimental twists on the formula to make it surprisingly distinct from its peers in an incredibly crowded genre.
As you can probably determine from its title, Bust-a-Bloc is a Breakout-type game in which you hit a ball with a paddle in order to destroy blocks — indeed, this genre of game is simply known as “block kuzushi” (block destruction) in Japan, so the title is another example of the Simple Series’ charmingly literal title scheme — but it’s the game’s few additions to the formula that make it noteworthy, and well worth spending some time with.
Block-breakers have always been pretty simple, but there have been a number of attempts over the years to make them more interesting.
The original Breakout begat Super Breakout, for example, which had a variety of different wall arrangements including some that allowed you to release additional balls. On the oft-forgotten Odyssey 2 home console (aka the Philips G7000 Videopac here in Europe), we had Dambusters, which allowed two people to play simultaneously: one breaking the wall, the other controlling people to repair it. A little later, we got Arkanoid, which added collectible power-ups and moving “enemies” to the mix. And in relatively recent years, we had Shatter, which featured unusually shaped levels plus the ability to affect the ball’s trajectory through a “suck” and “blow” mechanic.
Where does Bust-a-Bloc fit in with all this? Unsurprisingly, somewhere between Arkanoid and Shatter in that it features the former’s ability to collect powerups (which include area-effect bombs, items that erase all blocks of a single colour, multiball triggers and more) and the latter’s ability to affect the ball’s path while it is in motion. It also adds a 3D element to the mix in that rather hitting the ball back and forth in a flat plane, blocks can (and will) be stacked on top of one another and are affected by gravity, and there are various means in place of you being able to launch the ball into the air.
When you first start playing Bust-a-Bloc it simply seems like an incredibly slow Breakout clone, albeit one with nice graphics. And indeed it’s entirely possible to continue playing that way if you don’t mind each level taking a very long time to complete, but that will probably drive most people nuts before long.
It’s once you realise the power of the pinball-style “nudge” feature that the game truly shows its true colours and becomes a whole lot of fun, because there are all sort of things you can do with this capability. By nudging the play area from the left or right while the ball is moving, you can “bend” its trajectory around corners, or correct for poor aim. And by nudging the left, right or top sides of the arena just as the ball hits it, you can cause the ball to rapidly accelerate or spin off in other directions.
When the ball comes back to you, you have four ways of returning it: simply letting it bounce off your paddle (optionally accelerating and changing its trajectory by moving as you hit it); infusing it with a temporary surge of energy, allowing it to pass through blocks as it destroys them rather than bouncing off them; lobbing it up into the air; or pulling off a difficult “plasma cannon” smash shot which blasts it up the screen at high speed, ripping through any blocks in its path with ease.
The temporary infusion of energy is probably the easiest to pull off, though it comes with a slight drawback: moving as you hit the ball in this way puts an enormous amount of spin on it, potentially bending it off in a direction you didn’t want it to go, and perhaps even falling out of the play area entirely if you didn’t calcuate the trajectory quite right. On the flip side, mastering doing this deliberately allows you to execute some impressive trick shots, which become more and more helpful in the later levels of the game.
The blocks themselves come in several different varieties, ranging from “normal” blocks, which cause the ball to bounce but only take a single hit to destroy, through “soft” blocks, which allow the ball to continue on its way as they are destroyed, all the way up to metallic blocks that need several hits to destroy, and completely indestructible blocks just there to get in the way.
The levels also feature hazards and gimmicks of various types, including item boxes, jump ramps, teleporters and all manner of other things that can help or hinder according to how you use them. The game keeps things constantly interesting by gradually introducing new mechanics to the mix as well as changing up the backdrop to the stages every few levels, too, giving you a real feeling of progression through the game’s main “Attack” mode.
That’s not all the game offers, though. There’s a simultaneous two-player mode in which you can cooperate or compete with one another, and an “Endless” mode in which you’re simply presented with a never-ending stream of generated levels to see how long you can survive against. So far as an inherently simple genre of game goes, there’s a good amount of content here that will keep you busy for quite some time!
Bust-a-Bloc is a fascinatingly creative take on the block-breaker genre, and while it’s perhaps not quite as easy to get into as some of the other examples we’ve mentioned today, it remains a noteworthy title and a worthy addition to anyone’s PS2 collection, particularly if you’re looking for something enjoyably simple to cleanse the palate between more substantial games.
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