Doing It All Again

Arkanoid Returns

I like the Arkanoid series. I’ve written enough about them at this point to prove I have an interest in the series, going from the original title to its arcade expansion, and then the SNES sequel. And even though I don’t think that the series has done a lot of evolving over those few games, I do still find enjoyment in each of the entries, playing through the various boards of brick-breaking action just for one more hit of the experience. To play through these many games you have to be dedicated.

Arkanoid Returns

Naturally, then, we come to the fourth entry in the series, Arkanoid Returns. Published in 1997, the same year as Arkanoid: Doh It Again, this was the third game released in arcades (counting Revenge of Doh as its own title), although it did also feature a home release on the PlayStation that same year as well. And, if you’ve played the SNES title, it’s going to feel very familiar to you. The presentation is better, the overall experience has a lot going for it, but this game does feel very much like a retread of what we just saw (which makes sense considering it came out within months of that other release). I guess there was only so much you could do with such short turnaround times.

Featuring no real plot at all, this fourth entry finds the Vaus, out in space, when Doh arrives, ready to put the paddle-ship through more puzzling, brick-breaking adventures. The base arcade game featured 50 stages to play through, although a code could be entered at the start to expand that to 100 total stages, ending with a confrontation against the evil Doh. And, yes, along the way you will break a lot of bricks. So many bricks. Bricks of every color, set in a variety of patterns, all to get in the way of your ball and maybe, just maybe, cause you to miss connecting with the ball, ending the life of your Vaus.

If you’ve played through Arkanoid: Doh It Again, then this game will feel familiar. Very familiar, in fact. Arkanoid games are differentiated by their power-ups and their stage layouts, and in the case of Arkanoid Returns, most of those were reused from the SNES entry. The power-ups are mostly the same, from the expansion and laser paddles (which have been with the series from the beginning) to the disruption ball (that breaks the ball into eight or so balls to bounce all over like crazy), the taser fence (that guards the bottom of the well), and the meteor ball (which passes through bricks instead of bouncing off of them). Many of the crazier power-ups from previous entries didn’t make the cut here, and in fact the only new power-up we do get is the giga-ball, which acts like the meteor ball just… more so?

The stage layouts are also largely reused from the previous game. At first it was subtle, with layouts seeming familiar but I just had to assume that was because there were only so many different shapes you could make in the game. But then I saw stages I knew were also in the SNES game, like bricks made to look like the shape of a tropical island, or a layout designed to look like cherries. That one that sealed it for me, though, was a level layout in the shape of a star. On the SNES this was a design to look like a Super Mario Bros. Starman, and they reused it here, just swapping the style of bricks for the face. It made sense to have this layout in the SNES game, as a nod to Nintendo’s titles. Here, in an arcade game that was later ported to the PlayStation, it looked laughably out of place.

That’s not to say that all the layouts were similar. There were some levels that were new. The stages also featured some new brick ideas as well. The first were power-up bricks; while normal bricks could sometimes drop power-ups, there were special bricks in the stages now that looked clear, with a little power-up clearly visible within. They were even colored so you knew which power-up you could get when the brick broke. Targeting them to get the power-up you wanted was a big boon.

The other change was that the silver bricks, which needed more hits to break than the standard bricks, would now show damage as they were hit. This made it so you could tell how close you were to destroying the bricks, and how much longer a stage would take. While just a quality of life improvement over the previous games, it was a nice one to have (and, having not played further into the series yet, I do hope it’s a change that sticks around). Improvements like this help to illustrate that the games can change and evolve as the series moves forward.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also note that the game has a much improved presentation over the previous games. Owing to better hardware and improved graphics features, this is the prettiest game in the series yet. The bricks are more colorful and they animate more when they break apart. There are more details to the enemies, the power-ups, and even the Vaus (I love how the bits of the paddle-ship rotate to show it’s an active participant). The game even has a soundtrack, a new feature for the series, with ambient electronic tracks playing in many of the groups of stages. This makes the game look, and sound, great, even if the gameplay experience is pretty bog-standard Arkanoid.

With that said, most of these changes are small and don’t really add a lot to the experience. In many other ways this game feels like a step back from previous titles. The special silver blocks that could respawn after a period of time are gone here, and I don’t know if they’re ever coming back. Some of the new enemies from the SNES title, like the portal enemies that could move your ball around the stages, are also missing here even when most of the other enemies from the series make their return. And, as noted, this game has a lackluster selection of power-ups that don’t have the depth or interest to them from previous titles. I liked the ones we got, but I would have loved to see more.

Considering Arkanoid: Doh It Again had come out just a few months earlier, and had a vastly expanded storyline and more features thrown in, I have to wonder why Taito elected to make a (slightly) different game for arcades and the Playstation instead of simply porting that SNES version around. They could have called it Doh it Again Enhanced or something to show the improved graphical quality to the title. Most of that game was reused here, so there’s no reason to not just own up to what this is: a remixed version of that title, shoved out quickly for other audiences.

Hell, Taito wasn’t above remixing the games and owning it in other versions. Arkanoid Returns would get its own enhanced version two years later with Arkanoid R 2000 which, I suppose, we’ll need to cover on its own soon. Even more of the same brick breaking we’ve seen this year. Hopefully there are some new ideas in this third version of the same basic game. I really hope that’s the case…