If you were to fling ancient block-breaking arcade game Arkanoid and epic sci-fi role player Mass Effect at each other through the large hadron collider, Alphabounce is the sort of game you may expect to find on the other side. Simple on the surface, but with a ridiculous amount of depth - and "several million levels", if the developers are to be believed, there's certainly a lot of Alphabounce to go around.
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As with many great games, the concept here is simple - using a small paddle on the bottom screen, that's controlled using the stylus, it's up to you to repeatedly bounce a ball against blocks on the top screen, destroying them as you go. You can aim the ball by moving your paddle slightly to the left or right of the incoming ball. By slightly defying physics, if the ball hits in the centre, it'll rebound in a straight line - if it hits to the left or right of centre, it'll rebound aiming either left or right, respectively.
There are many different types of blocks you'll come across on your travels, with some of them requiring you to hit them multiple times, while others may act as a switch for something - for example, setting off a laser that destroys adjacent bricks - which helps add a bit of variety, and strategy to the proceedings, as you try to aim your shots effectively, to take out the toughest, or most beneficial bricks first.
When you destroy certain bricks, a power up will be released, which you can then collect to modify either your paddle, the game, or the blocks themselves - either to your advantage, or your detriment. The problem here, however, is that there are so many different types of power up, yet there's nothing that tells you which power up does what - leaving you to try and learn for yourself through experimentation. And while that may be ok for five, or ten power ups, when there are over 20 different types, it can get a bit awkward trying to remember what does what.
The role playing element here comes from the way you can choose to upgrade, or otherwise adjust your paddle (here called an "envelope", for reasons that remain unclear). Playing as a space criminal, who's been sentenced to the far reaches of the galaxy, it's up to you to "mine" away at each sector, whilst looking for a way to return back home. Before you choose which level to play, you'll be presented with a world map, which divides the entire galaxy up into a grid, with various upgrades scattered around. Moving one square at a time, it's up to you to mine your way around, collecting the upgrades you can, whilst looking for clues as to where exactly you are - and where Earth is.
Unfortunately for novice players, however, Alphabounce doesn't exactly make things all that easy to get into. In a fairly bizarre move, in early levels, almost two out of every three bricks you destroy will release a power up. Collect most of these, and you'll find yourself finishing the level in a few seconds - without really doing anything yourself. This actually makes learning the ropes - and indeed, figuring out what the power ups do, quite hard for a novice player. Even we struggled.
Once you've managed to move out of the initial grid, however, things pick up rather quickly. Reducing the number of power ups to a minimum, here Alphabounce quickly starts to come into its own, turning into a completely different game. Making you actually work to complete every level, relying on your reactions, and precision alone, the game quickly gets rather challenging, leaving you yearning for that next upgrade, which could make the next levels just that little bit easier.
However, it's here, with the precision aspect, that we have another awkward problem. On the DS, there's a fairly substantial gap between the two screens. Whilst on other games, such as Arkanoid, the game compensates for the gap, by allowing the ball to temporarily disappear, before it reappears on the top screen, having followed its course between the two screens, on Alphabounce, the ball re-appears on the top screen as soon as it leaves the bottom, and vice versa. While it may seem like a small issue, this actually causes quite a few problems when it comes to figuring out where a fast moving ball's going to land - as your brain gets its calculations wrong when the ball effectively jumps a few centimetres. And we know space is a harsh, and unforgiving place - but we're sure it wouldn't have been too hard to include a "restart" button on each level, rather than forcing you back to the menu every time you fail, only to make you sit through the oddly long loading times if you want to retry.
However, despite the little niggles, there's still an awful lot of good about Alphabounce. There's a staggering amount of things to see and do here, and when the difficulty level sorts itself out, there's a good challenge here too, with millions of levels on offer, and a galaxy to explore - all for just £3.50.
With a few improvements to the user interface, a tutorial, and even something as small as a restart button, Alphabounce could easily have been one of the DSi's must buy downloadable games. In the end, sadly, it comes up just short.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo DS