Doh is Waiting


The history of video games (true video games and not mechanical games that had some limited lights and sounds) can trace itself back to Pong. That game (in some form) had been in development by various people, on various pieces of equipment, at various locations, over many, many years. You could find a form of it on oscilloscopes with the game Tennis for Two. But it was Atari’s Pong, the arcade game (and the little set-top boxes that could play that one game and nothing else), that launched our concept of video games as we know it. Pong was a smash hit, with any number of clones and copycats. It defined a generation, and inspired so many other games to come.


Breakout came from Atari and basically asked: “what if Pong, but against bricks instead of another player.” It wasn’t the first game to come from that idea (as Ramtek’s Clean Sweep had the same idea two years prior), but it was the title that came to define the “paddle and brick” genre. Games that came after weren’t Clean Sweep clones, they were Breakout clones. And, arguably, the biggest of those clones was Arkanoid. For a time, in the 1980s, if you went to an arcade (or a Pizza Hut, for that matter) you’d find an Arkanoid cabinet with the alien boss Doh taunting you to take your ship and get to his lair.

Going to arcades I loved watching people play Arkanoid. Bear in mind I wasn’t any good at the game at the time. It’s combination of bright sounds, shiny graphics, and a rollerball to control the ship (the Vaus) has a lure for me. I would go over to watch people on the machines (both the standup cabinets and the tabletop versions) and see if they could get through the gauntlet of stages and clear the game. I never saw anyone succeed, but a few managed to get into the high teens and that alone was quite the achievement.

Arkanoid is not a fair game. In fact one could argue it’s a pretty deliberately mean game. The concept starts simple enough, with your little paddle, the Vaus, holding onto the ball and shooting it so that it can bounce off the bricks and then the paddle, back and forth. You move along, working to clear all the bricks, and then once you clear those bricks you can then move onto the next game, and then the next, along the progression through the game’s 33 stages (36 in the NES version, the only port to deviate from the standard play). But getting past even the first handful of stages would be a miracle.

The game has a few tricks up its sleeve and these work to escalate the difficulty of the game substantially. The first is that the game will steadily speed up over time as you play through a stage. Your brick will bounce along and at a certain point, after enough time (and bounces) has passed, the ball will change direction slightly and speed up. And this will happen again and again until it feels like the ball is moving at warp speed. Yes, if you’re good, you can keep up with it (and that’s why the game has a roller ball, or a turn paddle, for its various releases) but you have to be really good to move at the speed the game requires once the ball really gets cooking.

The second trick is the enemies. Unlike other Breakout clones, Arkanoid features enemies that will spawn in the stages. These guys can’t damage the ball but they will send it bouncing in unexpected directions. They can block paths, get in the way, and cause you to spend more time (and, thus, giving the ball more chances to speed up) as you work through the stages. Sure, they’re worth points when they die, and they’ll even die against the Vaus; they just get in the way. They’re stage hazards, but really annoying ones when you’re on a good run and just need one more block to break.

The final way the game twists that knife are the gold bricks. Most bricks in the game are destructible. The silver ones will require more and more hits to break as the game progresses but even they will break eventually. The gold bricks, though, are indestructible; they aren’t there to be destroyed, they’re simply there to get in the way. Some stages are designed to force you to hit weird angles to get the ball where it needs to go, dodging in and around the gold bricks to progress. Other times you simply have to take the shot and hope that the ball lands up above on a layout, in a passage that is completely blocked from below by gold bricks. And there’s nothing you can do but hope the game works with you so you can get the clear.

To aid you the game provides power-ups (another deviation from the standard Breakout formula). These range from one-ups to paddle extensions, extra balls on the field, slow-down balls, and even a quick exit to the next stage. One of the best power-ups is the laser paddle, which changes the shape of your Vaus and equips it, yes, with lasers. They have the same breaking power as the ball itself, so you can shoot at all the bricks you can access and quickly clear the stage. The one downside of the laser is that they can’t shoot through gold bricks. Thus, there are just some times where the only way to get through a stage, no matter the power-ups, is luck.

Once you get through all the main stages (the first 32, or 35 on the NES) you get to face off against Doh. Here, again, we have a deviation from the Breakout formula. Instead of just playing the game on a loop, going through the few stages in the game over and over until you die out (or hit some kind of kill screen), this game has a definite end. Doh is waiting, and you fight him via your ball and paddle. A total of sixteen hits will kill the boss, but you have to do it while he’s spitting instant kill projectiles at the Vaus. Kill him and you get the end screen of the game (or, as reported for some ports, the game dies). No looping the game (as if getting through all 32 difficult stages weren’t enough), just a one coin adventure to try and get to the end.

As difficult as the game is, though, I do love it. I’ve gone back to the game over the years, trying to play it and see how far I can get. Like many I get stymied in the early stages, usually not even getting into the teens on a single coin. But the magic of the simple concept – “It’s Breakout but with power-ups” – keeps me coming back. The gameplay is addictive, and there’s something satisfying about the plinking of the ball against brick and paddle, clearing stages and slowly moving on. When you get that right line, with your lasers firing and the enemies dying and no gold bricks in sight, it’s a thing of beauty.

Arkanoid isn’t for everyone. There are easier Breakout clones out there, and later sequels, remakes, and reinventions of the Arkanoid formula that do it better in various ways. But this was the game that elevated the genre and showed there was far more to do with the concept than just breaking bricks with a ball and paddle. Everyone wanted to have their own Breakout clone, but few were able to find that right formula and do it as well, or with as much innovation, as Taito’s Arkanoid. For those of us that are fans, this is an essential part of the arcade experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now we should all just think back to the simpler time of a Pizza Hut, a pan pizza, and a table-top Arkanoid, with that simple vibe and the joy of the game. That’s one of those memories of a generation that’s gone now. Arcades are basically dead in the States. Pizza Hut doesn’t really have eat-in areas, let alone video games anymore, and Arkanoid is a series that has all but been forgotten. But for a window of a few years, this was the Friday night experience, and it was magic.