More than thirty years ago, Atari’s block-smashing game Breakout established a whole new kind of gameplay (there were only about three back then, so it wasn’t so tough, but still…). Now Nervous Brickdown comes along, re-re-re-reinvents the genre, and makes us care again. Instead of just giving you a paddle at the bottom of the screen, a wall of bricks at the top, a ball that bounces between the two, and near-instant ennui, it sweetens the pot by constantly switching up its look and gameplay.
It starts off innocently enough: you find yourself bouncing the ball and cracking blocks in the traditional way, pausing only to grab the occasional falling power-up to make your paddle bigger, your ball slower, and so on. Except for the fact that you’re moving the paddle with the stylus, it’s nothing new.
But things quickly get turned sideways. Neon-colored bumpers start appearing in strategic places, and some are curved and twisted to make the ball bounce in unusual directions. Then a mechanical snake shows up and starts scooting around the battlefield. Then you get to a boss battle, and find yourself trying to knock out another snake by bashing every one of its pieces multiple times – a process made more challenging by its tendency to send individual segments dive-bombing toward you like an alien bug from the old arcade shooter Galaga.
From there, Nervous Brickdown’s 135+ levels guide you on a rollercoaster ride through a double-fistful of themed worlds (10 altogether), each of which has a look and style all its own. There’s a Lion King-colorful jungle world in which the ball constantly switches to match the color of the brick it just hit, and you have to tap colored bumpers to make your paddle the same hue. There’s a techno-pumping, speed freak-y wireframe world in which your ball is a brick-shattering laser, eventually culminating in a Death Star trench-style boss battle.
There’s a whimsical paper world where you get to draw your paddle and move it vertically as well, making your shot faster and harder – which helps bounce obstacles out of your way and sop up ink blots faster. There’s an upward-scrolling level infiltrated with ghosts that you blow away by puffing into the microphone, and another where you, as a submarine, knock stick men off of tilty platforms, then catch them in air bubbles. It just goes on and on.
Topping it all off, Nervous Brickdown dishes out a co-op multiplayer mode, a variation on the color-shifting world, that can be enjoyed with but a single cartridge. A competitive mode would have been nice, but the big weakness in this package is that it ends too quickly (especially for a $30 game) and leaves you aching for more. Which, considering we’re dealing with a gameplay style first introduced more than three decades ago, is a pretty amazing accomplishment.