It’s Game Boy Works, and this is Alleyway — again. I’m in the process of remastering the first two Game Boy World books as a single hardcover Game Boy Works volume, with new material and new photography, and in the process I had to recapture a bunch of video. So, I thought, “I’m remastering the books; why not go back and remaster some of the original videos I put together for Game Boy World?” The Game Boy World series launched in April 2014 to coincide with Game Boy’s 25th anniversary. I had never actually produced a video before that point; so in the several years since I began this project, I’ve learned a lot about Adobe Premiere and how to put together decent videos. I’m still not exactly pro caliber, But the videos I’m putting together these days are a lot better than the first few I recorded. If nothing else, they’re in high definition, with better video quality than I used in the original videos. So let’s go back and revisit some of those original videos under the banner of Game Boy Works, and hopefully end up with something a little better. You can see the Game Boy’s roots in the Game & Watch series on clear display in Nintendo’s first generation of releases for the system, and nowhere more than in Alleyway. It was a dated take on the block breaking genre even at the time of its 1989 debut. Taito’s far more sophisticated Arkanoid predates it by a good three years. Alleyway feels like a midpoint between Game & Watch and real portable video games. This isn’t to say it’s a poor game, or badly made,
merely rudimentary. The nature of Alleyway’s modest design is somewhat given away in its Japanese box art, which gives it the subtitle “Block Kuzushi”. Not only is “block kuzushi” the Japanese term for the genre precipitated by Atari’s Breakout, it also calls back to the Nintendo’s pre-console home game days. The Nintendo Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi was one of five dedicated — which is to say, lacking an interchangeable cartridge slot — home game consoles Nintendo manufactured in conjunction with Mitsubishi in the late 70’s. In their own way, these systems represented a sort of midpoint too: The transitional phase between Nintendo’s days as a dedicated toy maker, and as a dedicated
video game maker. The Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi also marked Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s first attempt at bringing his art school training to bear on the company’s products, as he designed the case and labels for the device. In the annals of Nintendo history it holds a notable place. Very little official information about Alleyway seems to exist online; the game has no staff roll, and I’ve been unable to locate individual credits for the game in either English or Japanese. The game is alternately credited to Nintendo R&D1, and to Intelligent Systems. The latter claims credit for it on their corporate site, without offering any further details, only a link to Nintendo’s official archival page for the game. Intelligent Systems is often cited as having spun off from Nintendo’s R&D1 division to some degree. That makes sense, considering the role R&D1 played in Nintendo’s pre-Famicom product design. Division head Gunpei Yokoi worked on popular 70’s gadgets like the Ele-conga drum, and the famous Ultra Hand, among others, so it doesn’t seem unlikely that some of Alleyway’s staff had creative contact with the Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi a decade prior. That seems especially likely in light of the longevity of tenure that seems to define Nintendo’s top talent. The older dedicated TV device was surely on the minds of Alleyway’s designers as they built this debut release for a new handheld system. So, given Nintendo’s penchant for self-referentialism, which includes, here in Alleyway, a number of block arrangements based on Nintendo character sprites, the mention of Block Kuzushi on this game’s original cover seems as likely to be a nod to Nintendo’s home gaming origins, as it is a declaration of genre. After all, Baseball’s Japanese box art doesn’t give the game subtitle as “Sports” and Yakuman’s box doesn’t make prominent mention of mahjong. In fact, Alleyway is the only one of Nintendo’s day one releases to feature any sort of subtitle or box-front genre designation whatsoever. However deliberate the intent, Alleyway positioned the Game Boy as a new venture, jumping off from two different points of historic inflection for Nintendo: the block-breaking action of Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi, and the limited but entertaining black and white stylings of the Game & Watch family. At its most fundamental level, Alleyway plays very much in the mould of Breakout. Players control a small paddle that patrols the bottom of the screen, reflecting a ball into various arrangements of bricks that line the upper half of the screen. In most cases, the ball breaks away a brick upon impact, rebounding from the collision at an oblique angle.
A stage ends once the ball has destroyed all the bricks. Once you’ve completed all 32 stages — which is 24 basic stages and 8 bonus — the game ends. In contrast to some of its more sophisticated contemporaries, such as the aforementioned Arkanoid, Alleyway lacks depth and intricacy. Besides the absence of power-ups, you’ll also note the ball can only reflect from the player’s paddle at three different angles, depending on the speed of the paddle at the time of impact, and which point on the paddle the ball strikes. The ball speeds up very slightly the longer you play, and in later levels the paddle shrinks by 50% once you reach the back row of bricks. Despite its fairly basic design, graphics and mechanics, Alleyway does offer some nice perks over basic Breakout. For starters, the game won’t let you become locked in an endless cycle if you set up a stable arrangement that causes the ball to reflect back to the paddle and continue following the same route. After a few hits and a loop, the ball will change its angle slightly, forcing you to respond. This can be a tremendous help when trying to clean up that last elusive brick or two. If the ball is just barely missing a block, you can wait it out. More often than not, the ball will change its course slightly, and hit that unreachable brick. Also of note, Mario cameos as the paddle’s pilot, reprising a role similar to the one he played in the bonus round of Pinball for NES. The bonus levels don’t simply stand out because their blocks are arranged to look like Mario characters, in these levels, the ball passes through blocks as it smashes them. Players have a limited amount of time in which to clear out all the bricks. The 32 levels essentially break down to eight sets of four stage types:
A standard Breakout clone with standard rules; a dynamic stage in which bricks move in an endless horizontal scroll; a hazard stage in which the blocks advance toward the paddle; and the bonus stages, which have no penalty for failure. Alleyway netted mediocre scores at the time of its release, back when most magazines actually did make use of the full scale. It was also raked over the coals several years ago when it appeared first on 3DS Virtual Console, though at times, many writers lacked a proper understanding of the game’s heritage and context. Alleyway’s relatively shallow design and monotonous visuals definitely limit its appeal, especially in the current market were so many free mobile games in the genre jockey for attention. In 1989, however, it made for a pleasantly fulfilling experience, by far the most elaborate portable block game the world had ever seen, given the technologically primitive nature of the handheld systems that sold before Game Boy’s debut. While it may not hold up particularly well now, Alleyway makes for a valuable historic artifact; a tentative baby step from the Game and Watch releases of the previous decade to the more elaborate software R&D1 and Intelligent Systems would be serving up within a year or two. Alleyway wasn’t a great game, but that’s only because its creators hadn’t yet established for themselves how great
Game Boy could be. Next on Gameboy Works:
Nintendo takes a swing at the baseball genre…
and fails to live up to the standards of 1983.