Shatter is a descendant of Breakout. A quick comparative description: it’s a little bit Arkanoid and a little bit Break Quest, with a dash of Gyruss and Clean Asia. Now to explain what I mean by that.

Arkanoid and Break Quest are both Breakout imitations as well. Arkanoid, an arcade machine from back in the day, is the more direct imitation, adding a few innovations like varying level layouts, bricks that had to be hit multiple times, and power-ups that drop from broken bricks, but keeping the basic notion of bricks in a fixed grid. Break Quest, an indie effort, showed what a big limitation that is by giving us a tremendous variety of level designs: levels with very large bricks or very small ones, bricks that are round or polygonal or shaped like heads, bricks made of overlapping outlines, bricks connected by springy ropes so that an impact on one sets the others jiggling, levels where the bricks dangled from pendulums or bounced around like billiard balls or whirled about in a set pattern. Shatter takes a middle ground here. Most of the bricks are rectangular (except for some special types), and most levels have them ordered in grid patterns. But there are bricks that fall when unsupported, and there are rows of bricks that hang from a pivot like a pendulum. (Sometimes they start off tacked on both ends and only start swinging when you break one of the tacks.) Falling bricks briefly stun the paddle if they collide with it, unless you activate your shields (about which more later). On some levels, you can wind up carpet-bombed with falling bricks, but that usually works out okay, because if the ball is above the bricks, it’ll just bounce off them instead of slipping past your stunned paddle.

One other thing Break Quest brought to the table: the ability to steer the ball a little by increasing gravity. Shatter takes this a step further, using the left mouse button to “suck” and the right mouse button to “blow”. (Certain bricks also constantly blow the ball away, making them harder to hit.) Sucking can make it easier to hit the ball by guiding it right to the paddle; blowing can make it unnecessary to hit the ball by sending it curving back upward. I personally find that this makes things just complicated enough to be confusing sometimes. Sucking when the ball is outbound or blowing when it’s inbound tends to make the ball’s trajectory more oblique, and it seems that obliqueness is how my brain wants to think of things: I’ll be aiming for the last brick on the screen (something the game facilitates by always showing a little glowy pip at the next point of impact), and rather than “It’s aiming too high” or “It’s aiming too low”, I’ll think “Its moving at too steep an angle”. But since there’s no unconditional “more oblique” button, half the time I’ll press the wrong one at first. It’s easier when I’m not aiming at anything specific, when it’s more a matter of “I need to get the ball to stay way up in back where all the bricks are”.

I say “up” and “down”, but some levels are oriented vertically and some horizontally. Some are even circular — this is the Gyruss influence I spoke of. Circular boards greatly interfere with expectations of how the ball is going to bounce and how it’s going to be influeced by sucking and blowing. It’s not always clear whether the ball is inbound or outbound on these levels. Also, power-ups and bonus items, which fall straight downward on a vertical level, or straight leftward on a horizontal one, unaffected by sucking and blowing, sometimes bounce off the walls on the circular levels, clearly as confused as I am by which direction is which.

Clean Asia, now. Clean Asia is an experimental indie shooter by Cactus, author of many experimental indie shooters. One of its more experimental ship types doesn’t have a gun per se at all: it operates by sucking in floating debris and then releasing it all at once, hurling barrages of junk at the enemy. Shatter does something similar, and it’s probably its single biggest distinguishing feature within the Breakout-clone genre. Every brick you break shatters into shards, which you can collect by sucking. These fill up a progress meter. (The meter also seems to slowly fill up just as a result of hitting the ball successfully, but shards fill it faster.) This is the energy that powers your shield, but using it that way depletes it quickly and is usually best avoided, because you want the meter to become completely full. When it’s full, you can activate it to temporarily slow down time and release a shard barrage — a powerful rapid-fire machine gun capable of eliminating most of the bricks on a level if you use it right. I’ve even managed to come into a level fully-charged and wipe it out completely with a barrage before even releasing the ball, although this isn’t the best approach, because finishing off the level doesn’t give you any opportunity to collect the shards so released and replenish your charge.

Shard barrages are particularly useful in the game’s ten boss fights. That’s another concept from Arkanoid — or was it just in the sequel, Revenge of Doh? I don’t remember. I do remember that the boss fight there seemed kind of lame. The ones here are more interesting, in large part because the ability to suck and blow extends the palette that the designers have to work with. There’s one boss whose vulnerable spot has to be exposed by sucking its shielding away from it. Even without tricks like that, the control you have over the ball allows them to demand precision shots at sequences of targets.

Overall, it’s shiny, fast-paced, and has a Robotron-like generosity with extra lives. (In fact, it seems like the mere act of dying queues a 1UP pickup to be released shortly afterward.) I’ve managed to zoom through the campaign mode in a day. I very much doubt I’ll reach the target score in Bonus Mode for the Steam Treasure Hunt, though. (Bonus Mode consists entirely of the bonus game you get after each boss fight: there are no bricks, and your goal is to keep three balls in play for as long as possible, scoring 100000 points for each hit. The target score for the Treasure Hunt is 11200000, or 112 hits.) It’s the first challenge in the promotion I’ve seen that’s actually difficult. The forums are full of agonized frustration on this point, with the histrionic silliness that seems to be the Steam forumites’ usual mode of expression. If what I read there is accurate, the developer actually apologized for setting the bar so high, and encouraged people to pass the challenge through hackery — only to recant when it was pointed out that he was advocating violating the purity of the Steam leaderboards. Note that the leaderboards aren’t particularly pure to begin with: the top three scores on the leaderboard for Bonus Mode are in fact impossible, as they’re not multiples of 100000. The more I pay attention to leaderboards, the more I’m glad that I don’t usually pay attention to leaderboards.

2 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 14 Dec 2010

    I gave up when it turned out that Bonus Mode had to be unlocked by finishing three entire levels of the story mode just to take a crack at that leaderboard score. Not that bad, in the greater scheme of things, but as it turns out I am having a great deal of difficulty with the third boss. Still, I’ve owned Shatter for months and this is the first thing that’s gotten me to actually try it out, so I’m grateful for that.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 14 Dec 2010

    The third boss is definitely one of the tougher ones. I think the only one that I had more difficulty with was the ninth, which I ultimately passed by getting the ball behind the boss’s shield just as it was closing, thus trapping basically right on top of the vulnerable spot. You can play this trick with boss 3 as well, but it isn’t such an instant win there: there’s more room for the ball to bounce around, and the shield doesn’t stay closed for long.

    Anyway, if you get past boss 3, you’ll probably find the next few bosses easy.

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