Platforms: Nintendo Game Boy
Genre: Breakout clone
Players: One player
Released the same year as the Game Boy, Alleyway was one of the format's first games. Like several of its other early cartridges, such as Qix, Tennis and, of course, Tetris, Alleyway is very simple. In my opinion, this simplicity actually makes these early games better suited for portable gaming than the more complex games that superseded them.
Alleyway is a clone of Breakout. Hopefully most people who play computer games are familiar with this classic, even if they don't know it by name, but here's a quick recap for young whippersnappers who think Mario debuted on the Nintendo 64: it's one player Pong. You move a paddle (a small, horizontal line) left and right at the bottom of the screen, trying to hit a ball (a handful of pixels trying their best to look like a sphere) whenever it bounces towards the bottom of the screen. The ball can bounce off the walls and ceiling just fine, but there's no floor, so if you don't hit the ball, it falls off the bottom of the screen and you lose a life. There are a number of bricks near the top of the screen, and the aim of each level is to make all the bricks disappear by hitting them with the ball.
Alleyway has thirty-two levels, in particular twenty-four proper ones and eight bonus games. The first type of level consists of a regular screen with still bricks. The second type has scrolling bricks that constantly move left and right. In the third type of level, the bricks don't scroll, but they all move down one step occasionally. The fourth type of level is the bonus stage, in which you can't die. After every bonus stage, you get to play the same four types of level again, only with a different pattern of bricks which scroll in different directions. If you manage to beat all thirty-two levels, you win the game.
The different types of levels make the game sufficiently varied while keeping the code small. Had the staff just designed level after level of static blocks, they could probably have fit many more levels into the game, but the end result would have been less interesting.
Admittedly, Breakout style games are ideally suited to be played with an input device that you can move at varying speeds, such as a trackball, and a display that refreshes quickly enough for you to keep track of the ball's movements, like a standard CRT screen. The Game Boy lacks both of these features, so you may wonder if such a game can work well on the format.
To make up for the fact that you can only specify a direction, not a speed, with the Game Boy's D-pad, the A and B buttons are used to speed up and slow down the paddle's movement respectively, giving you three different speeds in total. So far, I have found this to be a bit unintuitive, and have avoided using the buttons for the most part, but the game is still perfectly playable this way.
While I haven't played Alleyway on an original Game Boy, I had no problems playing it on my Game Boy Pocket. It's perfectly clear where the ball is at any given time, so play is unaffected. While an LCD isn't the ideal type of screen to play such a fast paced game on, and the ball seems to leave behind a subtle kind of after-image, it's a perfectly acceptable solution for portability and a long battery life.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe Breakout's simplicity makes it an ideal candidate for porting across to a handheld format. It's the kind of game that you can pick up on a whim, play for a few minutes, then turn off without fretting about how close you were to completing it. On the other hand, if you want to play it to completion, there's enough to keep you entertained along the way. This is a good version of a classic game and, in my opinion, deserves to be in a Game Boy owner's collection just as much as the ubiquitous Tetris.