Demo Driver 8: Reaxxion (#348)
After nearly 40 years, it might be time to stop trying to remake Breakout. I can understand the appeal, totally, but part of what made it work for so long is the fact that the core of the game is so simple. You can only change so much before it starts to become something else altogether.
If it weren’t already obvious from the statements I just made, Reaxxion is a Breakout clone. Like basically every other version of this entire subgenre, Reaxxion clearly wants to be the remake of Breakout to end all further remakes. And, like basically every other thing that tries to be the final remake of any given subgenre, there’s really no way for anything to possibly achieve this goal.
What Reaxxion does achieve, oddly, is to be nearly entirely different from the game it’s emulating. If I had to compare it to anything, it almost feels like some version of a browser game that broke free of its mooring and somehow managed to form a Steam page.
The basic Breakout formula is still in place here. You have bricks at the top of the screen, a paddle at the bottom, and your goal is to launch balls at the bricks to break them without having your ball fall off the screen. Reaxxion starts from that very basic premise and quickly goes into insane territory, starting with the fact that you have three different sizes of ball to choose between. Small balls behave normally, whilst medium balls can break through one brick before bouncing, and large ones can break through two bricks and start bouncing on the third. The difference is that each one takes different amounts of liquid metal; your paddle is an undulating field of liquid metal, forming multiple balls on a single life.
Breaking bricks also releases more droplets of liquid metal, which can be collected to both enlarge your paddle and fire more balls. That’s without getting into the pinball-like funnels toward the top, one of which adds a powerup, the other of which simply absorbs your shots. Fill it with three shots and it fires off five large balls, tosses a bunch of sparking plasma things onto the field, and generally causes a whole lot of brick-breaking chaos that will require massive amounts of darting hither and yon with your mouse in order to keep your balls in the air.
So is it all fun? Not really, or at least not for the full hour of time you have to spend in the demo. Part of that is due to the game’s aesthetics, which seem shot through with what people in 1990s America thought the club scene in Europe looked like – neon lights, house music, and a curt vaguely Germanic announcer whom I cannot help but picture in a tight sweater with wraparound mirrorshades. But more of it is due to the frosting problem.
Look, I’m going to assume that pretty much everyone reading this is old enough to have at some point gone to a store and bought an entire jar of frosting. It’s a rite of passage, realizing that you can buy the jar, eat the whole thing, and no one can stop you. The first bite is awesome. The next few are all right, too. Then you realize you’re not halfway through and it suddenly dawns on you that you don’t want more frosting. Your lifelong dream of buying and eating a whole tub of frosting has been stymied by the simple fact that having nothing but frosting gets really unpleasant and boring really fast. It might be the best part of the cake, but without the rest of the cake you get burnt out.
Similarly, Reaxxion knows that the best part of Breakout clones is when you have several balls on the screen and things bouncing everywhere. Unfortunately, in its quest to make that the default mode of your experience, the game serves you a steady diet of frosting until your teeth ache.
You can choose between three different sizes of ball, which is great, but the method for selecting between them is twitchy at best and kind of hopeless at worst – just hold down the mouse button longer. Not that there’s a great deal of tactical depth to choosing one over the other, since larger balls are almost always more useful than smaller ones. Smaller ones just let you keep going when you’re down to the dregs, or helpfully keep bouncing around if you collect too much metal and wind up overloading, at which point your paddle starts vomiting balls for a bit and you start darting around desperately trying to keep things going.
It’s also the point at which you stop having things like strategies or plans, because there’s just too much happening on the screen at a given moment. The problem isn’t exactly unfamiliar – there are too many systems in place, too much stuff going on, not enough reasons or ways to track everything. As a player, you’re mostly limited to just firing and trying to keep at least one ball bouncing, and pretty soon you’re being overwhelmed by an assault of balls.
Talking about this game without feeling as if you’re overusing the word “balls” is kind of impossible, for the record.
This is where those aesthetics come into play. Rather than having a unified look, or at least a clean enough look that you can pick out what’s going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable by the sheer volume of what’s going on in front of you in Reaxxion. Compare it to Peggle, for instance; while there’s a lot going on in any given stage of that ball-bounce-a-thon, the colors and the layout are structured so that you never become overwhelmed or disoriented. Here, you are continually given more flashing colors and falling things and beams of light, enough that you start tuning out before too long.
As a browser game, it would work fine, serving as a brief diversion before you click away. As a game that retails for ten dollars, I was well and truly done with the concept before the demo’s hour of running time had elapsed. A far cry from demos that I’ll happily keep kibitzing about with after I’ve ostensibly completed all the content.
If you are really in love with Breakout variants, I’m sure you’ll have space in your heart for this game, but I’m willing to bet that everyone else can more easily find a free clone of a game that’s been around for four decades in the event that they wish to kill a little time with brick-breaking. It’s not horrid, but it’s not very good, and too much of it makes my stomach hurt.