Since the Game Boy was the first majorly successful portable gaming console, many early games for the system could get away with simple designs as the appeal of taking the title on the go was inherently enticing. Launching with the system, Alleyway was developed as a pretty bare-faced adaptation of Breakout, but at the time, it didn’t need to be much more than that. Being able to play even the most basic titles while in a waiting room or on a car ride meant Alleyway didn’t need to break the mold to push copies, and it certainly seems content to nestle into the Breakout mold.
Alleyway carries over most of Breakout’s DNA wholesale. Moving your paddle left and right, you bounce a ball up towards an arrangement of blocks, any that the ball hits breaking on contact and sending it ricocheting off to potentially hit more of them. The goal of the levels is to clear all breakable blocks, the threat of failure coming from the possibility of the ball going past your protective paddle. Alleyway does not really add anything to this framework, perhaps not wanting to shake the boat as it had to help the Game Boy look good out the gate, but Alleyway is not completely devoid of alterations. While there are no power-ups to make the gameplay more varied, if your ball ever makes contact with the top of the screen, your paddle size will be cut in half until you either die or beat the level. It’s not really enough to make things any harder, the ball speed never accelerates beyond an easy pace, but it is something different, making it one of the few things that set it apart from its predecessor.
One thing Nintendo did to try and make Alleyway more interesting was insert their mascot into the affair. As you start, Mario leaps into the paddle as if he was piloting it, and your lives are represented on the lower right with his head. It has no impact on the game and it’s mostly irrelevant, as are a lot of the other bits of set dressing from Super Mario Bros. The bonus stages are the more interesting use of Mario character and enemies, with the blocks arranged to look like the sprites from Mario’s NES outing. These bonus stages are something different from Breakout as well, with one cropping up every few levels. Rather than needing to clear all the blocks, you simply try to break as many as you can, your ball passing through them cleanly rather than ricocheting off of them like usual. Points are your reward here and not needing to worry about the ball’s bounces makes it fairly easy, but the character-based layouts are more interesting than the game’s usual fare. Mario’s head crops up as a block arrangement during regular levels, but most of the game’s levels rely on simple and rather bland arrangements of blocks.
Alleyway is by no means a hard game. Just don’t get sloppy and death is hardly something to worry about, as the ball maintains a consistent speed (save when it tries to break itself out of loops) and the blocks are never too close that you can’t respond in time to an awkward bounce. In fact, you can even speed up the paddle if you absolutely need that boost, but it’s not too hard to predict where the ball will go and respond accordingly. It is a bit more difficult to get it to go where you want, the paddle’s influence on the ball’s bounce depending on the angle it hit it at. The ball bounds off your paddle, the play area’s borders, and blocks both breakable and indestructible, and all you need to do is maintain the volley. It’s got the relaxing simplicity of something like skipping rocks on the water or playing solitaire, the game only requiring a bit of attention to keep it going.
Not every playfield is completely static. Alleyway mixes things up a bit more by having stages where the blocks might start moving immediately to make things a bit tougher to complete, and there is an unfortunately common level style where after a set amount of volleys, the blocks on screen will start scrolling down towards you, replacing themselves with a second identical set of unbroken blocks that come in from the top. There is a set area on the screen where the blocks disappear so that they never get dangerously close to your paddle, so the threat does not come from trying to clear things quickly, but having to spend more time clearing the same things. Unless you’re quick enough to beat the level before the scrolling starts, you will essentially get a full block refresh to deal with, not that it’s too much of an impediment. It’s not much of a challenge to clear the area you were already trying to clear, and while it can be an annoyance to see your early work mean nothing, it also doesn’t hurt too much to just keep beavering away at the blocks before you to move on to the next level. However, the game on the whole is fairly repetitious, so these levels don’t feel too offensive just for squeezing more out of a single design, they’re just business as usual. The block arrangements on the whole are mostly generic but functional enough that the basic appeal of clearing the screen of blocks is always present.
While Alleyway will go on infinitely until you lose all your lives, there is an end of sorts once you reach the last unique block arrangement the game has. The game will acknowledge your success with a victory screen and then let you continue building up your score by going through the game again, but it was nice of the game to at least give players a jumping off point if they want some sort of closure to the experience. Losing all your lives will end your run through Alleyway, but that’s more likely to occur due to dwindling interest than the game besting you. However, the promise of an end, even one that is just a barrier between repeating the game over and over again, gives the player a goal outside of high scores. The extra bit of sustainability, that promise of a more tangible payoff, makes the simple structure of Alleyway more palatable.
THE VERDICT: Despite working a few references to Super Mario Bros. into Alleyway, Nintendo can’t really hide that Alleyway is just Breakout with a bit more polish. It doesn’t try to break away from the block-breaking basics, only adding in the kind of variation required in a game produced a decade after the game it’s copying. You will find everything that makes clearing blocks from the screen appealing and a few quirks here and there, but Alleyway doesn’t try to go above and beyond, nor does it really fail at keeping the parts necessary to make it a passable portable timewaster.
And so, I give Alleyway for Game Boy…
An AVERAGE rating. Alleyway had a goal that it achieved remarkably well. Its aim was to bring a serviceable block-breaking game to a fledgling new system, and it did just that and only that. There are no remarkable innovations or unique twists on the Breakout formula, and what it did add hardly made for a unique identity. Were it not for Mario cropping up now and again, it would have simply served its purpose and faded away, but putting gaming’s most famous hero in it earns it a few modern eyes looking back to see what Alleyway is all about. What they’ll find is a fairly repetitive but functional game that has the pieces to be mildly entertaining but not enough compelling elements to encourage real investment.
All Alleyway will ever be is just a block-breaking game on the Game Boy, and while that identity means it’s not too bad, it precludes itself from being something interesting by settling for simplicity. But like trying to criticize a crossword or sudoku, it would be odd to be harsh on something clearly meant to be an idle amusement.