Megaball 4

Title           Megaball 4
Company         Intangible Assets Manufacturing
Game Type       General Action
Players         1/2 (hotseat)
HD Installable  Yes
Compatibility   Both AGA and ECS version on disk
Submission      Joachim Froholt Profiled Reviewer

For people who have never experienced the addictiveness of an Arkanoid
clone, these games must seem like some of the most pointless ways to waste
time ever devised by man. And it's hard for me to come up with a good
explanation as to why these games are so fun and addictive - they just
are. The success of the genre is proof enough that there must be something
Arkanoid clones simply do very, very well.

If you've never heard of Arkanoid, then, well, I find that hard to believe
given that you somehow managed to stumble on to this review, but anyway,
here's a brief description of the concept: You control a paddle (or bat)
at the bottom of the screen. You also, indirectly, control a ball which
bounces around the screen - your paddle is the only thing between this
ball and oblivion. If you let it miss the paddle, you will lose it. The
reason you want to keep the ball on the screen is simple : The screen is
also filled with various bricks, which disappear when the ball hits them.
When you've cleared the screen of bricks, it's off to the next level,
which contains more bricks for you to destroy. And that's the general
idea.. yes, I know this was a pretty lousy explanation, but it's not
exactly easy to explain something as abstract as this.

The genre started way back in 1976, when Breakout was created by Steve
Jobs and Steve Wozniak (the guys behind Apple) when they were still
working for Atari, who were looking for a game to continue the success
they had had with Pong. Sure enough, Breakout became the success Atari
were hoping it would, and it spawned a huge number of clones. But it
wasn't before 1986 that a "Breakout clone" really added something new to
the genre - this was the aforementioned Arkanoid, from Taito. In this
title, the pattern of bricks varied from level to level, making the game
much more interesting. Bricks came in different colourful flavours as
well as the normal bricks. There were some that were indestructable and
some that had to be hit several times. Finally, Arkanoid added various
bonus icons which appeared when certain bricks were destroyed and had to
be caught with the paddle.

In the years that followed, there were not only a bunch of commercial
Arkanoid clones, but a horde of PD clones of various quality. Back when
magazines used to review PD stuff, almost every issue featured reviews of
one or more Arkanoid clones - it seemed that every self-respecting PD
programmer just had to do one. Most of these games failed to catch the
public's attention, simply because they usually didn't add anything new to
the genre. If you had seen one Arkanoid clone, you had seen them all..
nearly. There were a few exceptions, and - you guessed it - Megaball is
one of them.

Megaball was created by two brothers, Ed and Al Mackey. It began life in
the early nineties as a shareware game which became immensely popular, and
thanks to people's interest in the game, it grew and grew, until it was
finally snapped up by IAM (Dale L. Larson's company, famous for publishing
Dave Haynie's "Deathbed Vigil" video) and published commercially near the
Christmas of 1995.

My first experience with Megaball was back in 1992, I believe. I had just
bought my first Amiga, and a friend of mine gave me a disk with seven
PD/Shareware games. There were a few gems on this disk (including
Hemroids, a nifty little Asteroids clone and Amoeba Invaders, which is
widely regarded as one of the best remakes of Space Invaders), but it was
clear right from the start that the game called Megaball was something
special. First of all, this was because it was obviously the game that had
been played the most - the highscore table was impossible to get on to.
Secondly, almost all the names on this table were female... which was
quite unusual back in those days, when computing was largely considered to
be a boy-thing (btw, thanks Hippie, Grethe and Joerund, whoever you are,
for not saving any space on the highscore table for me.. grumble!).

But the fact that I couldn't get on the highscore table no matter how hard
I tried didn't deter me from having loads of fun with the game. That
version didn't have many of the bells and whistles that later versions
featured, such as exploding blocks, but it had all the basic elements
which, together, made it a highly addictive game. It's hard to say what
exactly set it apart from the crowd, it just did all the things it did
better than most other Arkanoid clones around.

Megaball 4 is really just a further development of the original Megaball.
It looks pretty much the same (though you can use the AGA version for
better graphics) and it plays pretty much the same, only there's more
blocks and bonuses. Bundled with the game (which comes on three disks) is
an easy to use board editor which can be used to create sets of up to
fifty boards each, plus a huge collection of boards for you to play (we're
talking many hundreds here). So if you get addicted to the game, there's
little to stop you from playing it for months, or even years...

There are plenty of different blocks for you to get rid of. The
aforementioned exploding blocks are perhaps the coolest of the lot. When
they blow up, they take the neighbouring blocks with them, and if one or
more of these is an exploding block as well, this in turn cause it's
neighbours to blow up - thus huge chain reactions can be created. A
slightly less fun version of the exploding blocks leave weaker blocks
behind, so if you blow one up, every space around it will get filled.

Then there's the lock and key blocks - some areas of a board may be
inaccessible because invincible locked blocks are in the way. But these
have a special key block which, when hit, will remove all the locked
blocks from the board. A final mention must go to the breeding blocks,
which will spawn new blocks around them until the cluster has grown so big
that it touches a block of a different type. Then they will all turn in to
blocks of this type - nice if it happens to be an exploding block, and not
so nice if it is a steel block (which require several hits to destroy).

When you destroy a block, there's the chance that a bonus icon might
appear and float down towards the bottom of the screen. Catch this, and
you get the bonus. These bonuses range from the traditional ball slowdown
(the ball will speed up during play), extra paddle, jump to next level,
expand paddle to multiball, lasers, brickthrough (where the ball and
lasers will simply move through any obstacles, destroying everything in
their path) and dynamite, which will add more exploding blocks around any
existing exploding blocks. But there are some nastier "bonuses" as well.
One will instantly kill you, while one will add gravity to the board,
which makes the ball harder to catch. Luckily, it's easy to distinguish
the bonuses from each other, and you won't pick up a death bonus thinking,
for instance, that it is an extra life.

The graphics are pretty decent. As mentioned, the game comes in both an
ECS and an AGA version, and both versions are colourful and pleasing to
the eye. Of course, some will argue that it would have been nice with a
picture in the background or something like that, but that would probably
also have obscured the view. The sound effects are okay, though there's
nothing really special. There's a large number of in-game music tunes,
most of which sound pretty good, in an 8-bit kind of way.

Overall, Megaball 4 is perhaps the best Arkanoid clone available for the
Amiga, and at the time of it's release, it was probably the best Arkanoid
clone anywhere (indeed, many newer PC based titles describe themselves as
Megaball clones, which says a lot about the lasting quality of this
title). Basically, it does everything you'd expect an Arkanoid clone to
do, and it does it flawlessly. It's one of the most addictive games I've
ever played, and a quick round of Megaball can quite easily turn into a
whole evening in front of the computer.

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