- Off The Wall -




DVD of the Week

Off The Wall - October 9, 1999 by Dorsola
Game:Off The WallCompany:Atari

Okay, if you grew up on old old old games like I did, you're probably familiar with such classics as Pong, Breakout, Super Breakout and the like. I remember getting together with friends and holding Pong, Pixel Basketball and Breakout tournaments on an old VCS 2600 as a kid. Those were the days...
Well, obviously, advances in electronics and such made such games, in more ways than one, a thing of the past. Many many clones of these old games have been made over the years, including such newer games as Arkanoid. But there's one relatively obscure game that really stands out in the crowd, and who better to have done it than the makers of the original Super Breakout? Atari's "Off The Wall," which appeared in arcades for a relatively short time in 1991.
Anyone familiar with Atari's earlier stuff knows that this company had a reputation for being way ahead of its time. Most of their games were really quite good, and rank among my personal favorites. Their later works, still long before the current era that brought us things like Area 51, were creative, imaginative and (most of the time) beautifully executed. Off The Wall is, in my opinion, their finest "modern" game yet - an excellent remake of a very old concept.
Off The Wall is, to wit, a Breakout clone. You control a relatively small curved paddle that moves up and down the side of the screen. A little ball warps onto your paddle and then goes off flying shortly afterward. The object of the game? To blast away as many of the bricks as you can or need to in order to score the ball in a square exit, usually placed in the center of the screen. Sounds simple, right?
Not so fast. One thing you'll notice right away is just how small these things really are: Each block is a little square no more than 8 pixels wide and 8 pixels tall. This is on a relatively high-resolution screen! Your ball is even smaller than this, and even on the easiest settings can move quite fast. The ball flies around on the screen, bouncing off walls and destroying blocks as it runs into them - and sometimes its trajectory becomes quite unpredictable! And, like any good Pong/Breakout clone should do, the ball speeds up as it moves around, making it all the more difficult to keep track of.
Here's where things start getting interesting: Periodically, your ball will start glowing, and then when it hits your paddle, it splits in two! Whoa! Now you've gotta try to keep BOTH of your balls on the screen at the same time! It's okay if you lose one, but if you suddenly run out of balls, you lose a life. Frantically, you try to move your paddle up and down the screen as fast as possible to keep up with the balls and WOW! Look at them spin! That's right - your paddle can put spin on the ball(s), causing them to fly off in curved paths that can be absolute HELL to keep up with! (Later on in the game, there are even objects that will do this for you, whether you like it or not. ;P)
As if that wasn't exciting enough, Atari put a whole bunch of neat things into this game to keep it interesting for a whopping 64 levels, before running back through the same levels with even more variations. Among these are indestructable blocks, blocks that move in circles or tumble in random directions, powerups that slow down the ball or increase your paddle size, blocks that parachute in from the top of the screen to replace previously destroyed blocks, exits that occasionally move around, and even a triangular gun that attempts to shrink your paddle by shooting at it!
But wait! There's more! This game even features two and THREE-player simultaneous play! You heard me right: Player 1 is on the left side of the screen, player 2 on the right, and for those machines that were set up for three players, Player 3 moves left and right along the bottom. In multiplayer games, a few of the levels aren't accessible because the exit is normally placed along one of the players' edges. To make up for this, there is a direct clone of Pong added in as a bonus level - a competitive round where the players battle it out with a ball that just keeps getting faster and faster (bringing on a pretty funny list of names for the speeds the ball is reaching). The winner of the round is awarded an extra life, and gameplay continues.
*whew* That's just the gameplay stuff! But this game wouldn't be worth playing if it weren't for the awesome graphics and the even more awesome sound. Throughout the game, an unusual array of colors combine to form neo-modern works of art that serve as backdrops for each level. Most levels have some really subtle color changes happening while you play, almost unnoticeable in many cases. There are even some levels where several of Picasso's cubist faces peer at you and follow the ball with their eyes! And the music... This is what I like most about this game. Off The Wall has some of the best in-game music I have ever heard. A different theme for each level - 14 different themes in all, which even then have their own variations throughout the game. Many of the sound effects are pretty simplistic, but unlike most games with simple sound effects, the ones in OTW don't tend to grate on you much. Perhaps the neatest subtlety in the sound is the fact that your paddle gives off a low resounding tone that follows the background music each time a ball hits it.
Controls: While many people wouldn't pay much attention to this little detail, Atari designed this game with flexibility in mind. Two versions of the game were released, although the same exact ROM set is behind both. One cabinet model came equipped with standard joysticks and a couple of buttons. The stick moves your paddle up and down at a constant rate, which can be sped up by hitting one of the buttons. The other button is used for releasing the ball and firing shots at blocks, if you happen to get that particular powerup. But the beauty of this machine lies in its ability to auto-detect whether or not a set of knobs has been installed. Referred to as "Whirly-gigs," these knobs give you complete analog control over the paddle, providing for a much more satisfying gaming experience. The Whirly-gigs were used in approximately 1/3 of the standup cabinets and almost all cocktail versions of this game.
Finally, the game itself is just plain addicting. My mom and I used to go to a movie theater fairly frequently, and while we waited for the movie to start (and often times we'd stick around after the movie was over), we'd blow as much as $5 or $10 on this game there. I was so happy when it finally came to MAME, which emulates this fine game damn near perfectly. The only reason OTW doesn't get a top grade in performance is that the original hardware is just slightly underpowered for this game - get two or three players in there at the same time, each with their own balls, powerups, moving blocks and shots flying every which way, and the game tends to slow down a bit. But this is a really minor problem, and I still HIGHLY recommend this game - one of the best!
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1999 EmuViews