Review: pop-pop Redefines the World of Breakout

Thursday, 2004-03-25; 00:40:00

Yet another Ambrosia title makes a splash by building on top of a classic game genre

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

Think you've seen every possible twist on the game of Breakout? Well, unless you've seen pop-pop, another brilliant shareware game from Ambrosia Software, think again. Ambrosia wisely retains the fun of the classic Breakout game in pop-pop, while adding new twists and new gaming styles to the genre, including fast-paced two-player Breakout play.

If you just play pop-pop in puzzle mode, you'll basically be playing a slight variant of the usual breakout game. The main concept of Breakout is preserved in this mode: you hit a ball with a paddle, and try to clear all the bricks on the screen. There are different kinds of bricks: normal bricks, metal bricks that take more hits to break, and unbreakable bricks. Occasional powerups are dropped by various bricks when you hit them, including bad ones that make your life just a hair more difficult.

The main goal of puzzle mode, however, is different from normal breakout. Rather than having to clear all the bricks on-screen (which is sometimes tedious and frustrating), pop-pop introduces the concept of targets. Targets are easily identifiable, and the objective of each screen is simply to clear the board of the targets. In puzzle mode, you also don't have a set number of lives: instead, when you miss the ball, all the bricks move down one row. When a brick goes past the dotted line, which is close to the bottom of teh screen, the game's over.

Hitting targets also increases your multiplier bonus. The multiplier is persistent until the next time you miss the ball with your paddle. So if you hit 10 targets on successive hits without missing the ball, you can get up to a 9x multiplier, which racks up points pretty quickly.

You also have two other paddle abilities that are always present. The first is the magnetic ability, where you can attract the ball to your paddle simply by clicking and holding on the mouse button. You activate this power by holding down the mouse button or the control key. While it may seem odd that you always have this ability, keep in mind that when your paddle is magnetized, your points start being diminished rapidly. That means that if you use the magnetic paddle too much, you won't end up getting a good high score.

You also have a super-breaker power that allows the ball to go through bricks unimpeded. You activate this by repeatedly clicking the mouse button (or pressing the control key) in order to power up your paddle to the desired amount. However, this ability is limited since it only lasts for a few bricks, and then the ball behaves normally again. Not only that, but you have a power bar that limits you to how often you can use this ability -- the power bar is replenished by either repeatedly hitting the ball with your paddle or by getting the rare powerup that charges your power bar by a few units.

These simple rules make for an easily playable puzzle game that can last for minutes or for hours. The four different puzzle difficulties also makes it appropriate for players of any level, from kids just trying out the game, to adult addicts who have mastered the art of playing pop-pop. No matter who you are, if you like playing breakout, you'll love the pop-pop variant.

Puzzle mode in pop-pop

But the true fun of pop-pop comes in the two-player mode. You can play against the computer, against another player on the same computer, or against someone across the internet using the convenient, built-in pop-pop tracker. Interestingly enough, when playing against another person on the same computer, you actually need to plug another mouse in to your computer, so each player has precision control over their paddle and one player isn't relegated to use the keyboard. That would be disastrous in such a fast-paced game. (From my limited testing, using 2 mice works perfectly; it's a wonder that no other two-player game has added this awesome feature.)

In two-player mode, you have two objectives. The first is to make a brick on your opponent's side of the screen fall below his dotted line. Like in puzzle mode, that ends the round. There are a number of ways to help this happen: by sending bricks to your opponent's side of the screen, and by using your character-specific ability.

On your side of the screen, you can often hit one or more bricks in succession before the ball returns to your paddle. When you do so, all of the bricks (minus one) get sent to the opponent's side of the screen. If you hit a particularly large number of bricks in one shot (whether by using your super-breaker power or by just hitting the ball normally with your paddle), you can quickly fill up your opponent's side of the screen. Your opponent has a strike-back tactic though: these sent bricks appear hollow for a bit of time on his side of the screen. If he manages to hit any of these hollow bricks before they turn solid, he sends back a METAL brick to your side of the screen: metal bricks require two hits to clear them from the board. Expert players are not only good at sending bricks to the opponent's side of the screen, but are also good at hitting all those hollow bricks in time to send metal bricks back.

The other way to make life difficult for your opponent is to use your character-specific ability. Before facing off against your opponent, you each choose a character under which to play. There are seven different characters to choose from: Bombastic, Ioni, Ducky, Mini-T, Mr. Man, Tex, and Zap. Each has a unique and usually very annoying ability:

  • Bombastic: Sends falling bombs to the opponent. If the opponent fails to catch the bombs with his paddle, his bricks are lowered by one row per bomb missed.
  • Ioni: Creates flowers that fly all over the opponent's side of the screen. Not only do these flowers obscure the ball, but they also look like the ball, so it makes aiming extremely difficult, not to mention that it makes your opponent miss the ball a lot.
  • Ducky: Plants floating rubber ducks on the screen. These ducks deflect the ball in a random direction when the ball runs into them.
  • Mini-T: Causes wind to blow from the top of the opponent's side of the screen, making it difficult to control the paddle.
  • Mr. Man: Unleashes pests that fall from the top of the screen, which leave bricks behind. These pests continue to create bricks until they are hit with the ball.
  • Tex: Makes twirling guns appear on the opponent's side of the screen. If their bullets hit his paddle, it renders his paddle immobilized for a small period of time
  • Zap: Causes devices to appear on the opponent's side of the screen. These repel the ball and upset its normal movement.

The character selection screen in two-player mode

Each of these powers are supremely annoying and are sure to frustrate the opponent, whether it's by increasing the number of bricks on the screen or by making him miss the ball and have the bricks shift down one row. But keep in mind that your opponent can do the same to you!

The character-specific abilities are activated by pressing and holding the option key for a few seconds. A powerup meter appears, and it needs to be filled before the ball hits your paddle the next time. If you let go too soon or the ball hits your paddle before the meter is full, the meter is emptied. Attempting to activate these abilities also depletes your power bar, whether or not you were successful in activating the powerup.

The other way you can win a round of two-player pop-pop is simply by clearing the screen of all bricks. This is harder than it sounds, because the bricks automatically shift down one row every 15 seconds or so even if you didn't miss the ball, so there's a continuing supply of bricks to eliminate. This also keeps you on your toes, and keeps you from lazing about. (This automatic shifting down of the bricks also occurs in puzzle mode.)

All this makes for a very fast-paced and intense two-player mode never seen before in the breakout genre. When in two-player mode, you can choose how many rounds wins the match (1, 2, or 3), the difficulty (this limits how fast the ball can move and for how long the character-specific powerups last), and, if you're playing against a human player, whether or not to allow for a handicap. This makes it easy for harder players to accommodate more novice players and still get a challenge.

Two-player mode in pop-pop

The icing on the cake for pop-pop is the graphics, sounds, and music. No fast-paced game is complete without these, and Ambrosia doesn't disappoint. Six upbeat, trance-y/techno-y tracks keeps the game feeling like it's going at breakneck speed. Each character in two-player mode has their own battle cry for powerup activation, and all the other minor sounds let you know exactly what's happening at any moment of the game. Topping it all off, the drawings for all the characters and items are eccentric and entertaining.

It's hard to find fault with such an awesome, action-packed game such as pop-pop. But there are a few little problems. pop-pop still seems to "white out" the Finder menu bar despite the problem supposedly being fixed in version 1.0.3. You can't register pop-pop for all users of one machine, despite this feature supposedly being added in version 1.0.4. And probably the most aggravating of the bugs is related to the super-breaker and magnetic paddle abilities: you can use the control key or the mouse button to activate them. However, don't get into the habit of using BOTH the control key AND the mouse button! pop-pop seems to have trouble if you try to use the control key for one of the abilities and the mouse button for the other, and you sometimes end up missing the ball instead of attracting it back to your paddle -- not good if you're up to your neck in bricks.

The only other problem is the lack of players in the online tracker. If you're lucky, there are one or two people in the room, but more often than not there is no one in the tracker. Unfortunately, this situation can't be remedied with an update, and can only improve as more people play the game. Although pop-pop can get a bit monotonous after a while, playing a challenging online player usually remedies that, if only they were on the tracker. Hopefully this will all change when the Windows version of pop-pop gets released, although it might be a while before that happens since development seems to be going slowly.

pop-pop costs USD$25 for a license for one computer. While that may be a bit steep for a shareware game, pop-pop can offer hours of entertainment if you can entice a few of your friends into buying it too. Once you do that, pop-pop is well worth the $25 when you factor in all the online playing you'll undoubtedly be doing. Oh, and it goes without saying that you'll also get fame and prestige when you become the popmaster of your block. And isn't that worth a measly $25?

If you're ever in the need of playing a round of pop-pop, I'll almost always be glad to drop whatever I'm doing to get a few minutes of intense, online breakout playing. So if you want to try out the two-player portion of pop-pop or just want to hone your pop-pop skills, drop me an IM or a line, and I'd be happy to line you up for some pop-pop schooling! (AIM: simsimbean; E-Mail:

-- Simone

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