The story of Breakout, its origin, its creation, and what would lie beyond, is without a doubt an interesting and fascinating one.
We have to go all the way back to 1972, 4 years before the first Breakout arcade game saw the light of day to really find its roots and inspiration.
In 1972 Atari released their first arcade video game called Pong, a simple but fun two-player table tennis (ping pong) like game, developed by Allan Alcorn. The game was given as a training exercise by Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari. Both Bushnell and co-founder Ted Dabney were surprised and impressed by Alcorn’s work and decided to manufacture the game.
Bushnell and Dabney had the year before in 1971 created Computer Space, the very first commercially available video game.
In 1976 the original arcade video game Breakout was released, it was clearly a game with roots in Pong, but while Pong was a two-player game, with breakout Atari wanted not only to distinguish itself from all the Pong clones but also wanted to make it more accessible by eliminating the need for two players to enjoy the game. In Breakout, using a single ball, the player had to knock down as many bricks at the top as possible by using the walls and the paddle that you’re controlling below to ricochet the ball against the bricks and thereby eliminating them.
Breakout – Woz and Jobs in play
Alcorn was assigned as the Breakout project manager and began development in 1975. Bushnell assigned Steve Jobs, who worked at Atari at this point, to design a prototype. Bushnell disliked how many of the new Atari games typically required more than 150 chips and knew of how Jobs’ friend Steve Wozniak, who worked at Hewlett Packard at that time, had designed a version of Pong with about 30 chips.
The story goes that Jobs was offered $700 for a transistor-transistor logic chip count fewer than 50 and $1000 for a chip count under 40, promising to split the fee evenly with Woz if he could minimize the number of chips – Remember the games back then were not programmed in software but in hardware, meaning the more chips the game would require the higher the manufacturing cost would be.
Jobs promised to complete a prototype within four days, not because of Atari putting him on a tight schedule, but because Jobs had an airplane to Oregon to catch.
Since the deadline was met and Woz was able to minimize the chip count, after he had worked at Atari four nights straight, it equated to a bonus of $5,000, which Jobs kept a secret from Wozniak. Woz has stated he only received a payment of $350, the agreed price for delivering a prototype game using less than 50 TTL’s. Woz design ended up with 44 chips – It is said that Woz first many years later learned about Jobs agreement with Atari, and let’s be straight, less honest way of doing business.
In the end, Atari was not able to use Woz’s design; it was said that Woz by making the board with as few chips as possible, had made it too compact and complicated to be feasible for Atari’s manufacturing process. Woz claims that Atari wasn’t able to understand the design – Atari ended up designing their own version, with a chip count of around 100! Woz has later stated that the gameplay was the same as his prototype design without any noticeable differences.
The Apple II
Woz told later on that the 4 days he did at Atari when doing Breakout really influenced the design of the Apple II home computer which was released in 1977. Things like doing real color (and not the fake overlay color the Breakout arcade machines had) to make it special and stand out. This was a defining feature over the Commodore Pet and the TRS-80 – by being able to display color graphics, this capability was the reason why the Apple logo was redesigned to have a full spectrum of colors.
Woz also added sound support and paddle ports which clearly was an indication of a machine that should be good at games, just like his Integer BASIC where he also programmed, in software, the Breakout clone Little Brick Out, which was distributed on cassettes for the Apple II.
Arkanoid, ports, sequels, and legacies
The original arcade version of Breakout was ported to the Atari VCS by Brad Stewart. The game was published in 1978, the same year as the sequel, Super Breakout was installed in arcades around. Four years later Super Breakout became the “pack-in game” for the Atari 5200 console. Breakout spawned an entire genre of Breakout clones, and the concept saw a renewal with Taito’s 1986 Arkanoid, which revitalized the concept by adding power-ups, various level designs, and a feel of depth to the story and the visuals.
Arkanoid was commercially successful in the arcades and the first home versions released the year after in 1987 were received with acclaim.
The original Atari 2600 version of Breakout, released in 1978.
Super Breakout for the Atari 400/800 home computer systems, released in 1979.
The Nintendo Entertainment System even saw a release with an optional controller called the Vaus controller, which added a much better control of acceleration and speed which the systems digital pad couldn’t provide.
-Vaus is the name of the ship the player controls. The Vaus was scrambled, from the mothership Arkanoid, carrying survivors from a planet destroyed after an attack by an alien force. The Arkanoid comes under fire and the survivors escape in the Vaus and fly away from the wreckage, only to become trapped after Doh (Dominate Over Hour) warps space around the vessel, trapping it inside a mysterious dimension. On the final stage, The Vaus engages in the final battle against Doh.Doh also appears as a recurring antagonist in the Bubble Bobble series.
The Amiga version was developed and published by Discovery Software International in 1987. Besides its high accuracy to the original game some versions also came with a multitude of new levels and backgrounds.
The Macintosh version was also developed and published by Discovery Software.
My favorite version of Arkanoid, the critical acclaimed Amiga version.
Still remember the day, back in probably 1988-89, when my dad came home with an Amiga 500 and Arkanoid.
I still play the original Amiga version every now and then – and still loves it just as much as I did as a kid.
NovaLogic developed the IBM/PC version in 1988. They also did the IBM/PC version of Taito’s Bubble Bobble. NovaLogic went on to Commanche and Delta Force fame but their earliest games were all IBM/PC ports of Taito games.
The sequel to Arkanoid, Revenge of DOH was released in arcades in 1987 and also developed by Taito. It was a direct sequel to the original, along with an improved graphic engine, better sound and music, and more levels.
Arkanoid Revenge of DOH for the IBM/PC, released in 1989.
Below some of my Breakout/Arkanoid titles.