Evolution. No matter what your thoughts are on its theological implications, you have to admit that the concept of life growing, adapting, and changing into more advanced forms over millions of years is a fascinating one.
Whether you consider evolution to be science-fact or science-fiction, many examples can be seen outside of its traditional biological interpretations. Take for example, video games.
Back in 1976, (our Bicentennial year!), Atari released Breakout. Now in hindsight, Breakout is little more than a Pong variant that replaced the second human player with a wall of breaks to smash through. On it's most basic level, it is essentially a video game adaptation of "solo tennis".
But Breakout proved to be much more than that. The simple rules, challenging gameplay and the almost musical rhythm of the ball smashing the bricks, attracted players far and wide.
It became one of the unquestionable successes of the 1970s video arcade scene, soon spawning its own imitators and clones, even as its progenitor Pong had done several years before. Atari themselves continued evolving the "ball and paddle genre" by releasing Super Breakout in 1978, which presented three unique game options (Double, Cavity, and Progressive Breakout) to arcade patrons.
As time kept on slippin'... slippin'... slippin' into the future... the 1980s to be exact, Breakout was adapted to nearly every home video game console and computer system on the market.
However, players eager for an official third installment to the Breakout arcade franchise would be sorely dissapointed. Aside from Atari's 1980 release Warlords (a four-player medieval themed Breakout "spin-off"), and the original's 1984 cameo in Atari’s vector rarity The Adventures of Major Havoc, the "ball and paddle" genre appeared dead in the water... that is, until Taito released Arkanoid in 1986. Distributed by Romstar in North America, Arkanoid added power ups, continues, detailed graphics, and loads of strategic options. Much like Hendrix's rendition of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", Arkanoid was that rare remake which far surpassed its original source.
But why did it take a long eight years for a Breakout reboot to appear? As successful as the original games had been, why hadn't some other enterprising video game manufacturer built upon Atari's classic sooner?
Turns out an attempt was made in '83. Allow me to introduce... Cluster Buster.
Cluster Buster was released by Data East Inc., and, like Breakout, it challenged the player to use an object to bounce a ball skyward to knock out targets. However, where Breakout had a paddle and bricks, Cluster Buster used a round "bouncer" and presented various geometric shapes like spheres ("grapes"), cubes, and diamonds to knock down.
The objects (hereafter referred to as "grapes") slowly descend from the top of the screen, reminiscent of the "progressive Breakout" option from Super Breakout. The player uses his bouncer, a device that is not unlike a grape itself, to ricochet the ball up towards the descending targets.
The bouncer is given full freedom to move anywhere on the screen (as long as it does not touch any grapes), and the player has an 8-way joystick with which to do so. Two buttons complete the control panel, a rather atypical arrangement when compared to the two-directional dial and single button of most ball and paddle games prior and since.
The first button controls the angle of the ball. The ball can ricochet off the bouncer in a narrow angle (at which point the bouncer has a "closed mouth" appearance), or in a wide angle (bouncer has an "open mouth" appearance – visually similar to a Pac-Man travelling north). The angle can be changed as frequently as one wishes. Since a common frustration with Breakout was that the ball angle was minimally controllable, based only how the ball bounced off the paddle, it's nice to see that Cluster Buster actually places this strategic feature in the player's control.
The second button, when pressed, makes the advancing grapes retreat upwards. This helps clear room when grape clusters get too close for comfort. Be careful, you can only make the grapes retreat if you have an "up" icon (up to a maximum of three icons can be stored for future use), and each time you make the grapes retreat, you loose an icon. Use the extra space gained by the retreat wisely and quickly, because the grapes will soon resume their advance!
Grapes are destroyed one at a time, just like the Breakout bricks. When a grape is hit by the ball, it disintigrates into harmless dust particles, and the player is awarded ten points. However, you’ll notice several grapes per screen that are colored differently from the rest. These are the "core grapes", and understanding them is the key to succeeding at Cluster Buster.
Core grapes are usually found at the junction point between two large clusters. Knocking out a core grape eliminates all of the grapes hanging below it as well. The player gets 100 points for the core grape, plus the 10 points a piece for each normal grape below it, and a 500 point bonus.
(If this seems oddly familiar to you, then you have probably played the Taito hit "Bust-A-Move", a 1994 release for SNK's Neo Geo arcade system, which used the "core grape" strategy as a major element of its balloon busting gameplay.)
The core grapes also contain an additional surprise... SPIDERS!!!! Possibly on vacation from Atari’s Centipede, these hairy arachnids plummet straight down from the core grapes, leaving the player little time to avoid their attack. Bouncing a ball off of a spider destroys the buggie, awarding the player 500 points, and often, an "up" icon. However, as expected, the spider's bite is deadly to the bouncer.
Now typically, in Breakout, Arkanoid, and other games of this genre, a "life" is lost when the player fails to catch the ball with the paddle. Cluster Buster evolves even this standard convention to fit it's rule book.
At the bottom of the screen is a "pavement" consisting of three layers of small red bricks. If you miss a ball on the rebound, it will bounce back upwards upon hitting the pavement, but only after eliminating the brick it hits. If enough bricks are knocked out of the pavement, holes will develop into which the ball (and a life) can truly be lost.
This tragedy can be thwarted, however, by calling on your good friend and mine... Mr.Grapo!!! Mr.Grapo is an odd little maintenance man who wanders from right to left across the pavement, replacing knocked out blocks in the top row as he passes over the gaps. Our bricklaying buddy can be summoned by trapping the ball in either upper corner for the strangely chosen number of seventeen hits. Although getting the ball to an upper corner is challenging, the seventeen hits rack up quite easily, so Mr.Grapo gets busy repairing the pavement, and the player gets 2001 bonus points added to his score.
In later levels, Mr.Grapo may even show up in a grape cluster, and hitting him with a ball earns your bouncer a spare life.
Cluster Buster features a simple and effective 3-D effect, achieved through some nice shading, and clever positioning of objects (mainly grapes) so that some are slightly behind, or in front of, other objects.
The audio effects of the game are a bit lacking. A simple tune plays constantly in the background, but the sound effects of the game (consisting primarily of basic blips and bleeps) are presented with a louder "voice", so it's difficult to really notice the music.
Cluster Buster was released in mininal numbers as a dedicated machine, as it was primarily marketed as a kit for the DECO cassette system. Despite featuring a large library of clever and unique titles, pretty much all DECO cassette games were obscurities, at least in North America. The only two major success stories from this line were Burgertime and Bump N Jump, and they only achieved widespread acclaim after Bally/Midway released their own dedicated licensed versions.
Data East also tweaked the game and released it under the name Graplop. Visible in several episodes of the video arcade game show Starcade, Graplop featured no pavement, and thus no Mr.Grapo. The main change here was that the grapes don't disintegrate when hit, they instead actually fall to the bottom of the screen, and thus, are deadly to the bouncer when falling. Also, a life is not lost if the bouncer does not catch the ball. The ball simply ricochetes off the bottom, turns red, and prevents scoring opportunities for a limited time. Data East even tried another revision entitled Flying Ball, but exactly how that version differs from the others is unknown.
Cluster Buster is a fun package, a frenetic action-filled game that clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the original Breakout, and specifically, the "progressive" variant of Super Breakout. Also note that elements from Cluster Buster itself have appeared in later evolutionary off-shoots of the genre. In the Arkanoid series, we have enemies that can be destroyed by the ball, and Cluster Buster's "up" icons are a precursor to Arkanoid's power ups. Also, Bust-A-Move shares the "core grape" strategy. Interesting that all of these games were arcade success stories with the exception of Cluster Buster.
It seems that Data East's obscure little grape-smashing game can be considered an evolutionary "missing link" between the classic Breakout series and the later-day Arkanoid and Bust-A-Move titles. Without a doubt, Cluster Buster has clearly evolved its way into the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic!