Retro Review: “Alleyway” (Nintendo Game Boy, Monochrome May Special)

Welcome back to Monochrome MayThe Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things greyscale or greenscale, depending on your level of purism.

Today we’re going to turn back the clock and take a look at Alleyway for the Nintendo Game Boy.

One of the launch titles for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989, Alleyway is a brick-breaking pinball game in the spirit of ArkanoidBreakout, and Woody Pop. Players control a small paddle that slides horizontally to keep your ball in play and knock out all of the bricks on screen (referred to as the “Vid-Grid”) to move on to the next stage. 

Destroy the “Vid-Grid!”

In a way, I’m a bit surprised that Nintendo didn’t release the game as Mario’s Alleyway, or a title similar to that. Mario jumps into the paddle at the beginning of each game, and the player is apparently controlling it through him. There are also Mario-themed bonus stages every three levels, featuring block formations that resemble a koopa troopa, blooper, bullet bill, goomba, a piranha plant, and Mario himself. 

Other than this, Alleyway is really bland. The regular stage designs are pretty basic and repetitive. Some are static, some have scrolling bricks, and others will shrink your paddle down to half size, or collapse the ceiling as time progresses. The bonus stages are timed, and you have only 80 seconds to knock out all the bricks for bonus points. However, you do have the advantage of your ball passing through blocks in these stages, so it’s not as tough as it might sound.

Mario’s ball-smacking skills are put to the test

Graphically, even the bricks themselves are extremely basic. Some of them have different shades of green/gray, but there’s no difference, gameplay wise. They don’t hold power-ups, or take more than one hit to destroy. There isn’t much animation to speak of, but even the movement of the ball itself isn’t super-smooth. The bricks in the scrolling stages are jittery, too. All of this is tougher to deal with on the small Game Boy screen, which leads to blurring.

More than anything, Alleyway is begging for music in the normal stages. There is a short fanfare when you finish a stage, and the bonus stages have a special tune, but that’s it. Given that the visuals are so plain, both with the stage design and the blocks themselves, the game needs some more sensory activation to remain interesting. The tinny effects of the ball bouncing around aren’t nearly enough. Can you imagine if Tetris had no music and the sound effects were extremely basic? 

All of this isn’t to say that Alleyway isn’t a competent game. It controls well enough, and the underlying design is solid, too. It also keeps track of high score, while the system is powered on, but I’ve never understood the point of this kind of feature if the game doesn’t actually save it. 

Still, Alleyway could have been a Game Boy staple if it amped up the style and leaned into the Mario license, which is a lot for me to admit as someone who never cared much for Mario games. Some bouncy, Mario-esque tunes, Mushroom Kingdom-style bricks to break, coins to collect for extra lives, mushroom power-ups to extend your paddle or a fire-flower multi ball… see where this is going? I actually want that game even now.

The stage designs are uninspired throughout

Alleyway was probably just fine for 80s and 90s kids looking for a simple game to play with their new Game Boy. But is it worth a pickup today? Full disclosure – I did not actually complete the game. I did manage to reach stage 18, and it is my understanding that there are 24 stages (not including the bonus stages). Still, given that there are dozens of similar and better brick-breaker type games that can be picked up on virtually every platform, I have to admit that Alleyway on the Game Boy is probably only worth a pickup if you are a serious Game Boy collector or if you have strong nostalgia from playing it in your youth. Otherwise, your brick-breaking buck is better bartered elsewhere.

Alleyway’s “Game Over” screen is about as interesting as you’d expect

*Thanks to Moby Games for the excellent screenshots!

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