Chris Schilling's column The Pick-Me-Up focuses on games that can make you smile in just ten minutes.
It's been a long time since Taito's arcade heyday, but ever since one of Japan's most venerable video game makers was bought out by Square Enix in the mid-2000s, it's been quietly and steadily churning out brilliant mobile games.
If you've managed to miss them, then do check out Groove Coaster and its sequel, as well as Dariusburst SP—not forgetting, of course, the majestic Space Invaders Infinity Gene. Taito's arcade knowhow is a perfect fit for the immediacy of the format, and that's certainly true of its latest release, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders, which might actually be one of its best yet.
That comes as a surprise to me, as I've never really been a huge fan of Arkanoid as a series. I did, however buy Arkanoid DS on a trip to Japan some nine years ago, purely for the sublime paddle controller peripheral it came with. This slotted into the DS's Game Boy cartridge slot and turned a decidedly mediocre game into a pretty good one.
It was compatible, too, funnily enough, with the magnificent Space Invaders Extreme. Once I'd used it to play that—possibly one of the best experiences I've had playing a handheld game— Arkanoid DS didn't get much of a look in.
Anyway. There is, believe it or not, a plot to explain the crossover—because any brick-smashing game worth its salt needs a labyrinthine lore, right?
Long story short, those pesky invaders are blowing up planets left, right and center. As humanity's last hope, you must use a fighter craft called Vaus—which, conveniently, is shaped like a paddle—to take down the extraterrestrial menace. (Arkanoid, in case you were wondering, is the name of the mothership, and has been since the original.)
Unlike other Arkanoid games, your primary objective isn't about destroying rows of colored blocks by batting a ball back at them. Here, the bricks essentially function as the invaders' shields, while you maneuver the Vaus to reflect their shots, using your thumb or forefinger to drag it across the bottom of the screen.
You can even push forward as a projectile lands to play it with a straight bat and launch a fast-moving power shot in a straight line. Each stage asks you to eliminate a given number of invaders (and occasionally blocks) as the timer ticks down. It's heady, frantic stuff, not least since maintaining your combo means you can't afford to let any bullets reach the planet you're supposed to be protecting.
While you're doing all this, gauges to the left and right of the screen will gradually fill, eventually prompting the Vaus to transform into a giant bow. Time freezes while you pull back the string and take aim, and then you're briefly back in familiar Arkanoid territory, as your shot bounces around the screen for a while—even if you keep it in play, it'll eventually disappear, as the countdown begins again and you focus once more on deflecting incoming attacks.
Your reward for scoring highly comes in the form of medals that can be spent on recruiting captains from a roster of Taito favorites, like Bob from Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands' Bubby, each with their own special skills. Pick up enough tokens, and you'll gain the ability to pierce blocks, for example; another lets the Vaus auto-fire for a few seconds.
These abilities become essential as the difficulty ramps up, with certain stages tailored more towards specific captain skills. Soon, you've got silver and gold blocks to contend with—the former eventually break once you've chipped away at their shiny exterior for long enough, but the golds are indestructible.
If you're struggling on a particular stage, you can spend those hard-earned medals on one-off items to boost your chances, raise your attack power, increase the speed of projectiles and even extend the Vaus. Even at full length, you'll find yourself madly scrubbing your finger across the screen when the action heats up—as a result, I've accidentally pulled up my iPhone's Control Center menu more times than I care to mention.
But Taito's got your back: if you accidentally interrupt the action, it gives you a three count to prepare yourself before plunging you back into the white-hot frenzy of intergalactic war.
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Its levels are short enough that you can easily binge a dozen or more at once, the action building thrillingly as waves get denser, barriers are fortified, and strategically placed bombs trigger cross-shaped explosions. If you fancy testing yourself against other online players, meanwhile, there's a Ranking mode: a rapidly-escalating challenge where each shot you miss takes seconds off your timer as you try to build a high score, while debuff pickups cascade towards you, just to make things tougher still.
Crisp and colorful with an energetic EDM soundtrack, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is a fizzy, addictive treat—like a bag of cola bottles but with slightly more nutritional value, and all for roughly the price of a London pint. Hopefully Rainbow Islands x New Zealand Story is next up for a company enjoying a sustained purple patch well into its fifth decade of making games. Maybe, in fact, Taito's arcade heyday is right now.