I love what the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network services have become. During the normally slow summer gaming months, both services have stepped up the release of great downloadable games, effectively bridging the "game gap" between May and late August. It's almost bizarre to think back just a few years, when nothing of note was released between The Darkness and Bioshock. On the download front, 2009 has been the strongest year yet, with all kinds of high-profile releases hitting the consoles each week - 'Splosion Man, Shadow Complex, Unbound Saga, Battlefield 1943, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time Reshelled, etc. As of this writing, not all of those games are out yet, and some of those already released aren't great, but it's safe to say that the sheer volume of releases makes downloadable games worth taking a look at. Out of all the games released so far this summer, one clearly rises above the pack and takes the crown for the very best - the PSN exclusive Shatter.
Until this game popped up on the PSN Store last week (sorry, 360 fans - this one is exclusive for now, but the PS3 is getting Castle Crashers soon, maybe Shatter will be on Live before you know it - keep your fingers crossed), I'm pretty sure I'd never even heard its name, let alone what kind of game it would be. As the favorable reviews started surfacing, I figured I'd give it a shot. It's only $7.99, right? Well, it turns out that this was the best use I'd made of eight bucks since I bought some of that compressed air stuff and fixed my laptop's DVD drive. Shatter is deceptively simple to explain, so until you play it for yourself you'll just have to take my word for it. The game is AWESOME.
Shatter is more or less Arkanoid, Pinball (NES - Mario held the paddle), Hardball, Bebop, Quester, Brick Breaker, Alleyway, Brick Mania, Devilish or Breakout, depending on which of the hundreds of variations of the basic game you are most familiar with. You know it - little paddle, bouncing ball, break the bricks and move on, right? Shatter takes this timeless game and pulls it right into present day, making the game we've all played thousands of times seem brand new (or the game you've played hundreds of thousands of times if you are my little brother's Blackberry). But if timeless gameplay was Shatter's only draw, then it would be a shoddy product indeed. Those Namco and Atari Arcade Collections aren't exactly flying off store shelves, are they? No, the brick breaker concept is there, but it has been stripped down, rebuilt and set to one of the best game soundtracks I've ever heard.
Shatter is still, at its core, a game of bouncing balls and breaking bricks. But new play concepts make the action tense and addictive. Each of the ten or so worlds is separated into eight stages and one boss fight. Boss fights? Yeah, I'll come back to that. The object of each world is the same - break all the blocks on each of the eight stages, just like all the games this is based on. The addition of power-ups, extra lives and more ball control than any game of this type had previously given players make this more than just a break-all-the-bricks game. The best are the "suck" and "blow" abilities you have at your disposal (c'mon, people - grow up). The R and L triggers allow you to "suck" the ball toward your paddle or "blow" it away, which adds a touch of strategy to the action. Is it better to keep the ball destroying blocks by blowing it away? Or should you suck power ups toward you and face increased interaction with - and the possibility of losing - the ball? At first glance, it seems like a lot to keep track of, especially when you have multiple balls in play. But the difficulty ramps up slowly and by the time you make it to the last worlds, anyone who happened to be watching would think you were an old pro. This is truly a hallmark in great game design - Shatter is challenging, but never frustrating and it consistently forces you, the player, to adapt, learn and overcome.