Everygamegoing26th August 2018
Published in EGG #013: Acorn Electron
Of all the sins that a game can commit, being unfair probably ranks highest. Breakthrough is an unfair game. That it's unfair by consequence of its production, or that there's a perfectly good BBC version of it on the flipside, is immaterial. On the Electron it's unfair so it's not worth playing. Period.
The game itself is a puzzle game. You play a wizard who can, with the flick of a wrist, destroy and create blocks, and the simple goal of each screen is to collect the key and carry it to the door. To get to it, you'll need to create a pathway of blocks and stand on them, avoiding contact with the blobs symbolising fire, and the bats, spiders and other nasties that have also made Breakthrough's caverns their home. The basic premise is simple enough but figuring out where you need to place blocks to get to the key, and which blocks need to be removed from the playing area first so that you don't inadvertently box yourself in, requires some serious head-scratching. The cramped playing area makes things very awkward too.
The game is played from the side, although blocks hang in the air rather than obeying the laws of gravity. Suspend disbelief all ye who enter here, because your wizard does obey the laws of gravity and he will fall if unsupported. And as for the vampire bat... he not only obeys gravity but clearly has some magical powers of his own... because if you walk underneath him, time stops in its tracks so that he can mount a merciless attack on you. You can't even attempt to run away!
It's reasonably clear what author Ian Collinson wanted to achieve here. There are many games for other systems that do the whole "create, destroy and climb on top of" blocks thing reasonably well and, to be honest, even in 1988, the idea had been around for long enough that it didn't count as a new idea in itself. It just hadn't been done on the BBC or Electron before.
Alas, it's not just the bat that reduces me to indignation whenever I try to play Breakthrough. The real problem is that the whole game is prefaced on time critical move-jump-destroy-move combinations but the Electron version is so sluggish in its response that it's almost impossible to carry these off. Typically the problem is turning the wizard around; he just doesn't seem to react to the keypress for a half a second or so and, if you have to turn him around and jump to safety before a spider lands on top of his head, the delay results in his death.
As if that's not bad enough, the collision detection itself is far too strict. You get killed by baddies that it's very obvious haven't even touched you - they're four or five pixels away yet your wizard nevertheless crumbles to ash.
All of these problems stem from the decision to use the Electron's most colourful screen mode for the game itself. The top ten lines of the screen are a mess of visible game data but the game itself, running in the bottom two-thirds is a veritable feast for the eyes. And it's this decision, to use this super-powerful screen mode, that means that the Electron is so busy with its graphics that it just doesn't have any processing power left to respond to the controls quickly enough. Breakthrough is therefore one of the very few Electron games where all of the Electron's colours are used (and used well) but one where the vast majority of the uses they are put to will never ever be seen. It's quite tragic really. There are 100 screens, but most people will find it so frustrating that they won't progress beyond the second one.
As with quite a few Electron games that suffer from appalling sluggishness, it appears to be a hastily converted BBC game - on the other side of the cassette is a BBC version which not only reacts well to keypresses but also centres the playing area, removing all the graphics crash that the Electron version displays too. The BBC's high graphics mode runs about 40% faster than the Electron's equivalent and, when you factor this in, it all makes sense as to why the Electron version is so cumbersome; it's a lazy conversion, the programmer hasn't really considered whether it "works" with the capabilities of the lesser machine. He wrote his game for the BBC, stuck in a few bits of code to also make it work on the Electron, and decided that, despite the obvious speed decrease, it was "good enough". But it isn't. It results in something that's unfair and, because of that, frustrating to the point of unplayability.
Not that the blatantly obvious fact of this unplayability caught the attention of Electron User, of course. Database Publications clearly played the BBC version (which is actually quite good) and then just republished its review of BBC Breakthrough (originally published in The Micro User) in the Electron User magazine. Remarkably, considering the almost interminable wait after a keypress for the wizard to "do something", the Electron User review therefore complained that he was too responsive instead, often not just turning around but going one place too far on his travels. This is a fair and valid point on the BBC version but absolutely no-one who had actually played the Electron one would think to level this particular criticism at it. To say their comments that Breakthrough is "an engrossing game" and "extremely addictive" are questionable is to say the least. They are nonsense.
Breakthrough originally retailed at £9.95 and was released by Audiogenic. Probably because of its drab cover art, and having to share the shelves with Superior's Exile, it failed to catch the attention of the gaming public and consequentially it's rather hard to find a copy of it now. Everygamegoing values it at about £9.15, but, considering how aggrieved it leaves a player after a single game, you may well find it for sale cheaper.