You can see the Game Boy’s roots in the Game & Watch series on clear display in Nintendo’s first generation of releases for the system, and nowhere more than Alleyway. A dated take on the block-breaking genre even at the time of its 1989 debut – the far more sophisticated Arkanoid predates it by a good three years – Alleyway feels like a midpoint between Game & Watch and “real” portable video games. This isn’t to say it’s a poor game or badly made; merely unambitious.
Roots and influences
The nature of Alleyway’s modest design is somewhat given away in its Japanese box art, which gives it the subtitle “Block Kuzushi” – not only is that the the Japanese term for the genre precipitated by Breakout, it also calls back to Nintendo’s pre-console home game days. The Nintendo Color TV Game Block Kuzushi was one of five dedicated (that is, lacking an interchangeable cartridge slot) home game consoles Nintendo manufactured in conjunction with Mitsubishi in the late ’70s. In their own way, these systems represented a sort of midpoint too: A transitional phase between Nintendo’s days as a dedicated toy maker and a dedicated video game maker. The Color TV Game Block Kuzushi also represented Shigeru Miyamoto’s first attempt at bringing his art school training to bear on the company’s products, as he designed the case and labels for the device. In the annals of Nintendo history, it holds a notable place.
Very little official information about Alleyway seems to exist online; the game has no staff roll, and I’ve been unable to locate individual credits for the game in either English or Japanese. The game is alternately credited to Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems; the latter claims credit for it on their corporate site without offering any further details, only a link to Nintendo’s official archival page for the game. Intelligent Systems is sometimes cited as having spun off from R&D1 to some degree, and given the role R&D1 had in Nintendo’s pre-Famicom product design (division head Gumpei Yokoi having worked on devices like Ele-conga and the famous Ultra Hand, among others), it doesn’t seem unlikely that some of Alleyway‘s staff had creative contact with the Color TV Game Block Kuzushi a decade prior (especially in light of the longevity of tenure that seems to define Nintendo’s top talent) and that the older device was on their mind as they built this debut release for the new handheld system.
Whatever the case, given Nintendo’s penchant for self-referentialism – including, here in Alleyway, a number of block arrangements based on Nintendo character sprites – the reference to Block Kuzushi on the cover seems as likely to be a nod to Nintendo’s home gaming origins as a declaration of genre. After all, Baseball‘s Japanese box art doesn’t give the game’s subtitle as “Sports,” and Yakuman‘s box doesn’t make prominent mention of mahjongg. In fact, Alleyway is the only one of Nintendo’s day-one releases to feature any sort of subtitle or box-front genre designation whatsoever. However deliberate the intent, Alleyway positioned the Game Boy as a new venture jumping off from two different points of historic inflection for Nintendo: The block-breaking action of Color TV Game Block Kuzushi, and the limited but entertaining black-and-white stylings of the Game & Watch family.
At its most fundamental level, Alleyway plays very much in the mold of Breakout. Players control a small paddle that patrols the bottom of the screen, reflecting a ball into various arrangements of bricks that line the upper half of the screen. In most cases, the ball breaks away a brick upon impact, rebounding from the collision at an oblique angle. A stage ends once the ball has destroyed all the bricks, and once you’ve completed all 32 stages (24 basic and 8 bonus), the game ends.
In contrast to its more sophisticated contemporaries, such as the aforementioned Arkanoid, Alleyway lacks the depth and intricacy typical to other late-’80s Breakout clones. Besides the lack of power-ups, the ball can only reflect from the player’s paddle at three different angles, depending on the speed of the paddle at the time of impact and which point the ball strikes. It speeds up very slightly the longer you play, and in later levels the paddle randomly shrinks by 50% once you being plucking away at the back row of bricks.
Despite its fairly basic design, graphics, and mechanics, Alleyway does offer some nice perks over basic Breakout. For starters, the game won’t let you become locked in an endless cycle if you set up a stable arrangement that causes the ball to reflect back to the paddle and continue following the same route; after a few hits in a loop, the ball will change its angle slightly, forcing you to respond. This can be a tremendous help when trying to clean up the last elusive brick or two; if the ball is just barely missing a block, you can wait it out. More often than not, the ball will change its course slightly and hit the unreachable brick. Also of note: Mario cameos as the paddle’s “pilot,” reprising a role similar to the one he played in Pinball for NES.
The brick patterns also incorporate interesting elements and even dynamic features. In addition to a number of levels arranged to look like Mario characters, Alleyway also includes bonus stages in which the ball doesn’t bounce upon contact with a brick. Instead, it pass through the blocks and caroms off the wall; players have a limited amount of time in which to clear out all the bricks. Also present at stages in which the bricks move, either at a steady lateral rate or advancing toward the bottom of the screen (moving one space forward after a set number of hits with the paddle).
The 32 levels essentially break down to eight sets of four stages: A standard Breakout clone with standard rules; a dynamic stage in which some or all bricks move horizontally in an endless scroll; a hazard stage in which the blocks advance toward the paddle as you play; and a bonus stage in which there is no penalty for failure.
Alleyway netted mediocre scores at the time of its release – back when most magazines actually did make use of the full scale – and was raked over the coals three years ago when Nintendo reissued it on 3DS Virtual Console (though at times without a proper understanding of the game’s heritage). Its relatively shallow design and monotonous visuals definitely limit its appeal, especially in the current market where so many cheap or free games of this format jockey for attention in the mobile space. In 1989, however, it made for a pleasantly fulfilling experience – by far the most elaborate portable block game the world had ever seen, given the technologically primitive nature of the handheld game machines sold before Game Boy’s debut. While it may not hold up particularly well, it makes for a valuable historic artifact: A tentative baby step from the Game & Watch releases of the previous decade to the more elaborate software R&D1 and Intelligent Systems would be serving up within a year or two. Alleyway wasn’t a great game, but only because its creators hadn’t established yet for themselves how great the Game Boy could be.
Japanese title: Alleyway: Block Kuzushi • アレイウェイ ブロック崩し
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems
Release date: 4.21.1989 [JP] | 8.1989* [US] | 9.28.1990 [EU]
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: Color TV Game Block Kuzushi 
Next in series: None
Similar titles: Kirby Block Ball [HAL/Nintendo, 1995], Arkanoid DS [Taito/Square Enix, DS, 2008]
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a specific date news story, and articles on the system cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”
Alleyway, packaging [U.S.]
Alleyway, packaging contents [U.S.]
Alleyway, front [U.S.]
Alleyway, back [U.S.]
Alleyway, cartridge [U.S.]
Alleyway, manual [U.S.]
Alleyway, promo poster [U.S.] – This is definitely a launch-era poster, as the only games advertised are the first batch of U.S. Game Boy releases.