William Rieder describes his creation Bananoid quite fittingly as a ‘wall-block-paddle-pill game’ with which he wanted to demonstrate that MCGA graphics work on DOS machines. And that is exactly what you get, nothing more and nothing less: A nice looking Breakout clone – or as the name already implies rather one of Arkanoid. To some this might be actual proof that back in the late 80ies the capabilities of PC graphics were underused and underestimated (most DOS games of that era where still stuck in EGA or even CGA mode), to others it plays like one of the hardest games of its kind.
Well, let us start with the main selling point, namely the graphics. Once they must have been really impressive, considering the comparatively high resolution and the almost decent colour palette, and to some degree they still hold up today. Since the game field spans over two screens there is even some scrolling which runs astoundingly smoothly. So, it is a shame that the objects shown onscreen are rather bland: The bricks are just some shaded cubes, the ball a white circle with almost nonexistent shading and the paddle looks like it comes ‘fresh’ from the 70ies. The backgrounds are slightly better but they have a Windows 3 wallpaper charm to them, i.e. they are very repetitive tessellations. Probably the best and also coolest thing is a multicoloured glowing banana on the lower right corner.
There the game keeps the score too, the life bar is at the other side of the field, almost two screens away. While this setup is kind of interesting you naturally tend to lose track of some things, like your score, how many bricks there are left and the ball of course. Be prepared to do a lot of scrolling in this one. And since more space equals more bricks, it also takes a bit longer to clear a level too, though there are other reasons for that too.
Like the high difficulty. Since Bananoid is a graphics tech demo, the implementation of the actual game mechanisms are more or less rudimentary, yet functional. They work as they should, but not exceptionally well. For instance the paddle has a counterintuitive hitting zone. Normally the edges should hit the ball too but here it looks like your paddle is ever so slightly shorter than it appears to be. The angles at which the ball is reflected feels a bit odd too, sometimes it is too steep other times too flat, in extreme cases the ball even goes of in the wrong direction. You get used to it after a while, but the first couple of times you play the ball’s behaviour is really unpredictable.
On top of that this is one of those games that has problems with timing. You do not notice this immediately, but either by bug or by design the ball speeds up. Slowly at first but, depending on your CPU’s cycles, the increase gets rather significant. On faster machines it can be a matter of seconds until the ball is faster than your (sluggish) paddle and zips across the screen, right out of sight into the far away regions of the play field. It is a bit hard to tell, but it seems like the ball accelerates when it hits at certain angles, and once it gains speed there is almost no way to slow it down again… until you lose one of your precious lives.
Clearing a level takes real skill and patience and in the end it only takes you right up to the next one, which can also be accomplished by simply pressing the right mouse button. Should you ever be able to clear the last one (or alas even all of them) my guess is that you come to the same ending as when you manage to lose all of your lives: A kick right back to the DOS prompt.
Lest I forget about it: The game also has three sounds. Hitting a normal brick (high pitched beep), hitting a brick that takes three hits (middle pitched beep) and hitting an indestructible brick (almost deep beep). And yes, they do get a little bit annoying after a while, especially when the ball gets stuck between two bricks and beeps like crazy until he randomly gets unstuck again.
So far this sounds rather negative, but for all its shortcomings Bananoid has some things that set it apart from the plethora of Breakout variations: For one its minimalism takes you right into the game’s action. For two the field spanning two screens is still a novelty. For three the difficulty, while a bit unfair, can make for an interesting challenge too. Overall I would say, while this is not a game for everybody, it might be worth a look or two if you are either into Breakout games and wish to seriously test you skills, or if you are interested in gaming history and curious of what DOS games could have looked like in the late 80ies – if everyone would have got the hardware for it.