The first sentence of the blurb to Ragnablock reads "August 23rd 2035." It's set in the future, so that means there's aliens, right? Afraid so, because your hi-tech Ragna III space ship has been sucked into a wormhole, reappearing on the other side of the galaxy. If that's not bad enough, the pilot looks out of the window to find his ship "inside a labyrinth in the middle of a strange asteroid field guarded by aliens". What really puzzles him though is that this labyrinth setting is eerily similar to an old video game his granddad used to play back in the 20th Century called Arkanoid. In desperation he tries to remember the special spinning techniques his long deceased grandfather used to employ to achieve stupendous high scores, knowing that they may be the only thing that saves him from destruction.
Okay, so I made the last bit about his granddad up; I can't resist poking fun at plotlines for breakout games. If aliens were out to destroy you, it's unlikely they'd set up a bat and ball grid with falling power ups, waiting for you to die three times before announcing victory. In short, Ragnablock is an Arkanoid-type game for the Spectrum, a computer with a mixed history in the breakout genre. Many will remember the wonderful Batty, foolishly given away free with Your Sinclair because Elite thought it unmarketable in 1987. Others however will still be scarred by Thro' The Wall, a woeful BASIC mauling that came free with the original rubber-keyed machine.
Ragnablock is split into two gaming sections that alternate as you progress through the stages. The first part is the familiar setting of all Breakout clones, in which you bounce a ball around the screen trying to hit rows of blocks until they are all eliminated. You are aided by green coloured power ups that descend towards your bat giving extra lives and shields, whilst the aliens try to hinder your progress with red coloured bugs which can reduce visibility of your craft or even kill you.
The second stage is a little different to your normal Arkanoid fare, as this time you have to destroy asteroids bouncing around the screen. Shields are vital here, as without them, contact with the asteroids results in certain death. Once the rocks are obliterated, you meet an end of level boss that moves in a similar fashion. A few hits to this creature will see you progress to the next stage, and it's back to the rows of coloured blocks again on a brand new level.
I'm pleased to see that the stages have plenty of colour with minimal attribute clash, and while the monochrome patterned backgrounds are the same colour as the bat, there is no significant camouflaging effect as a result. The bat moves smoothly, and the ball physics are fairly easy to anticipate. There's also a decent tune for 128K users as well as some serviceable spot effects that will be heard on all Spectrum models. Sadly, Kempston is the only supported joystick format, and without a redefine keys option, there's no way of using a Sinclair or Cursor joystick with this game. Apart from that oversight, this is a highly professional product which technically compares favourably to other recent Spectrum homebrews such as Egghead Entertains and Farmer Jack.
ALL IN ALL YOU'RE JUST ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL
The detail is in the small print though, and longer gaming sessions of Ragnablock reveal a few kinks that reduce the long-term playability. My main gripe is with the bat that you control at the bottom of the screen. Hit the ball with the front of the bat and there's no problem, but any attempt to fine cut the ball with the bat edge leads to disappointment, as the ball just slips through the bat like a ghost. A lot of subtle angles and rebounds are therefore impossible to make, and it's annoying seeing another life lost through little more than questionable collision detection.
I would also argue that the game is simply too long; it can take a while to clear a single stage, especially when you take into account the asteroid sections that often follow afterwards. With twenty stages, it would take at least two hours to go through the whole game. For an in-depth arcade adventure, fair enough, but for a simplistic bat and ball game that first gained home success on the ultra primitive Atari 2600, this is pick-up-and-play overkill. Half a dozen stages would have been more than enough for a game of this type. Consider that Manic Miner takes just 25 minutes to complete, yet weeks to master. If Ragnablock was genuinely beatable in one session, then the impetus to go all the way would be far greater. Surely today's 8-bit programmers know better than anyone that less really is more.
Ragnablock is a finely polished and instantly playable release for the Spectrum, but a few rough edges in that old black art we call "gameplay" stop it from being considered a true rival to the best Speccy games of the genre. Ragnablock is certainly more Batty than Thro' The Wall, but not quite Batty enough.