What happens when Breakout meets a Mario Bros. (the original Mario Bros. that appeared on classic systems such as the Atari 2600, back when Mario and Luigi were just cousins, before they were brothers)? Off the Wall happens, and it’s smashing!
Our hero is Kung Fu Lu, a young lad who has been granted five lives, as we are told from the game’s plot. His job is to destroy “an old, ugly wall” that contains evil spirits and to kill the mystical dragon that protects the wall, while outsmarting a cunning blackbird who attempts to foil Kung Fu Lu’s efforts. Lu uses only a stick and a ball to smash the horrible wall. From time to time, good fortune blesses Lu with magical objects that bring good fortune (power-ups).
Sounds cheesy? Who cares! Off the Wall brings amazing depth, innovative gameplay, and excellent graphics to the aging Atari 2600.
Developed by Axlon, a company founded by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, (Bushnell sold Atari to Time Warner for $28,000,000 – what he would later reflect on as his biggest mistake), Off the Wall looks almost too good to be a 2600 game.
The gameplay is similar to the popular Atari hit, Breakout. A ball is released from the top of the screen. The joystick moves a character at the bottom of the screen, in this case, Kung Fu Lu, and the ball bounces back up and smashes bricks or blocks, (or chicks or ticks or tocks sir!), creating a quick-trick brick trick.
If the ball hits the ground, Lu loses one of his five lives that he begins the game with.
If that were all that there was to the gameplay, then Off the Wall would be one for the bargain bin. However, Bushnell’s Axlon does much to improve on the classic formula.
Smashing all of the bricks is not the object of the game
The object of the game is to simply kill the dragon floating around at the top of the screen. The dragon takes several hits to kill (approximately 6-8 hits). Once the dragon has been destroyed, Kung Fu Lu advances to the next level.
The most intriguing part of Off the Wall‘s off-the-wall gameplay is the use of power-ups that became popularized by games such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Intermittently, when Lu smashes some bricks, a power-up will float down. If Lu grabs the power-up he will have special abilities for a short period of time.
Lu’s power-ups include the ability to create an explosion when the ball hits the wall, thereby destroying several bricks at once. At the right angle, the effect can be catastrophic. Another power-up slows the speed of the ball, making it easier to hit. One power up causes the ball to be caught in an upward cyclone upon being hit. And then there is perhaps the most powerful ability of them all, magnetism. With the ball and stick magnetized, not only will the ball always return directly to Kung Fu Lu’s stick as long as he is close by, but Kung Fu Lu can direct the ball in mid air. For example, if Lu stands directly under the wall with the magnetic ability, he can smash a tunnel into the wall. While the ball is in the tunnel, if Lu moves to the side, so will the ball, causing it to drill a hole directly into the side of the wall, and easily decimating the wall with just one hit – and perhaps also killing the dragon a number of times.
Finally, after the first stage, a menacing black bird comes to attempt to deflect Lu’s strikes at the wall. The bird flies below the wall and can intercept the ball, bouncing it directly to the ground, adding a much needed challenge and fresh gameplay element. The bird can often be used to the player’s advantage, because if the ball lands on top of the bird, it will bounce upwards.
Off the Wall featured amazing graphics considering the console that it was developed for. Axlon always pushed the 2600’s aging chipset to the absolute limits. Kung Fu Lu, the dragon, and blackbird are all well animated. Lu’s character has clearly recognizable limbs, and his stick can be seen. The wall its self is made up of many layers of different colored blocks.
It’s almost a shame that Off the Wall wasn’t developed specifically for the 7800 to take advantage of its superior graphics and sound capabilities. What is even more a shame is that Tengen, Atari’s 3rd party publishing arm in the late 80’s and early 90’s, never released an updated version of this game for the Sega Genesis. The company currently using the Atari moniker owns the rights to Off the Wall, and in 2005 released it as a built in game in the Atari Flashback 2.0 console.
Unfortunately, when it hit store shelves in 1989, Off the Wall was released too late in the 2600’s life cycle for it to have become a smash hit. Hopefully one day the right to this game will land in the hands of a company that will revive the title in a way that it deserves, enabling a whole new generation of gamers to enjoy this fantastic, creative and yet so simple gaming masterpiece.