There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid Breakout-style game, but I can’t help but think that this genre, with its thousands upon thousands of games, has been, for the most part, horrendously stagnant. Sure, sometimes there are a few cool power-ups and every now and then there might be enemies or some other hazards, but for every entry that tries to change up the formula in a creative way there exists a legion of other games which go beyond being merely unimaginative and enter the realm of being utterly interchangeable. At a glance, Sly Pitch certainly looks like it has effort put into it, but the components of the typical trinity of paddle, ball, and bricks are all present and accounted for. Thankfully, Sly Pitch manages to soar high above nearly every other game in the genre and it could even be said that it outright revolutionizes Breakout games by centering its mechanics around a single tweak to the formula – the ball always returns to the paddle.
Making the ball follow the paddle, or ‘Sky Sledge’ as this game calls it, is a simple change from the standard formula on its own, but it’s a change which the rest of Sly Pitch is built around. As the game can no longer be lost by missing the ball, the player needs to instead deal with a descending level reminiscent of Bust-A-Move. The entire level gets slightly closer to the ground every time the player catches the ball and if a brick or an indestructible wall gets too low it will result in the loss of a life and the level will reset. There is also a circular timer in the lower-right corner which will also start to count down each time the player catches the ball and resets once the ball is launched; if the timer completely depletes, either because the player took too long planning out the next move before launching the ball or because the ball was in the air for too long, the level will fall closer to the ground. To further change things up, since the ball always follows the horizontal movement of the paddle it is never launched at an angle and it doesn’t bounce, but it does pierce through most bricks and this allows for a sense of control and precision largely absent from the genre.
There are plenty of other innovations to be found here as well, though one of the biggest changes, and the one which many of the trickiest levels are framed around, is the ability for the ball to horizontally teleport through solid walls. The ball doesn’t constantly gain momentum as it moves along and if it lands on an unbreakable wall it will only bounce very gently, not even going high enough to move on top of a single brick, but it still needs a way to return to the paddle. Thus, if there is a solid wall to the side of the ball and the player continues to move the paddle away from the ball, the ball will teleport across the wall the moment the paddle lines up with a free space (or one taken up by a destructible brick). This results in many levels which require players to quickly ‘drag’ the ball through walls to access enclosed bricks or to navigate mazes with several of the later levels requiring fast reflexes in order to drag the ball through multiple small cages before it can touch the ground in order to get every brick.
For all of its unique elements, Sly Pitch still puts an emphasis on two of the most traditionally important Breakout elements, brick variety and scoring mechanics. Each stage usually contains a set of somewhere around eight to twelve levels and players only have three lives in which to clear every level in a stage. As levels are sectioned off into fixed sets, each of the eight stages has its own high score chart based on the cumulative score obtained across every level in the set. Points are only actually scored once the ball returns to the paddle and the point multiplier increases for every brick hit along the way, granting an added incentive to try to hit as many bricks as possible in a single launch. To make things a bit trickier, any points which aren’t ‘banked’ are lost and the multiplier is reset if the timer depletes before the ball returns to the paddle, making it vital to be both fast and precise even in the easier levels if you’re going for a high score.
Brick variety is often very hit and miss in this genre and attempts at changing things up usually only result in bricks which either take more hits to break or somehow become harder to hit in the first place. Sly Pitch may indeed contain the dreaded ‘slightly-smaller-than-usual brick’, though being able to actually have a good degree of control over the ball dramatically reduces this brick’s normally-nightmarish presence, but it has a good number of creative brick types as well. For those looking to chase high scores, there are hollow bricks which do not need to be destroyed in order to clear a level and are even harmlessly chopped off without costing a life if they touch the ground, but hitting them does boost the score multiplier and they still grant half the number of points as standard bricks. Red teleporter bricks are also present; teleporter bricks instantly transport the ball back to the paddle and can’t be destroyed so they are usually utilized as impenetrable barriers or hazards to be avoided, though they can be useful for banking points if time is running out. However, the most important type of special brick is probably the blue ‘solid’ brick, which the ball can’t pierce, but hitting one of these bricks temporarily reduces the ball’s vertical speed, making it possible to drag the ball through horizontal lines of these and other bricks. Explosive bricks, bricks which make more bricks, trampolines, and quite a few other obstacles and hazards also exist and Sly Pitch does an excellent job both of gradually introducing them to the player without any blatant tutorials and of constantly presenting new and creative ways in which these elements are used together.
Sly Pitch is almost certainly one of the most polished and innovative games in its genre and should serve as an example for other games to expand upon. As far as problems go, it would have been nice to see a bit more musical variety or possibly a boss fight or two and the lack of score-based unlockables stands out in a game where the high scores are divided between multiple bite-sized segments, but these are all extremely minor complaints even by nitpicking standards. Sly Pitch is a commercial-quality game for free and absolutely should be played by anyone who even remotely likes the Breakout genre.