Huzzah for Data East. They have always been underdogs among more prominent game developers and they officially disbanded in 2003, but they nonetheless acquired a small fan following. Several of their best-known games include Burgertime, a chef's quest to foil a bunch of rogue food items, Bade Dudes, a brawler centered around saving the President whose opening screen has reached memetic status, and the platformer Karnov, starring a fire-breathing strongman with a fantastic mustache fighting against a wide assortment of bizarre creatures. While their eventual fate was lamentable, they were once strong enough to survive video game's great big 1983 crash and go on to make some of their biggest hits. They had been around since 1978 under the title DECO (Data East COrporation), but while it wasn't until the mid-eighties onward that they became semi-famous, they had some modest hits during the golden age. One such title was Cluster Buster, released right in the year of the crash and provided a rather unique spin on the tried-and-true formula of Breakout.
Yes, Breakout, Atari's classic one-player Pong-like blockbuster. The basics of Breakout is to keep a ball active using a paddle while bouncing the ball towards bricks to destroy them. The round is won if you break all bricks, and it is lost if you keep failing to return the ball and let it drop into the void below you. While the best-known Breakout clone is Taito's Arkanoid, Cluster Buster predates it by three years and brought its own twists to the formula. In most Breakout games, your paddle is often depicted as a flat bar and you can only move left or right, but your instrument of rebound here is instead a large round sphere called a "Bouncer." It does seem quite odd to essentially be pinging a smaller ball off of a larger one, but while its horizontal surface is a bit lesser than a paddle, the Bouncer has two notable advantages. A: It can float around anywhere on the screen and isn't just limited to horizontal movement, and B: It has two modes that cause the ball to bounce differently on impact. When closed, the ball returns at a vertical angle, but when open (as denoted by a red crown), the ball returns at a more horizontal skew.
Your ball bounces against large clusters of bubbles, triangles, and other geometric shapes oddly known as "grapes." They only look round like grapes for the first couple of rounds or so before later levels make them look less edible. Clusters of grapes hanging on several chains gradually descend down, and you will lose a life if you run into any of them. Thankfully, you can grant yourself a temporary reprieve from the incoming grapes by pressing the "Up" button, which uses up a flashing arrow as indicated at the top of the screen. You can hold up to three arrows, and using one makes the screen's colors go all funky while pushing up all of the oncoming grapes. You win if you either pop all grapes or let any remaining grapes fall through the bottom of the screen, but it's not so easy when there are two other ways to lose besides touching another grape. You may notice the small red blocks behind your Bouncer at the bottom of the screen, and these will save your ball if you miss, but each brick disappears when hit with the ball. If too many bricks are hit and your ball falls through an unprotected part of the bottom, that's a life gone. However, even more obnoxious are the threat of ever-present spiders which keep dropping at random from the grapes above. They fall without much warning and will be your most likely cause of losing a life, but if you hit them with the ball, you get another Up arrow.
Aside from staying alive and keeping the ball in play, your other goal is to rack up as high a score as possible. This is done by striking higher-up grapes, letting all grapes below them drop in a fashion similar to attached bubbles in Taito's Puzzle Bobble series. If you manage to drop a massive ton of grapes at once, they transform into some other odd form like fishes or mahjong tiles. You also get a point bonus at the end of the level depending on how many times you hit the ball with your bouncer. Amusingly enough, the attract demo actually encourages you to break the game by attempting to trap the ball between your Bouncer and one of the two upper corners. This is much easier demonstrated than actually done, but if you somehow manage to pull off this fit, your end-stage total shows an astronomical end result. You don't even have to worry about destroying all grapes, as the stage also concludes if they pass through the bottom of the screen. You also summon a character called "Mr. Grapo" who walks by and repairs some of the bricks at the bottom if you return the ball seventeen consecutive times. You can also be a jerk and hit him with the ball for even more points!
Cluster Buster is indeed an interesting game and quite a fun one too, but it is also not easy. Your Bouncer moves slower than the ball which is likely to make returning a pain, and those spiders are just awful as well as obnoxious. They make this really shrill whistling sound that drowns out nearly everything else and you keep hearing it about every two seconds as if it were an air raid siren. Cluster Buster is the sort of game best enjoyed with the volume down, and it's easy to lose even in the first round, but you'll find quite an enjoyable game if you keep playing at it. Data East managed to show their innovation on one of the kookier Breakout clones in arcade history and it's worth tracking down on MAME, although the old DECO tape system means you have to wade through a rather lengthy load-up screen. While not released under any known compilations, Cluster Buster was released under the alternate name of Graplop with changes to the graphics and a difference in gameplay. The grapes themselves take on other shapes and different colors than the conventional cold blue hues of Cluster Buster, and the Bouncer resembles an eyeball; yet another version makes it look like a beach ball, oddly enough. Also, instead of the bricks at the bottom, you instead get a line which never breaks, but letting your ball hit it causes the grapes to drop even faster. Graplop actually featured on the '80s competitive high score video game show Starcade, and it is thus far the only existing footage of this version until MAME makes it playable.