Barrack seems a good of a point as any to introduce the unusual work of Ambrosia Software, a software and game company that hit its heyday developing for Macintosh in the 90s. Ambrosia specialized in weird, idiosyncratic arcade-style action games, usually remakes of classics like Centipede. Their games are an acquired taste but an important addition to the strange pantheon of 80s and 90s Mac games.
So we come to Barrack, Ambrosia’s 1996 clone of JezzBall. The premise is identical if you’re familiar with the original. You have to subdivide a field of bouncing balls into increasingly smaller sections while hitting as few of them as possible. The original JezzBall had a fatal flaw, in that the clutter of balls in the later stages made progress close-to-impossible. Barrack overcomes that problem with a neat selection of gimmicks and power-ups. This time, Ambrosia’s trademark overproduction pays off and brashly improves upon the original.
As with many of Ambrosia’s games, Barrack’s most notable feature is its unusual aesthetics. Ambrosia never preferred simple design when they could throw in gaudy CG graphics and in-jokey sound effects. The company’s PR representative admitted that this was a knowing attempt to garner attention in a time when small-time shareware developers were a dime a dozen, but it fit their style given the small team’s eccentric creative leanings.
The entire package looks and feels like the album art for a 90s grunge band. Maybe it’s the looping industrial soundtrack or the gritty, rusted interface covered in locks, but it reeks of excess. The original JezzBall or Qix didn’t need these types of dense production values to work, but their minimalist styles do leave a little to be desired in retrospect. In any event, Barrack might be one of the most vibrant games of its time. The gimmicky sounds certainly help, particularly the random voice-overs that would seem to be references to other media if they weren’t so darn silly. Chief among them might be the weird male voice saying “Bueno!” when you pick up bonuses.
As ostentatious as the game is, the biggest differences between Barrack and similar games might be the little tweaks. There are multiple types of obstacles that behave differently, such as bouncing balls affected by gravity, glass spheres that break, and a profane shark that can drift into the filled spaces of the board. In another case, the occasional magnet powerups can clear a path for you to place another line, mitigating the overcrowding problem inherent to the game. Perhaps the most interesting change is the idea that the balls are persistent between rounds and, with the use of the right explosives, can be destroyed. Little things like score multipliers add a unique flavor to the gameplay that gives it an edge over other clones.
Barrack does fall prey to the same chaos that plagues this type of game. Once three or four ball types are bouncing around the distractingly psychedelic backdrop, even the powerups and quirks can’t stop the game from being crushed under the weight of its flashy extravagance. It can become a lot to handle in short time.
This is a double-edged sword that affects Ambrosia’s 90s catalog, but Barrack in particular is hurt given its faster pace. Other, less showy Ambrosia games stick a little closer to the original formula, but they’re less memorable as a result. As such, Barrack acts as a great microcosm for everything good, bad, and special about Ambrosia’s style.
(If you’re curious and have access to an old Mac or Classic Environment for OS X, Barrack is still available for purchase. UPDATE: Ambrosia seems to have closed down.)