Games of 2013: Candy Crush Saga

Sweet surrender.

A year ago, film critic Mark Kermode came out in defence of the Twilight movies. "The world is full of people... Who feel not just enabled but dutybound to be sniffy about Twilight without having seen the films, read the books, or attempted to understand why they mean so much to so many," he wrote.

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Thing is, it's really hard to play BioShock while breastfeeding.

"The sight of stuffy, bespectacled greying men berating films aimed primarily at teenage girls is as farcical as it is depressing."

This is how I feel. Not about Twilight, which is hokey old nonsense that sends out dubious messages about gender roles and obsessive behaviour through the medium of Robert Pattinson's hair. (I've read all the books and seen all the films, obviously.)

It's how I feel about Candy Crush Saga, the match-three puzzle game everyone loves to hate. Much of this loathing is based on misconceptions. Such as...

Myth #1: "Isn't it just Bejeweled?"

That's like saying, "Oh, I see golf is played with small white balls, isn't it just Hungry Hippos?"

It's true that Candy Crush involves swapping brightly coloured objects around so they match up and disappear. But in Bejeweled, the goal is simply to score as many points as possible. In Candy Crush, every level is an individually designed puzzle with a specific objective. Completing the harder missions requires strategic planning, tactical risk-taking and a zen-like ability to resist smashing your iPad against the wall and using one of the shards to carve "I HATE YOU, LEVEL 125" into your own face.

When it comes to gameplay, Candy Crush has more in common with Tetris. Both games are about set-ups and pay-offs. Success is achieved by turning random chance to your advantage while monitoring a constantly fluctuating playing field.

In this sense, Candy Crush is also reminiscent of backgammon. New backgammon players often assume winning is largely down to luck, because there are dice involved. It's only over time, and usually while getting thrashed by an expert, that they realise it's about strategy and skill.

For an extra Christmas stocking filler, here's my top tips for Candy Crush Saga, where I also reflect on my troubling addiction.

Myth #2: "Isn't it just for middle-aged women?"

Candy Crush has been downloaded half a billion times. It is played by over a hundred million people every month. It is hard to believe all of them are middle-aged women.

OK, I say that as a middle-aged woman. But if we're accepting anecdotal evidence, here's a challenge: try walking the length of a tube carriage without passing someone playing Candy Crush. I bet you won't manage it, and I bet they won't all be middle-aged women.

I bet they won't all be casual gamers, either. Here's a post I found at random on the IGN forums, by 'Fettster777': "Seriously, f*** this game. Been stuck on level 39 for a week now. And it's the only thing I have at work to help pass the time. F***ing lives and s***, have to wait 30 f***ing minutes for a life. F***ing piece of s***, now what am I supposed to do?"

Fettster777 has been a member of the IGN message boards for 10 years and has written more than 50,000 posts. I doubt his other worries include what time Waitrose closes and whether he left his copy of 50 Shades of Grey in Barbara's Qashqai.

In any case - so what? There are plenty of games out there for the hardcore. The shelves are stacked with Battlefields and FIFAs and Forzas. Maybe we could let middle-aged women have this one thing.

Myth #3: "It's a massive rip-off."

Candy Crush is a free-to-play game that makes tons of money - an estimated $900,000 a day, in fact. However, it doesn't automatically follow that the game is a scam. Yes, it's addictive, but all the best games are - take World of Warcraft, for example, which costs an obligatory 8.99 a month.

It's possible to complete Candy Crush without spending a penny. The temptation to buy extra lives is strong, but there's no hard sell and no obligation. The same goes for power-ups. You don't even have to buy levels - they can be unlocked by completing quests, if you're patient enough to wait a few days. (Levels are the only things I've ever purchased, and having played the game solidly for six months, I've spent about a tenner. I think that's good value.) In short, paying out just speeds things up.

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Bet your grandma likes the look of this much more than that one about the hoodie on the boat with the pirates.

Of course, there will always be a few lunatics who go nuts and spaff their children's inheritance on lollipop hammers. But for every 'MY CANDY CRUSH HELL' headline in the Daily Mail, it's worth remembering there are literally millions of people spending next to nothing on this game, and getting hours of entertainment in return.

FACT: Candy Crush is quite good, actually.

This game takes a simple, familiar mechanic and twists it in unique ways, over and over again. The balance between luck and skill is perfectly tuned to create a supremely satisfying experience, albeit one that's based around an illusion. Victory always feels like the result of intelligent mastery on your part, even when you really just got lucky with that rainbow sprinkle. It may be a trick, but it's a great trick.

Special mention also has to go to the fantastic presentation, from the hypnotic, lilting music, to the way the sweets shine so brightly you want to pluck them from the screen and pop them in your mouth, and feel as though you could. Alright, the ringmaster bloke is a bit sinister (why are his hands so big?). But all in all, Candy Crush is a beautifully polished, fun and challenging game.

It's also the game I've played and enjoyed most over the last 12 months, which is why it's my game of the year. Maybe it's not yours, but I'm OK with that.

Reflecting on 2013, my Christmas wish is for an internet where everyone is allowed to like different things and have diverse perspectives. Where we can have interesting, reasoned and constructive debates. Where people are free to offer up opinions and ideas without being told they're stupid, or "bias", or talking out of their vaginas.

But I write about video games on the internet for a living, so I'll settle for a Kindle Paperwhite. Merry Christmas!

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