There aren't many videogames I play with my girlfriend, partly because they're just not her thing and partly, I suspect, because of the time I hurled my Wavebird against the wall and stormed out when she beat me at Mario Kart for the sixteenth successive race. Peggle, though, we've played together every night for the last week or two, with the PC hooked up to the telly and a wireless keyboard providing makeshift controls. We took turns, we oohed at each other's near misses, wooed at unlikely but spectacular triumphs and clapped with delight when a beaver on a skateboard popped up on the bottom-left of the screen to congratulate us. Truly, this was a game to cross the apparently infinite divide of me choosing to spend my time shooting pretend men in the face and her watching Buffy on repeat.
Sometime EG contributor and full-time Peggle disparager John Walker says we are idiots for this. While I'd agree it's not the textbook implementation of quality time, and that the image of a couple giggling at a cartoon owl is offensively saccharine, I strongly dispute any criticism of the game's quality and longevity. Peggle is as much the definitive casual game as Singstar is, an unashamed celebration of anyone-can-play gaming with enough subtle depths to lure in the high-score hardcore too. Though there is a campaign of sorts (and a long set of individual harder levels beyond that), this is not a game you ever finish. Peggle is always there, and always just-one-more-go. Peggle has made me miss deadlines - the first game to suck me in so stupidly completely since the earliest days of World of Warcraft.
To describe the game's essential nature is almost redundant and can, in fact, sound so mundane in cold text that it could damage potential interest in it. But, y'know, games journalism generally requires context, so let's get this out of the way quickly. It's Breakout by way of pinball - you shoot coloured pegs with a limited supply of balls, and there are various ways to clear more pegs or win extra balls. Clear all of the orange pegs and you win. Two things stop this undeniably simple formula from being just another glorified Pong derivation.
The first is chance. This is game that can be mastered, to a point, by a strong maths brain or snooker genius, but really that's to keep that high-score hardcore sated, and isn't something you should strive for. As often as it infuriatingly won't make sense that your carefully-aimed ball has hit a single peg then pinged off into the dread abyss at the bottom of the screen, it'll unexpectedly clip a bit of wall or stray brick and fire back into the heart of the remaining pegs, thus improbably winning you the level on your last ball, with equal regularity. I do apologise for that monstrously long sentence, but like to believe it evokes just how lengthy and eventful a single Peggle shot can be. Maybe.
Then there is the bucket, a hole that moves of its own accord across the bottom of the screen. Again, a joyless expert can often ensure he lands the ball in this, but that can't possibly match the unparalleled gift of an unexpected free ball because fortune has dropped your last one into the bucket. That the bucket is autonomous, and not controlled like the Breakout bat, is key here. It's your slightly disinterested guardian angel, swooping in to save you from certain doom when you least expect it. Regardless of the bucket's interference, it's more-or-less impossible to predict what's going to happen beyond the second or third peg the ball hits. This keeps Peggle constantly surprising, but also causes some folk to moan that's it's more a sequence of random events than a game. This is probably because the second fabulous thing about Peggle, which I'm getting to shortly, doesn't excite them in the way it does so many others.
So, that second thing, and Peggle's greatest triumph, is its musicality. My strongest criticism of the game is that the monotonous lift music of its soundtrack is inexplicably at odds with the smarts of its incidental effects. 25,000 points wins a new ball, but you don't watch the score gauge for this - you listen to the rising note of each successive peg hit, building to what seems an impossibly high crescendo. It's the sound of yearning, and when you hit that magic number, you're rewarded with a glorious chorus of MIDI angels. Oh, and an extra ball.
The weirdly harmonious wall of different sounds builds and builds. Each of the 10 character aids - with a special power, some goofy mannerisms and eyes that follow your ball around the screen - plays a tune when their ability activates. The best is Renfield's, the pumpkin who returns the next lost ball to play when you hit one of the two green pegs. He plays Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor (the archetypal piece of horror music - you'll know it if you heard it), but just a bar at a time. One when you hit a green, another when he drops your ball back in. The only way to hear the whole riff is to hit both green pegs within the same shot, thus queuing up four different bars. It's just a spectacularly visceral and thoughtful way of telling you you've done something really good.
Better than all of these is victory. The game sloooooows down and zoOOMS in if your ball approaches the last orange peg, and there's a drumroll. Inevitably, you don't breathe for a second. Miss the peg, and an unseen crowd sighs for you. Hit it, and EXTREME FEVER! There are fireworks. And, famously, there is Beethoven's Ode To Joy played loud, and, time and again, it's possibly the most rapturous, overwhelming feeling of accomplishment any videogame has ever inspired. Except, of course, for ULTRA EXTREME FEVER!, which is so ridiculously over the top that you'll laugh as well as cheer on those rare occasions you manage to clear every last peg on the screen.
An ode to joy is exactly what Peggle is. It's a constant series of rewards, slapping you on the back and tickling you affectionately under the chin for what you achieve by design and accident alike - the purest of celebrations of what videogames are all about. It's non-violent, very funny, incredibly charming and gently asks more of your brain than reflex. It creates nostalgia for a period of gaming that probably never actually existed. But now it does. Peggle! Peggle! Peggle!