Version tested: PC
I like to think PopCap was surprised when Peggle Deluxe made the leap from casual moneyspinner and guilty pleasure to industry-wide disease. I like to think that, when Valve joked that The Orange Box was delayed because everyone was playing Peggle, the PopCap staff fluttered a paper fan to their shy faces, and giggled. "Little old uncool us?" I continue to imagine them saying. "There must be some kind of mistake."
It's easy to underestimate PopCap and the year it spent painstakingly creating a version of pachinko that would work outside of the arcades. It wasn't just the basic bagatelle mechanic that made everyone fumble about in their trousers. It was that cocktail of psychological components that makes casual gaming such a lie of a phrase.
Here are the basic rules, for newcomers. A level is full of pegs. Fire a ball into the pegs, and the pegs light up. Blue pegs are basic 100-point fodder. Orange pegs are the ones you have to clear to progress. Purple pegs give a score boost, and green pegs activate the special power of the character you're using. Bonuses are awarded for slides, trick shots, and blind luck. Once the ball drops out of play, the lit pegs disappear, and you shoot another ball. You only have control over two things: which direction you launch your ball, and when you launch it. It's so suffocatingly basic, you'd need something special to bring it out of mediocrity. And PopCap delivered.
The scoring in Peggle Deluxe was perfect. The simplicity of the system - a score per peg, multiplied by the amount of pegs hit - was intuitive, and allowed for an exponential increase in score for a cunning (or, let's be honest, lucky) shot. The first extra ball, awarded at 25,000 points, is hard to get, but once you've got it, the second two extra balls always seem tantalisingly within reach. These are the huge rewards, held within reach but not over-used, that casual gamers subconsciously demand.
There were also a brilliant set of audio rewards. The rising pitch of the peg collisions, the heavenly choir that punctuates an extra ball. The drum roll, and close-up Fever Cam which kicks in when you approach that final orange peg. And it's impossible to overstate how important that explosion of extreme fever was in making you feel like the Prince of Awesome. Go into the game's menu - there are three volume sliders. Music, Sound Effects, and Fever. You can mute everything, and still have that burst of Ode to Joy telling you you're brilliant. Don't think the chaps at PopCap aren't geniuses. They're fingering your brains. They're inside your chest, playing your ribs like a wet xylophone.
Then there were the challenges - unlocked by completing the adventure mode. Levels were reiterated with increased numbers of orange pegs. You had the audacity to duel against the Peggle masters. You survived ten rounds with one set of balls, and went for rock-hard score challenges. The second trophy, for completing these levels, was enough to keep you going for weeks. If you went for the final trophy - 100 per cent peg clearance on all levels - then you were cheerfully walking down the road to mental disorder.
The final thing that edged Peggle into the lands of love were the characters. Bjorn the Unicorn headed up the scholarly Peggle Institute, along with his friends, the Peggle Masters. From Renfield the eerie Pumpkin, to Jimmy the skateboarding chipmunk, they were charming enough to be popular with mums, and self-consciously funny enough to cut the mustard with ironic young men. It was warm humour, and even the most ardent dark-hearted goth couldn't fail to love that enthusiastic flower.
Why am I spending so long talking about the original Peggle? For any other game, you'd have every right to be angry at this shoe-gazing retrospective. But it's completely justifiable here, because Peggle Nights is virtually the same game. The only element of the original that PopCap has run with is the characters - Peggle Nights is a journey into their dreams. Not bizarro sleepy dreams; you won't see Jimmy being heckled by a Plasticene dinosaur during his Peggle "A" Levels. It's the aspirations of the characters. And the conversion of those dreams into five levels of Peggle each.
Bjorn harbours a secret desire to be a crime-fighter. Brilliant, you think. Let's see if his Super Guide - a power which tells you where the ball's going to go from its first bounce, great for scoring the long-shot bonus - has somehow evolved to fit his dreams. Perhaps it's more glittery, or comes out of his eyes like a laser. It doesn't. So you downscale your own dreams, and wonder it he'll put a mask on at any point. He doesn't.
The other dreams all raise a smile; whether it's the gentle xenophobia of Claude's rampage through Paris, Splork's hunger for a perfect 300 in bowling, or Tula's heartbreaking dreams of being able to simply move around, there's a sweet and unpredictable mix of dreams on offer. When Tula resigns herself to a lifetime of immobility, it's a moment of bleakness to rival the movies of Todd Solondz. [Is it. - Ed]
But there's nothing new in the game. There's nothing new in the levels. No bumpers, trampolines, magnets, none of the stuff I was dimly hoping for. Any new challenges? No - it's the same series of 35-peg to 55-peg challenges, duels and marathons. Perhaps PopCap has worked with Valve and Steam, like it did with Peggle Extreme, to introduce online duelling? No. You'll still be sharing palm-sweat with your friend. Maybe Claude's flippers have been fixed to make them less tediously wall-hugging? The answer, as I'm sure you're beginning to suspect, is no.
In some ways, the board design is a little disappointing, too. Renfield's levels have the inaccessible boxiness that Tula's had in the first game, and this really doesn't flatter his Spooky Ball special power at all. You're going to have to wait until the challenge levels to feel the full and awesome force of the pumpkin. Incidentally, here's a fun fact - when PopCap was designing Renfield for the first game, he was originally going to be a ghost. But because you only get to see the character's head during the levels, he looked like a Klansman. Hence the pumpkin.
I'm not being completely fair - there are two new things. There's an Aced award, for high scores. This adds to that trophy-collecting aspect of the game, that'll appeal to the incredibly patient, bored and compulsive. More importantly, there's a new Peggle Master. Marina the Squid is a solid Peggler, and her new power - a lightning bolt that travels from the first peg hit to the bucket - has a small skill element that's lacking in the genetics of the game. It's also well-suited to her levels, making her round one of the most enjoyable. Her dream is to join the Peggle Institute, which is a great way to end the Adventure mode. Everyone's happy. Except for Tula, whose application for a motorised plant pot appears to have been turned down.
I'm far from a Peggle hater, and the last thing the world needs is a Peggle backlash; I loved Peggle Deluxe, I cheered for Peggle Extreme, and seriously considered putting a series of commentated duels on YouTube. The phrase "that's liquid Peggle" remains a private joke, and I've spent happy lunchtimes cheering my deranged friend Steve onto winning that third and stupidest trophy for 100 per cent clearance on all levels. Peggle Nights is still a great casual game. It's just a game that PopCap has released before. It's like draughts and checkers. You don't need to buy the board and pieces twice to play the same bloody game.
6 / 10