Version tested: iPhone
What if the games industry was one big party? Picture the scene. As you walk in you pass Blizzard and Activision, snogging in the hallway. Heading into the lounge you see Microsoft and Sony are the centre of attention. They're arguing about who's got the best new car, but neither will let anyone else have a go. Nintendo is looking out of the window, barely listening to the row, too busy making sure no one's standing too close to its Bugatti Veyron.
In the kitchen, EA and THQ lean grumpily against the cupboards, wishing they were the ones in the hallway with Blizzard. Ubisoft lights another Gitane and tries to start a conversation about art, but everyone's too busy complaining about how Nintendo never buys a round.
One figure stands out from the rest. Not because of the smart suit or highly polished shoes, but because of the crowd gathered around. While everyone else at the party fights amongst themselves, PopCap Games is the one getting all the chicks.
The secret to its success? Smart, highly polished casual games. More than a billion PopCap titles have been downloaded in the last ten years, an awful lot of them by people who wouldn't know Metal Gear from Gears of War. The company is responsible for the likes of Peggle, Zuma and Bookworm, plus Bejeweled - 50 million copies have now been shifted, making it one of the top ten best-selling games of all time.
But Bejeweled isn't PopCap's fastest-selling title. That accolade belongs to Plants vs. Zombies, the tower defence game first released for PC last May. It's popular around these parts, scoring 9/10 in our review and heralded as one of our favourite games of 2009.
For those who didn't play it and can't be bothered to click on those links, here's the deal: Plants vs. Zombies sees you battling against waves of zombies as they shamble across your lawn. You decide what stands in their way, choosing from an arsenal of wacky plants.
There are exploding potato mines and cherry bombs, projectile peashooters and zombie-eating venus flytraps, red hot chillies for burning up entire rows of enemies and hallucinogenic mushrooms which make them turn on their own. There are also plants which generate sunshine, the currency required to buy seeds. An extra plant is unlocked each time you complete a level so there's a constant stream of new toys to play with.
New types of zombies pop up as the game progresses. Some wear traffic cones or metal buckets on their heads for protection. Others are dressed in athletic gear and able to pole vault over obstacles, or tied to balloons so they can float over projectiles. The highlight is the Michael Jackson zombie, who comes complete with a red leather tracksuit and a troop of dancers doing the Thriller moves.
Happily, PopCap hasn't felt the need to remove the zombie Michael Jackson from this new iPhone version now the actual Michael Jackson is dead. In fact, PopCap has removed little in the transition from PC to iPhone and iPod Touch. Survival, Puzzle, Zen Garden and Mini-Game modes have been dropped but you still get Adventure and Quick Play, and there are still 50 levels
There's an almanac with a guide to all the plants and zombies you encounter. There's a shop where you can buy special items, like a garden rake which takes out enemies when stepped on. There's a long list of achievements to earn (PopCap fans should scroll right down for a couple of great in-jokes).
Most importantly, nothing has been lost in translation when it comes to gameplay. Like the PC game, Plants vs. Zombies on iPhone features a finely-tuned difficulty curve and a smart reward system. The balance between resource collection and weapon management is just right. The game is instantly accessible and introduces new concepts gradually, encouraging you to develop new strategies and evolve ideas. And like the PC game, the iPhone version is more addictive than Pringles dipped in heroin.
It's also just as polished. All the environments are the same as in the PC game and they look great. The level of detail is stunning, from the individual hairs on zombies' heads to the sunlight twinkling on the pool in the back yard. The sound is superb too, with funky eighties-style tunes punctuated by zombie groans for "Braaiiiins".
In fact, the iPhone version looks and sounds just like the PC one 95 per cent of the time. The game struggles, however, when there are large numbers of enemies and projectiles on the screen. With a dozen three-headed peashooters and a huge wave of zombies going full pelt, the frame rate often stutters. But this is a rare rather than regular occurrence, and when it does happen, the stuttering isn't significant enough to render the game unplayable.
That's really the only negative point to be made about the iPhone port. Scrabbling around for other criticisms, you could complain its similarity to the PC version means it's all a bit familiar if you played the previous game. You don't get the same pleasure from trying out a brand new plant or discovering a new strategy. Those players of the PC game who complained it was too easy are likely to find the iPhone version even less challenging as any lessons have already been learned.
However, that's not a fair criticism. Plenty of iPhone owners won't have played the PC game anyway. As someone who did, I enjoyed playing through it again on a handheld. Yes, it was easier and true, there were no surprises, but that doesn't change the brilliant balance or the addictive nature of the gameplay.
Plus in one way, I enjoyed it more. The touch screen controls work perhaps even better than the mouse - there's something deeply satisfying and intuitive about plonking plants down with your finger. The playing area is large enough that the iPhone never struggled to register exactly where I was pointing, so there were no problems with precision.
So, occasional frame rate issues aside, there's nothing bad to say about Plants vs. Zombies for iPhone. The gameplay is just as well-balanced and finely tuned as it is in the PC version. The presentation is up to the same high standards, while the control system is perhaps even improved. Like so many PopCap titles, PvZ is slick, pretty, charming and funny. If the games industry was one big party, I'd get off with it.
9 / 10
Plants vs. Zombies is out now and costs £1.79 on the App Store.