At this point in the meditation, one must rock out utterly.
For a ‘casual’ game franchise that consists largely of kid-friendly characters, unthreatening music and a single mouse-click per round, PopCap’s Peggle can certainly stir some deep emotions in otherwise ‘hard-core’ gamers. I remember once mentioning the game in conversation at a Sony event attended exclusively by game journalists, only to suddenly hear passionate echolocative pings of “Oh my God, Peggle!” sound out from two opposite areas of the room at once. You can think of the Peggle experience as part Pachinko, part pinball, part billiards, part zen exercise…and part mainlining heroin.
[image1]Now the (equally-addictive) follow-up Peggle Nights is finally upon us, and, well…let’s be coarsely blunt about this: PC productivity everywhere is once again going to be crippled like Tiny Tim being trampled under a horse-drawn carriage on Christmas Day.
You know that old Einstein quote about God not playing dice with the Universe? Well, maybe so, maybe not… but I would be willing to wager my life that He does play something more akin to Pachinko in general, and even more akin to Peggle in particular. Let’s all just pray that whole endeavor ends up, as does Peggle, with a rousing, angels-and-rainbows chorus of “Ode to Joy,” instead of—as now seems increasingly more likely—a slow, depressing, inevitable heat-death.
Every Peggle Nights level—from the character-introducing Adventure Mode through to the completion of the ultra-obsessive Challenge Mode— follows the same basic formula: a ball-launcher at the top of the screen, a playing field below it filled with a color-coded constellation of Pachinko-style pegs (along with occasional barriers and/or moving targets), an ammo-rack of balls off to the side, and a ball-catching bucket continually moving back and forth across the bottom of the screen. Your job is to pick a launch angle, send a ball bouncing from peg to peg (eliminating each said peg — thus continually making the playfield that much more sparse and hence difficult), and score as many points as possible. Hit orange pegs to clear the stage, purple ones for a point boost, and green ones to activate your chosen hero/character’s special power. Child’s play, right? Yer ass.
Skill, foresight, a pool-shark’s eye for opportunistic angles and an air traffic controller’s eye for the convergence of relative ball and bucket motion count for a lot—but sheer, drunks-and-small-children good fortune can’t and shouldn’t be discounted, either. Each round of Peggle is a sort of triumviral effort between you, God and Newton—so it’s probably best to resist the (understandable) temptation to call this a luck-based game.
I call Peggle Nights a “follow-up” because it’s really something between a proper Sequel and an expansion. Frankly, it’s mostly ‘more of the same,’ mechanically, aurally and visually—but this is one of those happy cases where ‘more of the same’ is a good thing.
Where the original Peggle began with the rising of a happy animated sun to Edvard Grieg’s Morgenstimmung, Peggle Nights counters with the rise of an equally-happy moon to, natch, "Clair de lune". Nights takes the ‘hero’ characters introduced in the first game—including a unicorn with a predilection for predictive angles, a rabbit with a carny-huckster’s step-right-up-and-spin-the-wheel philosophy on power-ups, a one-eyed extraterrestrial with a Unabomber complex, a contemplative owl with Zen on his side, an animate pumpkin who grooves out to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and a dragon who really does breathe balls of fire, among others—and delves into the things they dream about at night.
[image2]The night-time conceit makes for some great new background art, and some opportunities for quirky humor as well: Turns out the fire-breathing dragon dreams of being—wait for it—a fire fighter; the pumpkin fancies himself a perspective-altering artist (his background scenes consist of pumpkin-centric takes on Munch’s The Scream and Escher’s Relativity, for example); and the wise old owl—who’da thunk it—wants to be stage-owning rocker. The previously-released Peggle was already a simple marvel of audiovisual presentation, but Peggle Nights—to coin a phrase—goes to Eleven.
Mechanically, it’s all familiar, but there are tweaks and additions—particularly the all-new Adventure and Challenge levels, making for 60 all-new levels, in terms of peg layout—considerably more when you consider the new Challenge rules and variants. Some of the existing hero-character’s special powers have been wonked on a bit, to make their effects even more rewarding (frankly, one or two of them needed it). There are also new trophies, achievements and ‘style shots’: If you’ve already played Peggle, you already know how much Style quickly figures in to the expressive elegance of the game.
Certain oblong ‘pegs’ and barrier segments in the first game were known to rotate on occasion, making for temporary, minor changes to the off-rolling topography of the playfield, but it seems to be more prevalent in this new game—what looks like a sure-fire, contained point-corral can suddenly do the Dark City Twist and end up dumping your ball down to where the ever-roving bucket may or may not catch it for a recycled, free shot.
Peggle Nights also features an all-new selectable hero, Marina. A cephalopodic sweetie, this diva from the deep’s special hero power is the ‘electrobolt;’ when the electrobolt ball is in the chamber, the first peg hit instantly fires a crackling bolt of electricity from the point of contact to whichever point at the bottom of screen the bucket currently occupies, lighting up (and subsequently removing) all pegs between. It’s a nifty way of taking care of pegs arranged in vertical rows (i.e., those not positionally well-disposed to being removed by a ball rolling side-to-side). It also makes a wicked, satisfying sound.
In fact, ‘satisfying sound’ is a surprisingly large wedge of the pie that is Peggle’s appeal: Every audio file, from the merest ball/peg collision on up, is cleanly, crisply rendered, and really gives the game some audiokinetic meat—good thing too, since, technically, you are spending the vast majority of your time watching a ball bounce beyond your control.
And of course, when you finally clear each level, that rousing chorus of ‘Ode to Joy’ sounds triumphantly to the accompaniment of rainbows, explosions and general pyrotechnics. If only the average first-person shooter gave 1/100th this much love to players for every perfectly-executed head shot; I’m not sure the world would be a better place or anything, but still, man.
[image3]It really says something when one has to reach this far for a down side, however, the mechanical beauty and simplicity of this game is dying for a level-editor, and it is still AWOL as of this writing. There are promised add-on modules in the future, however—so here’s looking at us, kid.
Final word, Replayability: Beneath this friendly, deceptively simple-looking game lies a smug, mocking worst-enemy waiting to happen—just when you think you’re starting to get ‘good’ at Peggle Nights, you’ll come to a new Zen level of understanding at which you realize, in the best meditative sense, that you know zilch, nada, zip, zero, jack-shit, nothing. You’ll feel pretty good about yourself when you clear a level, until you realize you could do it with more points; you’ll feel good about more points, until you realize you can do it with fewer balls; you’ll feel good about that, until you realize you could gain those points with one shot. Ad infinitum, ad astra.
The good news is, you’ll just as likely be too motivated out of competitive ambition to have time to hang yourself from mondo-shot-envy despair.