PopCap Hits Vol. 1 Review

Game: PopCap Hits Vol. 1

Developer: PopCap Games

Publisher: Mastertronic Group Limited

Available on: Xbox 360 Only

Whilst once the stuff of distant dreams, in the age where buying a new video game meant a dedicated trip to an actual shop and paying real physical Queen’s Pounds Sterling for something you took home with you, nowadays you can obtain yourself a slice of gaming action without having to come into contact with another huming being. The internet in it’s many forms is so readily available that in this glorious era you can purchase games with the click of a mouse in a virtual shop, by entering your credit card details into the dashboard of your console, or even using the browser on your spankingly all-singing, all dancing smartphone. But spare a thought for those less fortunate; amazingly there are still some gamers out there who are not connected to the world wide web, or even those who steadfastly refuse to do so.

Hell, in these harsh times there are even poor blighters who do not have access to a credit or debit card. Rejoice, then, that game developers are still willing to make an extra buck by shilling thrown-together compendiums of their hitherto downloadable-only games, such as the topic of this review: PopCap Hits Vol. 1!

PopCap have been knocking around since 2000, initially operating out of the rain-lashed birthplace of grunge, Seattle, but latterly expanding by swallowing up fellow Seattle casual gaming developer Sprout Games, amongst others, teaming up with Valve Software to distribute games via the Steam service, and opening an international premises in Dublin, Ireland.

Unless you had been locked in your twisted stepfather’s dungeon for the last decade, there was no escaping PopCap’s opening game salvo – Bejeweled – the jewel swapping puzzler that has been ported to every concievable gaming platform known to man, and several not known to man. It was an award-guzzling mega-success.

The success of PopCap’s casual arcade style puzzle games meant that their products were well suited to the burgeoning Xbox LIVE Arcade, and indeed most of their titles are available to download for the platform, starting at 400 pieces of Bill Gates’ virtual videogame silver. Even though many of the games were also available online for free, albeit in a limited or trial form, the LIVE Arcade versions were popular and in most cases enhanced by the addition of various online modes.

PopCap have begun to release budget compilations of it’s most popular fare, beginning with the first volume which we will now proceed to pick apart and digest in it’s four chunks of somewhat varying quality.

PEGGLE: Unlike songstress and erstwhile star of Schwarzenegger’s alligator-punching action flick, Eraser Vanessa Williams in her signature torch song, we are not going to save the best for last. Because whichever way you look at it, Peggle is the best game on this disc. If Popcap Hits was a borstal, then Peggle would be the Daddy. It is methamphetamine addictiveness in pachinko-inspired form.

Just like the crazy Japanese slot machines, Peggle requires the player to fire a limited number of balls downward into the playing field, in order to clear a set number of designated “pegs” and activate all manner of score multipliers and suchlike. The ultimate evolution of the machines you shovel tuppeny bits into at the seaside, Peggle was already awesome even if played on your mobile, yet playing on a big screen, with the addition of online multiplayer modes and a glossy coat of graphical paint, is even better. It is right up there with your Puzzle Bobbles, your Tetrises and other classic puzzle games, and has enough variety in it’s many levels and modes to keep you and your friends, online or off, interested.

Even the addition of cutesy characters, which in lesser titles would be construed as twee and unnecessary, cannot dull the experience. Add into the mix a blinding easy listening soundtrack that incorporates Beethoven’s Ninth and Ode To Joy and you have yourself a belter of a game that is a real pleasure and needs to be a part of your otherwise worthless existence.

BEJEWELED 2: Originally released on Xbox LIVE Arcade in 2005, Bejeweled 2 is the sequel to…well, you know the story. Whilst not as endearing as blasting away orange pegs, Beeweled 2 is nonetheless a classic puzzler with the same satisfying jewel-swapping gameplay that most gamers will be familiar with, such is its ubiquity. Swap multi-coloured gemstones around one at a time to match them up, chain them together and remove them from the playing grid, either horizontally or vertically.

Deceptively simple in its premise, this sequel adds a plethora of new modes, some of which are only unlockable by achieving certain scores or conditions. These include the bonkers four-times faster mode which requires Mr Miyagi-like reflexes to master, “Finity” mode which adds explosions and modes which bamboozle the player by messing with the very essence of gravity itself. Bejeweled is undoubtedly ace, however, the lingering feeling is that playing it on your telly adds nothing to the experience. If anything, it works better on smaller platforms – particularly those with the benefit of a touch screen, and as such is not what you would consider essential.

ASTROPOP: Moving onto the inferior half of the compendium, AstroPop is a curious mix of days-of-yore classics Arkanoid and Klax; you pilot a wee space-dude horizontally along the bottom of the screen, with the ability to grab and release differently coloured blocks into the columns descending towards you, which when matched together in groups of four or more, are removed from the action. Of course, being a puzzle game, the blocks initially move slowly but speed up with each ensuing level.

As is also de rigeur in such titles, a myriad of different block types also enter the fray, with all of your old favourites present – exploding, indestructable buggers that can’t be shifted, points bonus blocks, yadda yadda. To counteract these, your character can also power up his or her weapon with new abilities that help clearing the pesky blocks easier. The further you progress, the more ridiculously hard AstroPop becomes, to the point that you feel like your head may explode such is the sadistic difficulty of it all.

Whilst simple to pick up and play and reasonably addictive until you reach the cranial-meltdown of the later levels, there are no additional modes or other winsome bells and whistles, and it lacks the charm inherent in Peggle, thus making Astropop less than essential.

FEEDING FRENZY: On paper, Feeding Frenzy sounds a hoot. You play as a marine predator whose goal it is to eat those aquatic denizens lower down the foodchain than yourself, gradually increasing in size, whilst avoiding obstacles such as depth charges, mines and jellyfish and, of course, any larger creature that is looking to do the same to you. So far, so 2D Katamari Damacy-goes-Jacques Cousteau.

Unfortunately in practice, Feeding Frenzy (incidentally the only title on display here not developed by PopCap – this one was poached from Sprout) is completely bereft of longevity or variety. Any experienced gamer will easily hammer the forty levels it offers with ease and even children or far less experienced players, to whom it would seem much better suited, will find it overly easy with practically zero reason to play it again once it has been completed. Easily the weakest title that PopCap Hits Vol. 1 has to offer.

VERDICT: Whilst it is undeniable that Peggle and Bejeweled 2 are essential if you are a fan of the puzzle genre, it is equally apparent that the other two titles that share disc space with those bad-boys are completely inferior by comparison. And that is why, even at a budget price, the first volume of PopCap Hits presents a false economy.

Those without access to Xbox LIVE and other avenues aside, the four titles on display are also available elsewhere, on other platforms, for a comparitively cheaper price. There will be more volumes in this series on offer in the coming months, including some other minor classics that can be bracketed in with the superior duo of corkers enthused about here. Even with that in mind, caution should be taken and if you are a child of the internet age, perhaps try selecting the cream of the crop as standalone purchases rather than picking up this or any future releases.

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