My first taste of Peggle, PopCap’s immensely popular Breakout/pachinko hybrid, came from the official demo. I generally try the demos of PopCap’s games as they come out. They provide a solid hour of entertainment, and once the hour is up, you’re done. Every once in a while there’s one that’s interesting enough to make me register it, but usually I just walk away when I hit the time limit. And that’s what I did with Peggle. The demo left me with the impression of a game that had a lot of lovely sparkle and glitter, but one that was not terribly deep and heavily luck-based, as it’s usually impossible to predict where the ball will go after its second bounce.

Then I got the Orange Box, and with it came Peggle Extreme, an Orange-Box-themed Peggle demo with background pictures of rubble and headcrabs replacing the pastoral scenes and woodland creatures of the original. 1I notice that the Steam version of the Orange Box no longer includes Peggle Extreme, but that’s because it’s now downloadable for free. But the art wasn’t the only thing that was different. Instead of limited time, it offered limited content — ten (new) levels and as much time as you liked to beat them. It was finishable, so I finished it. Then I played all the Challenge levels. Then I played all the levels again, going for 100% completion on each, and at some point I realized that I was going to have to get the full game.

I think that part of the reason the Extreme demo worked so much better for me is that I needed the extra time, and access to the Challenge levels, to see that there was more to the game than luck and a little trivial decision-making. Luck is a big factor — heck, the game sometimes awards a 25000-point “Lucky Bounce” bonus. Yes, a reward for something that’s explicitly unintended and out of the player’s control. But random elements in a game just mean that you have to learn to play the odds. You can’t control what happens, but you can try to play in a way that makes beneficial things more likely. For example, there’s a score multiplier that increases as you clear orange pegs. Scoring big on a single shot is important because it gets you more balls, so it’s good to get a lot of orange pegs early on, and, if possible, leave the blue pegs intact so they’ll be worth more once your multiplier is up. So you look for clusters of orange where you’ll be likely to hit more than one at a time and go for those first.

Also, there actually are definite points of skill in the game, just ones that I didn’t find in my initial hour. It takes practice to aim into a curved line of bricks so that the ball slides along the whole line rather than bouncing off, a technique that’s crucial to getting 100% completion on some boards. Then there’s the “ball bucket”, which bounces from side to side at the bottom of the screen. When the bucket catches a ball, you get to use that ball again. For most shots, the ball bucket amounts to just another random factor, because of the unpredictability of how the ball will bounce after the second peg. But when the board is clear enough, you can try to get into the bucket on a single bounce. This takes practice, and the game recognizes this: getting one peg and the bucket nets you a 5000-point bonus, which is far from enough to get you an extra ball 2Remember, extra balls are awarded for scoring high in a single shot, not for cumulative score., but can help considerably in those Challenge levels with a target score.

One point of interest I didn’t get from either demo: choosing teachers. You always have some kind of teacher (in the form of a cute animal mascot 3Or, in a couple of cases, a cute vegetable mascot.) with a magical power that activates when you hit a green peg. Some examples: Making the green pin explode and take out everything in its immediate vicinity; providing a pair of pinball flippers for three turns; automatically nudging your next shot to make it better. In Adventure mode, each teacher has a set of levels associated with it. But after you’ve completed Adventure mode, you get to select which teacher to use whenever you start a level. This adds a new element to gameplay: assessing a board to choose the teacher best-suited for it. The pinball flippers can keep a ball in play for a long time on a board that’s suited to them, but if the pegs are placed to funnel the ball to the middle rather than the sides, they’re useless. Explosions are only good if the green pegs are close to lots of other pegs.

Still, for every point of skill or choice, the designers seem to have gone and put in a compensatory gratuitous point of dumb luck, as if afraid of losing the prized casual-gameplay audience. And the end result is a classical example of the addictive qualities of partial reinforcement. Your control over the ball is limited, but it’s hard to avoid feeling like everything that happens is the result of your actions. Heck, sometimes it’s hard to refrain from leaning and gesturing this way and that as you watch the ball plink here and there, as if in hope of influencing its arc by sympathetic magic (a phenomenon familiar to bowlers).

Of course, the high production values help too. Of particular note is the music, which follows the progress of a level. When you start a level, you just get a basic rhythm-and-bass track. More instruments are added as you clear orange pegs and increase your score multiplier. It’s a classy touch, and subtle enough that it takes a while to notice what’s going on. Once you notice, the music becomes an extra channel of feedback, letting you know the exact moment when the ball hits the crucial peg and thereby enhancing the illusion that you’re in some way involved in what’s going on at that point.

Anyway, I’ve made short work of the initial 55 levels, and have the Peggle Master trophy on my start screen to prove it. Presumably my experiences with Peggle Extreme helped a little. For consistency’s sake, I think that should be enough to get the game off the Stack, even though I intend to keep on playing the Challenge levels. I don’t know if I’ll be able to beat them all. Some of them look very challenging indeed, but then, the high luck factor means that even if I don’t have the skill, persistence will eventually suffice. It seems like the campaign mode is really disproportionately short compared to the content it unlocks, but that seems to be how PopCap generally writes games these days.

1 I notice that the Steam version of the Orange Box no longer includes Peggle Extreme, but that’s because it’s now downloadable for free.
2 Remember, extra balls are awarded for scoring high in a single shot, not for cumulative score.
3 Or, in a couple of cases, a cute vegetable mascot.

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