The term "casual game" is nothing if not a misnomer, because while playing PopCap's latest — "Peggle" — you are anything but relaxed.
Your index finger will be curled over your mouse. You’ll be leaning into your screen like Johnny Bench waiting for a fastball. You’ll look just like a regular video game player poised over their PlayStation 2 — except you're getting ready to bounce one last silver into a field of brightly colored pegs, hoping against hope that your memories of geometry classes serve you well.
"Peggle" is a combination of pinball and pachinko, the famous Japanese gambling game that is as prevalent as slot machines in Las Vegas. You have a set number of balls to fire into a crowded field of blue and orange pegs. Your goal is to tag all of the orange pegs before the last ball runs out, which gets harder and harder as you move deeper into the game. If you're lucky, not only will you take out five or six orange pegs with a single ball, but you'll drop the ball right into the sliding bucket that awards an extra ball.
Each series of levels is hosted by a cheerful character — from a unicorn to a jack-o’-lantern — and each offers a talent specific to their stage in the game. To activate the host's power-up, you must tag one of the few green pegs tucked into the field.
The space alien's special move is a bomb blast that pops all of the pegs in the immediate area surrounding the green peg. A magical bunny props an enchanted top hat on the ball that lights up orange pegs close to the ball's trajectory. Find a power-up you really fancy? Test it out on any stage you have previously completed in the Quick Game mode.
When you finally do clear a level, the game goes full tilt — with apologies to Randall McMurphy — lighting up like a Christmas tree and ready to pay off in silver dollars. As Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blares from your speakers, the action slows to a crawl and you see your ball ricochet off the final orange peg.
This final act is called Extreme Fever, and any additional pegs you hit are worth extra points. The sliding bucket is replaced by five wells, and depending on which well the ball drops into, you can earn between 10,000 and 100,000 bonus points. If you make an especially impressive last shot — such as earning a mega-bonus by tagging the final orange peg with an incredible cross-screen bounce — you can save it via an instant replay.
"Peggle" is a gradual addiction. When you first try it out, the game seems to be more luck than skill and that might keep your play session down to just a few stages at a time. However, as you dig deeper and start seeing just how precise the geometry is in "Peggle," you simply cannot tear yourself away from the game. Failing a level is not due to the wicked twitches of chance, it's due to impatience and going to the easiest pegs first.
The fifty-five stages of the main game will only last a weekend (or five lunch breaks) for the average casual gamer. That's not bad for $19.99. But once the main game is complete, players can then try out over seventy puzzle screens or engage in the very entertaining duel mode against either the computer or another player on previously played stages. Duel mode is red hot against another player; it's too bad it's not set up for online battles, you can only play at the same computer.
With fun production values — the use of "Ode to Joy" is brilliant — and deceptively simple game mechanics, "Peggle" is another winner from one of casual scene's giants, PopCap. It's not quite the homerun that was the company's previous big release, "Bookworm Adventures" (which wasn't just one of the best casual games of 2006, but one of the best video games of 2006), but it's still a great bit of digital entertainment at a very reasonable price.