‘Bejeweled’ has a brand-new twist

Image: Game
"Bejeweled Twist" is the latest installment in a ground-breaking casual game franchise. But can this colorful puzzler — which tweaks and twists a beloved style of gameplay — win the hearts of old-school "Bejeweled" fans?PopCap Games

There is this vast chunk of time in my life that I wish I could have back.

After all, had it not been for the hours I lost to that black hole of casual gaming known as “Bejeweled,” I might have, I dunno, written the next great American novel, or perhaps saved the planet, or at the very least I might have got some badly needed house cleaning done.

The strange thing is, when you get right down to it, playing “Bejeweled” involves little more than arranging shiny little gems and jewels into matching strings of three-of-a-kind so that they disappear … only to be replaced by a cascade of more shiny little gems and jewels that must be arranged into matching strings three-of-a-kind so that they, too, disappear.

Repeat ad infinitum.

So how is it then that “Bejeweled” – which first launched as a Web game back in 2000 – managed to spawn not only a wildly successful sequel but to dance a happy little jig across every platform capable of playing games? Why has it sold 25 million copies and been downloaded more than 350 million times from the Web? How has such a seemingly simple digital trifle become one of the most imitated games in video game history?

What is it that makes “Bejeweled” so deliciously bewitching?

“Gosh. Who knows,” says Dave Roberts CEO of PopCap Games, the company responsible for the fact I haven’t written the great American novel … and for creating “Bejeweled.” “If we could have bottled it or patented it, we would have.”

Certainly they must wish they could uncork the secret sauce that gave “Bejeweled” its hypnotic charms, especially now as they’re launching the newest game in the “Bejeweled” franchise. It’s called “Bejeweled Twist” and it’s a game that has much to live up to and a lot to prove.

“It’s not designed to replace ‘Bejeweled,’” Roberts makes a point of pointing out. “We didn’t try to make this a sequel. It is a different game in many ways.”

Sequel. Spinoff. Whatever. PopCap is keen to make this distinction because, while “Twist” retains much of “Bejeweled’s” beloved gameplay mechanic, it changes things up just enough that it will either be adored by the bajillions of “Bejeweled” fans out there … or abhorred.

“The stakes are kind of high,” Roberts admits. “It’s ‘Bejeweled’ and it’s different. It’s a big risk in many ways.”

Mining for diamonds
So much has changed with PopCap Games over the last eight years that it only makes sense that the company’s flagship game must change too.

After all, the original “Bejeweled” (first dubbed “Diamond Mine”) was created by three young guys working out of a dumpy apartment with boxes of moldy pizza gathering in the corners. When they first tried to sell “Bejeweled” to various game publishers they were scoffed at. “It’s not even a game,” they were told.

But nowadays PopCap has 200 employees working in offices in four countries. Meanwhile, “Bejeweled’s” elusive magic has launched not only a company’s fortunes, it has spawned a deluge of match-three games (some of them derivative, some of them inspired) and helped spearhead a casual gaming boom that has changed the face of the gaming industry.

While the “Bejeweled” magic is indefinable to a large degree, what you can say about the game is that, back in 2000, its developers knew that it was important to pay attention to the details.

As simple as it was, “Bejeweled” was a polished game that took only the click of the mouse to play and was so smartly designed that it could be slipped into almost instantaneously by almost anyone. Like a seasoned tight-rope walker, it strode down the thin line between being a game of luck and a game of skill, and it managed to offer both a relaxing experience and a challenging one at the same time.

“Bejeweled 2” didn’t change that winning combination or the basic gameplay mechanic. Instead, it added additional features and gave the franchise an even spiffier polish.

As for “Bejeweled Twist,” PopCap has certainly taken its time. While the three founders spent a matter of months making the first “Bejeweled,” Roberts says it’s taken the company three to four years to finish up “Twist.”

He says that, in part, it took them some time to get “Twist” to “where it felt fun.”

He also says, “We have been very cautious about how we deal with the franchise. If our only focus was uncaringly trying to print money, we would have made a new ‘Bejeweled’ game every six months. But the studio here, they don’t want to do that.”

The twist in ‘Twist’
So what, exactly, is the twist in “Bejeweled Twist?”

In the original “Bejeweled,” players were given a grid of gems (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc.) and had to swap adjacent jewels to make lines of at least three matching gems. With “Twist” you still have to make matches of three, but this time around you maneuver the gems about the grid by rotating a 2-by-2 block of them in a clockwise direction.

But an even more important change to the gameplay is the way that you’re no longer forced to make a match with every move. That is, you can maneuver the jewels around the board as much as you like, and in doing so you can set up bigger, better, higher-scoring moves down the road.

Line up gems with care and forethought and you can unleash great cascades of matching gems or build special combinations that reward you with unique bonuses. When the game tosses obstacles in your path – locked gems and exploding jewels among them – you can maneuver around them.

Maybe all of this doesn’t sound particularly risky, but any time you tamper with something so beloved, fans can get persnickety … if not downright bitchy.

Take a gander at various gaming Websites and you'll see that players already are passing judgement on this newest “Bejeweled.”

“It gets boring real fast and quite frankly I found ‘Beweled 2’ to be better than this,” complained one player at casual gaming site Gamezebo.com.

But another wrote, “I love this game more every time I play it. It’s the best game I’ve ever played in my life!”

After spending the last few days with “Twist,” I can say that it does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that “Bejeweled” and “Bejeweled 2” did. It takes time to get your head around the new gem patterns and to understand what kind of combinations and bonuses can be achieved by smartly moving jewels around the grid. It takes time to adjust to the twist.

Also, after eight years of match-three derivations, “Bejeweled Twist” does not come off as wildly innovative. Other match-three games have used a twisting mechanism, though with far less panache. And certainly “Bejeweled Twist” struggles to follow in the footsteps of “Peggle” – PopCap’s delightfully unique pachinko-like hit which earned raves from casual and hardcore gamers alike when it launched in 2007.

That said, the game’s audio and visual details have been polished to an almost perfect shine. More importantly, give “Twist” time to sink in and you’ll see that what it offers is a far deeper and more cerebral gaming experience than its “Bejeweled” predecessors.

It’s a game that allows for a highly compelling level analytical thinking and strategic play (which is a real pleasure to put to use in the puzzle-filled Challenge Mode). And while there is an element of luck here as there was in the previous “Bejeweled" installments, this is a game that rewards those with skills — one that allows you to genuinely improve the more you play. And that makes “Twist” a game you’ll want to come back to over and over and over again.