With the release of the updated version of Pipe Mania, Empire Interactive has taken an addictive classic puzzle game and updated it with new graphics, music, and varied gameplay that belie its status as a bargain title. Its production values are on par with recent arcade-style hits like Peggle and Zuma, but in the end, it is still a casual game for a casual audience.
The core game is in World mode, where players must navigate several types of conveyances (always referred to as pipes, even when they’re not) that trasnport several different substances (always referred to as flooze, even when it’s not). The different types of flooze have unique properties that offer substantial variety to the gameplay. For instance, the first two levels consist of your standard liquid flooze, but the third level uses railroad tracks and trains of varying lengths. On some levels, you must send the train through “grow stations” until it reaches a certain length before sending it to the end piece and completing the level. On others, you must use switch-tracks to navigate a pair of trains to their proper, color-coded stations. After railroads come conveyer belts in a toy factory, which are used to apply coats of different colored paint to a very cute line of rubber duckies before depositing them into a delivery truck.
Electricity and internet tubes (a nod to Senator Stevens, no doubt) round out World mode, providing plenty of variety in the gameplay as it progresses. Additionally, the increases in difficulty remain steep enough to be challenging but not enough to cause excessive frustration. That’s not to say the game is easy. The electricity stage is crazy hard to get the hang of. Instead of moving at a static pace like all the other types of flooze, the electricity leaps from one resistor to another at lightning speed, and if you haven’t completed your circuit before it makes the last jump, you’re out of luck. Difficult as it is, the electricity stage ended up being my favorite in world mode.
The graphics have been updated in the new version as well, but remain fairly straightforward. The soundtrack, however, is utterly fantastic. The music is Sims-like for its low-key ambience, undetectably looped in a never-ending massage for your aural receptors. The melody and instrumentation vary with each stage, but the overall mood is unified and upbeat. And best of all, while the music is catchy and pleasant, it doesn’t worm its way into your brain and force you to hum its wordless, vapid tune over and over and over again, like some other budget titles I could name. (I’m looking at you, Teddy Bear Factory.)
Notably, Pipe Mania features that holy grail of replayability: emergent gameplay. As I worked my way through World Mode, I discovered interesting ways of solving the puzzles in order to maximize my score for the various levels. I found, for instance, that I could build a small loop of track for the trains and let them run harmlessly in circles for a few seconds to buy time in a level.
Still, nobody is going to nominate Pipe Mania for Game of the Year. While it is fun and challenging, it is neither significant nor compelling. The treasure room tempts the completist, and conquering a level or unlocking a treasure chest comes with a certain satisfaction. I found myself frustrated at times, not because of bad design, but because the levels are increasingly difficult for the sole purpose of forcing the player to think outside the proverbial box. You may play the same level twenty times, but once the strategy “clicks” it seems easy, and your success can be replicated and even improved upon. In this way, Pipe Mania challenges the player to repeatedly prove that she is smarter than the game.
In summary, Pipe Mania is a shining example of a genre that is all too often tarnished and dull. The graphics, while cartoonish, are smooth and rich; the soundtrack is polished and pleasant. It’s like test-driving a Volkswagon and discovering that it handles like a BMW. If they can continue to produce quality casual games like this one, let’s hope the sun never sets on Empire Games.