[3 May 2009]
To say that Peggle is addictive is like saying that Halo is kind of a big deal. If you mixed a bit of pinball physics with some of the inspired lunacy of Snood and Puzzle Bobble, you’d get Peggle. Up until now, the dangerously addictive gameplay of Peggle has remained safely on stationary systems. You could play it on the PC, and more recently, the Xbox 360. Now it’s coming to handhelds, and the threat it poses to your free time, or even your gaming time, is a significant one.
Peggle: Dual Shot is, like so many games of its ilk, deceptively simple. The screen is filled with “pegs,” which the player is tasked with eliminating. A “bucket” traverses the bottom of the screen, ensuring a free ball if the player can land their shot in it. From the top of the screen, you’ll start with ten shots to eliminate most of the lesser blue pegs, and all of the valuable orange pegs. This is where the Pinball connection appears. Every shot is pulled downward by gravity. Shots arc, fall, and react (mostly) realistically. This means that every shot has to be carefully calculated, but also that chance quickly takes over every round. After the first bounce or two, predicting the path of the ball becomes impossible. Since each stage has dozens of pegs, some rotating, some circumnavigating the screen, some shaped as rectangles and circles, it’s no surprise that Peggle’s critics claim that matches can be decided by luck more often than skill.
Dual Shot features around a dozen shooters, protagonists whom the player can choose to play as. Each one has a different special power, and all have their own quirky, bizarre personalities. Claude the francophone crab and Bjorn the crime-fighting unicorn are already pretty entertaining characters. But you’ll really start to prefer one or the other when you master their special powers. Bjorn can predict where the ball will bounce, Claude spawns pinball flippers shaped like claws to repel balls, and Splork the alien literally destroys all pegs around his special ball.
Unsurprisingly, the DS is a good home for a game like Peggle. A round of Dual Shot can be completed in a couple of minutes, making it a game that is perfectly suited to quick sessions. Of course, the same could be said for any number of games that have come out for handhelds. It isn’t as if Dual Shot has a monopoly on short sessions, cute avatars, and propulsive, addictive gameplay.
What Dual Shot does that’s different from so many other handheld time wasters is draw you in as if it was a different, deeper kind of experience. This isn’t the kind of game where you turn it on, play a few rounds, and then turn it off. On the contrary, each Peggle round’s strange combination of skill and luck means that every match is a dramatic close encounter, a brush with loss or victory.
When you play an arcade ball-bouncing game more than you would in-depth RPGs and sprawling strategy and fantasy games, you know you have something special on your hands. Dual Shot’s second coup is its inclusion of hot seat adversarial play. In this mode, two players are allotted 5 balls apiece. They use the same board. Thus, each shot changes the topography of the pegs and necessitates a change in strategy on the part of the opponent. This leads to some of the most fun, surprisingly strategic moments of one-on-one gameplay that I’ve had in quite a while. Since discovering the adversarial play, I’ve played it exclusively. It makes avatar choice, shot choice, and general play that much more exciting and amusing. Like in any game, having a living opponent next to you makes every victory sweeter and every defeat more frustrating (not to mention producing those moments when your enemy realizes how great your last shot was).
Every single mechanic that I have mentioned is packaged (as suggested by the characters’ personalities and descriptions) in a cute, wacky art style and design aesthetic. If you’re wondering what Peggle (in all its incarnations) does that so many other games do not or why it’s achieved such ubiquity within the casual games market, this is why: the design aesthetic makes every game moment entertaining. Every sound effect is propulsive and distinct. When you hit enough pegs to earn a free ball, you almost don’t need the text reminder; the increasingly fast-paced and high-pitched pinging sounds made by each hit are signal enough.
If the game were just nice sounds and quirky characters, it still wouldn’t be that interesting. What Peggle does is seemingly simple; it makes every shot an unpredictable blend of skill and luck with a lot of subtle handholding and nudging from the game itself. If you’re a good player, calculating trajectory and momentum is always interesting, and the game’s slightly unpredictable ball physics mean that many shots bounce places that you wouldn’t have expected. This same mechanic makes the game great for beginners and people who don’t want to learn its ins and outs. It’s rewarding and punishing in equal doses, but there are enough lucky bounces and out-of-the blue extra balls thrown in that you feel like you’re always about to get that winning shot; casinos should have coin-op Peggle on their floors, they’d clean up.
It’s a testament to the sights and sounds of Dual Shot that the only thing I miss from the PC version is that game’s graphical resolution. Yet after an hour or two of play, all I can hear are the sounds of bounced pegs. You won’t care what it looks like once you start playing, and by the time you’ve spent hours learning its quirks, you’ll only want to play more.