Publisher: PopCap Games
Developer: PopCap Games
Release Date: November 9, 2007
Casual games can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Traditional, hardcore gamers decry the advent of these titles as the ruination of gaming's integrity. They claim that casual games dilute the medium and sap precious resources away from the next Bioshock in order to create another mindless puzzle title meant to be enjoyed only by young kids and soccer moms.
Others aren't so critical of the casual game segment, and they see these titles as a chance to expand gaming into markets that may have never embraced it before due to complicated controls or convoluted storylines. Casual games create an "access point," a way to introduce people to a new entertainment medium without intimidating them. Supporters also claim casual games are a great way for former gamers who no longer have the time to play to get their favorite drug in small, manageable doses.
Xbox Live Arcade has created the perfect medium for casual games to flourish, and Seattle-based PopCap Games has migrated its hugely successful lineup of downloadable PC games over to the home console. However, not every household has access a high-speed connection, so PopCap has packaged four of its most popular titles into one compilation pack, and each one of them is well worth the price of admission.
PopCap Arcade Vol. 1 brings fan favorites Bejeweled 2 and Zuma together with lesser known gems Astropop and Feeding Frenzy to create a four-pack of casual gaming goodness. It was really a brilliant move by PopCap to package two fun and addicting games with two of their biggest sellers, as fans of the headliners are likely to stick around and give the opening acts a try as well. Honestly, there's not a weak game in the bunch, and what you intend to be a 15-minute gaming session can easily run into well over an hour.
The first game up on the hit parade is Astropop, a color block matching title with a twist. You control a small spaceship on the bottom of the screen, and your task is to create groups of four of the same color blocks in order to remove them from the board. However, you don't fire randomly generated blocks up into the mess; instead, you gather existing blocks, move them to where you think they will do the most good and unleash your devastation in that manner. Obviously, that concept in itself would be too simple, so all the while, the game is constantly adding new rows of blocks to the screen, so the columns keep pressing down on your ship, eventually crushing you under the weight of hundreds of brightly colored rectangles. You aren't totally helpless, however, as clearing blocks will fill your "Supa Weapon" gauge, a laser that you can use to blast away encroaching blocks in order to buy yourself a little more time and space.
Honestly, Astropop may be the most addicting title of the bunch, and the game offers a lot of incentive to keep playing. Not only do you have the opportunity to gain the standard Achievements, but advancement through the levels also grants you a more powerful Supa Weapon and eventually unlocks two new characters. This is one of those titles that does a great job combining a few different gameplay concepts into one exceptionally fun puzzler.
Once you're done with Astropop, you can head on over to the next title and give Bejeweled 2 a try. This particular game is well-established in the PC downloadable games market, and it's developed quite a passionate fan base. The idea itself is simple enough: Swap a gem with another in an adjacent location in order to create a row of at least three. Score enough points to move on to the next level, all while looking for potential combos and big points. Matching four of a kind creates a Power Gem that will explode when used in a combo, while five of a kind grants a hyper cube, which can clear all the gems of a single type off the board.
In addition to a standard high score mode, Bejeweled 2 also includes a timed Adventure mode and a brain-bending Puzzle mode. There's a little something for everyone here, and it's very easy to just jump right into a game and completely lose track of the time. Also, there's some weird part of me that is just delighted by the robotic voice that congratulates you every time you clear a level. It's kind of creepy, but what can I say, I love the little disembodied automaton.
Feeding Frenzy presents life at its most visceral. It's eat or be eaten in this title, and survival is the name of the game. You start out as a small angel fish, and you must eat tiny minnows in order to grow larger and take on the bigger predators. As you progress through the levels, you'll take on bigger and bigger fare, eventually gobbling down barracudas, sharks and even whales. In addition, if you can eat a bunch of other fish quickly, the game rewards you with a "feeding frenzy" in which all your "kills" are worth double points. The game may be cruel, but so is life, and proving Darwin's theories on survival of the fittest has never been cuter!
Finally, Zuma is another Internet favorite that has somehow become one of this generation's greatest time-wasters. You play as a stone frog who fires colored wooden balls at a snaking trail of doom. Match three of the same color ball, and that piece of the chain disappears and your score meter fills a bit, helping you toward the end of the level. However, accuracy and speed count, as the line of balls is constantly moving toward a golden skull, and if they make it there before you clear them all, you'll lose a life and have to start the level over. This is another game whose simple execution belies a very fun and complex gameplay system. It won't be long before you're setting up combos, firing through gaps for bonuses, and attacking floating coins in order to up your score and beat the levels more quickly.
All of the games in PopCap Arcade Vol. 1 are great fun, and that's why it pains me to not be able to give the collection a higher score. While all of the games allow you to upload your high scores onto Xbox Live, and even though some of the backdrops in Bejeweled 2 are positively stunning, there's just really not enough here to help this game break through the casual market and attract mainstream fans.
You see, the graphics and sound are lifted straight from the original versions of these games, with no real touch-ups or improvements to speak of. In addition, there is no additional content or special features to sweeten the deal; all you're getting are ports in the most literal sense … with Achievements.
While this is a great compilation, the only real market it can reach is people who enjoy casual Internet games but don't have access to broadband at home. Since each of these titles is already available on Xbox Live, and since they can also all be played for free online if you know where to look, there isn't a lot of incentive to buy the pack. Honestly, the only upside to buying the disc over downloading is that with a $30 price tag, you're essentially getting one of the games for free.
Overall, PopCap Arcade Vol. 1 is a great compilation of casual games the whole family can enjoy. However, it is held back from "must have" status by its lack of any significant advantage over its currently free-to-play-online brethren. If you're a casual gaming fan who's never played these titles before, then by all means, go ahead and pick this up. However, if you've already experienced these games' goodness before, you won't be missing anything by skipping this outing.