Release Date: November 15, 2007
Just like the last years of the original PlayStation, the PS2 is now becoming home to more casual games. While you will see the occasional game made for the hardcore or mass market gamer, the glut of titles you'll see now belong to the casual gamer. PopCap Games made its mark in the industry by developing games exclusively for this market, and they have done very well for themselves. After initial forays with the PC, they waded into the console scene with the Game Boy Advance before hitting up mobile phones and the Xbox 360. PopCap Hits! Volume 1 takes two of their more popular games, Bejeweled 2 and AstroPop, and sends them to the PS2 for the first time. Do they survive the journey intact?
The now-classic puzzle game, Bejeweled 2 has been aped over and over again by other games, and it's not hard to see why. The premise of always being able to match three or more gems per move is both simple to understand and addictive, leading to players going for "one more game" over and over again. This time around, the basic game comes along with several new modes that were designed to do more with the original formula.
The Classic mode is exactly like the original Bejeweled, so you make matches with the gems on the playfield and keep going until you run out of moves. Matching three or more gems horizontally or vertically causes them to disappear, making the rest of the gems above them fall into place while the top of the playfield gets replenished with more gems. Matching four gems in a row will cause a special gem of that color to glow. Once this gem is broken, the other gems surrounding it, regardless of color, will disappear as well. Matching five gems creates a special orb that, when matched with another gem, causes all gems of that color to disappear from the playfield. Aside from the new music and space-themed backdrops, you get gems that look more detailed than usual. A progress meter at the bottom of the screen shows how close you are to progressing to the next level.
Endless mode is more of a Bejeweled for rookies. It plays exactly like the Classic mode except for one crucial twist: You cannot lose. No matter what you do in this mode, there will always be a way for you to make matches. It's helpful if you want to get the hang of how the game plays, but it quickly gets boring once you know what you're doing. Unfortunately, if you want to unlock every mode in this game, you have to play this mode.
Action mode takes the Classic formula and gives it an ever-decreasing timer. The objective is still to fill up the meter in order to move on to the next level, but now the meter decreases as time goes by. The higher the level, the faster the timer depletes. It adds a nice, frantic pace to the game and makes it a bit more competitive in the process, since you will want to see just how many levels you and your friends can go before you break.
Puzzle mode gets a little creative with the game mechanics. With gems already placed in specific areas of the playfield, the objective is to try and clear the level in the allotted number of moves. This mode is for someone who craves a more traditional puzzle experience, and it plays out nicely. Keep in mind that this mode is rather difficult, and don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to reach out and hitting the Hint button for each puzzle you find here.
Finity mode is unlocked by going through 280 levels of Endless mode. You'll actually have a certain amount of time before you get whisked away to the next level. While the standard gem-matching helps to increase the timer, the bombs that appear on the map decrease the meter drastically. This makes the game less about scoring matches and more about scoring bigger matches and combos.
Cognito mode opens up once you beat all of the levels in Puzzle mode. It plays the same as Puzzle mode, but the colors are random, and there are no preset patterns about which puzzles appear where. Furthermore, asking for hints negates any chance of getting a score when you solve the puzzle. This mode is definitely good for someone who thinks that the regular puzzles were a bit too easy.
Hyper mode opens up once you beat Level 9 in Action mode. Like the name implies, this is Action mode with the speed amplified. This is best for the more manic puzzle player who likes fast puzzle games and a good but stressful environment.
Twilight mode appears after level 18 in Classic mode is defeated. Everything here plays like it did in Classic mode, but gems either come from the top of the screen or the bottom. It's a fun little twist that keeps you guessing and prevents the game from becoming monotonous, since you never know when the gravity change will occur.
All of the above modes add a considerable amount of depth to a simple puzzle game. It is this depth that carries Bejeweled 2 more than the graphics and sound could, though those two elements certainly hold their own. Controls would be the only sticking point here. The use of the d-pad to move the cursor around and the buttons to "hold" the gem to be switched work well enough for a console port of the game. However, PC players will miss the speed of the mouse, especially when it comes to the later levels in Action and Hyper modes. Still, the controller proves to be good enough, especially for people who have never played the game on the PC.
AstroPop is the other puzzle game in this compilation, and it is a solid one as well. After choosing one of four pilots (two available from the start, two unlockable), you travel through 32 levels of brick-busting fun before you finish the game. The play mechanics are a bit different : As the wall of bricks descend the playfield, you pull bricks from the wall to your ship. After grabbing a maximum of six bricks of the same color from the wall, you can then launch them toward the wall itself, hoping to clear away bricks and add them to your level quota. Bricks disappear once four or more colors touch, and once the quota for the level is met, you move on to the next level.
The game is split up into two different modes. The Classic game features the 32 levels and four pilots mentioned earlier. As you progress through each level, you get little story bits that give you a basic premise about why all of these pilots are risking themselves by breaking through all of these colored bricks. Aside from story, the Classic game gives you the opportunity to strengthen each pilot's super weapon, which can be used to clear parts of the playfield when the action gets a bit too intense. Depending on the pilot, strengthening the weapon can mean anything from increasing the area of effect to how much time you're given to use the weapon. The other mode, Survival, takes your stats from your chosen pilot and lets him or her play without quotas until the wall reaches the bottom of the screen.
For a puzzle game, AstroPop plays like a puzzle/adventure hybrid. Each pilot not only has his own story, but a pilot to unlock as well. However, each pilot has a completely different story, making you want to beat the game just to see how the story would end. Couple that with a weapon system that upgrades as you progress, and you have a casual puzzle game that ends up giving you motivation to go forward aside from the quest for higher scores. The mechanic for the game is different enough that it feels fresh, kind of like seeing Tetris or Bust-a-Move for the first time and realizing you were seeing something different.
Like Bejeweled 2, the graphics aren't exactly mind-blowing, but for a puzzle game, they suffice. The backgrounds are simple but nice to look at, while the same could be said for the ship you pilot. The pilots themselves are aesthetically pleasing, and the animations when they win or lose are good to watch. The same can be said for the sound. The one musical track in the game is good, and it won't make you want to turn down the volume after 10 or 20 minutes of play. The sound effects are solid and so is the announcer.
The controls are actually one area where the console wins over the PC. Piloting the ship seemed fine with a mouse, but the controller feels more appropriate here. Somehow the d-pad makes traversing between rows a little more precise than with the speedy mouse. It was almost as if this game in particular was made with consoles in mind.
Along with the puzzle games, you get some bonus material related to both games in the package. The material mainly consists of sketches and near-final illustrations of backgrounds, interfaces and characters for both games. While it is nice to see this stuff, the lack of any other bonus material hurts the package. All of the interesting material, such as company history and timeline, all appear in a fold-out poster instead of on the disc. While puzzle titles usually don't have much history to them, having a little more than just illustrations would have been nice.
PopCap Hits! Volume 1 is a great compilation of games for casual gamers who love puzzle titles. The conversion of both titles is good, and the saving system, especially for AstroPop, is more forgiving for gamers who found these titles a little more daunting that usual. This is especially true for Xbox 360 owners who couldn’t progress in AstroPop because the save system would only kick in every four levels. For the price of one PopCap game on the PC, you can get two of them on one disc here. If you've always wanted to play these games on a TV but didn't make the jump to the Xbox 360 just yet, you can't go wrong with picking up this disc.