It's widely acknowledged that PopCap is the king of casual gaming, particularly when it comes to the PC. The company always seems to strike just the right balance of accessibility, addictive gameplay and challenge to hook not only housewives and bored office workers, but also hardcore gamers who spend most evenings in shouting matches on Xbox Live. Now the company is beginning to extend its dominance onto other platforms, porting over existing games and peppering them with enough new content to make them worthy of a purchase all over again. Such is the case with Bookworm on the DS, as the classic gameplay and new features combine to create a familiar, yet still fresh, experience.
The best way to describe Bookworm is that it's a sort of digital Boggle, with players unscrambling tiles in order to discover words. On the DS, the mechanics are as simple as dragging the stylus from one letter to the next and then tapping the screen once you've made the intended word. Used tiles disappear from play, new ones drop in from the top and the challenge begins anew. The tricky bit comes when the fire tiles start showing up and burning through all other available letters. If these smoldering blocks manage to descend all the way to the bottom of the screen without being used in a word and dismissed, then it's game over, and their ever-increasing frequency means that they will eventually overcome you. In this way, the game manages to go from relaxed to frantic, as you suddenly find yourself scurrying to figure out what on earth you're going to do with a flaming "Z" or "Qu" as it continues its steady, merciless march to your doom.
Half of the joy in Bookworm comes from discovering new words and setting up your tiles perfectly so you can nail a nine-letter term that will net you a sky-high score. Perhaps my proudest moment so far was discovering that I could arrange my tiles to spell out "thrashers," thus earning a couple thousand points and instantly bumping me up to the next level.
There are also superficial advancement markers, as every word you find moves you a step closer to unlocking a new room in your library. It's quite fun to watch the top screen as bare rooms full of bookshelves and hardwood floors begin to repopulate with plush carpet, thick curtains and ostentatious furniture, and even after two weeks with the game, my library is still only half-finished. My wife and I are currently in an amicable contest to see who can unlock all the rooms first, which I imagine is just the sort of thing PopCap had in mind when it added this aspect to the game.
The other fun bonus lies in the words themselves, as the game is constantly challenging you to find specific terms in the jumble of letters. Before each game, you're given the "word of the day," and every time you track it down, it will earn you major bonus points. In addition, most rounds also offer a bonus word you can find, and there are several sets of similar words grouped in categories, such as colors or emotions, that you must track down in order to truly finish your collection. It's all these little extra challenges thrown on top of the main experience that create a title that is infinitely replayable and almost never boring.
For those who prefer their action a bit more fast-paced, Bookworm also includes a new action mode where the race against the flaming tiles becomes a bit more urgent. Whereas in traditional play, you have an unlimited amount of time to plan your moves and contemplate where the tiles will fall, in action mode, certain tiles are constantly heating up, eventually bursting into flaming tiles and proceeding to wreak havoc on the board. There's much less time to think in this mode, and things quickly become a frantic race against time to remove the four or five flaming tiles that have already appeared while attempting to prevent three more from joining their ranks. It's an entirely different challenge meant to appeal to an entirely different kind of player, but the game is all the better thanks to its inclusion. You'll likely find that you prefer classic or action mode and largely stick to it, but the availability of both is truly welcome.
The game also includes a multiplayer component, though it's likely the weakest link. In it, two players can square off by taking turns finding words on their own boards in a race to see who can reach the target score first. While completely functional, it likely would have been more fun if both players were working off the same board, effectively stealing each other's terms and messing up one another's strategies with their actions. One of the most entertaining things about games like Scrabble is how an entire match can hinge on one player using up the space that another player needed, so that aspect would have been welcome in Bookworm.
The other thing to keep in mind is that, as good as it may be, Bookworm simply isn't a game for everyone. While that's true of nearly any title that comes out, it does take a very specific type of player to get full enjoyment out of a game such as this. If you aren't a literary type or have a lot of trouble with things like anagrams and alternative spellings, then this title might be frustrating, as you find yourself leaning on a smaller vocabulary. While Bookworm will likely teach you a few new words, the whole experience will probably feel more like homework than fun.
If, however, you loved the PC editions of the franchise and wish you could take the game on the road, then you're in luck, as Bookworm DS is a truly superior edition of the game. The classic gameplay mechanics are still there but jazzed up with extra incentive for progress. Furthermore, the new action mode is a treat for those looking to play a quick session or who generally enjoy their games to be a little more upbeat. Once again, PopCap proves that it can create great games regardless of the console, and Bookworm DS is an excellent choice to add to your handheld gaming library.
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