We can still remember the point at which Bejeweled 2 went from “another nice puzzle game” to “OMG get this now:” it was the day PopCap added the insanely addictive Facebook Connect version Bejeweled Blitz to the iPhone and iPod touch game. Suddenly, the relaxing, dreamy match-three/four/five game became a strict “do your best in one minute” competition that saw friends and family working from week to week to rack up ever-higher scores; a coin and power-up system came in a later iOS update and added more fuel to the fire. Facebook status updates quickly filled with boasts from friends and family that they’d reached scores once thought impossible, and an in-game leaderboard rubbed in second- and third-place rankings just to let you know how much better you needed to become. Hundreds of companies added Facebook Connect features to their games, but PopCap’s easy-to-learn gameplay, affordable pricing, and dead simple social networking features set the bar that other developers hoped to match or beat.
Today, Bejeweled 3 has been released for the Mac and PC ($20 each), and it’s no huge surprise that PopCap hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel with the core “Classic” game here. Turn it on and you’ll feel as if you’re playing Bejeweled 2, albeit on a much higher resolution display—there’s a 1920×1200 mode if your monitor can handle it. Though the nuts and bolts of the puzzler’s graphics are very similar to what came before, little touches really call your attention to the high-resolution art, which we’ve had to radically downscale for these screenshots.
Smoke clouds billow from a tower in the distance, clouds move in the sky, and fine details in everything save for the gems themselves are obvious from moment one; old power-ups like the Hypercube receive either 3-D treatment or special explosion effects that can look vaguely Asian. One gets the sense that PopCap was highly conscious of its need to eventually scale the artwork down for mobile devices, and stuck with scalable gems and effects that will be easy to discern regardless of the device. The game’s menu system has been polished even beyond the level it was at in Bejeweled 2 Deluxe, making smooth screen-to-screen transitions with a remixed version of the prior theme song.
In fact, PopCap’s new soundtrack makes an even greater departure from earlier Bejeweled games than the graphics do, moving up to full-fledged orchestral arrangements that walk the fine line between sounding majestic and ridiculous under the circumstances. If it wasn’t for the fact that Bejeweled has grown over the years to become one of the most successful game franchises of all time, the idea of listening to a John Williams-esque score while matching up gems might be funny. In the case of Bejeweled 3, the pomp feels deserved.
The basic gameplay should be familiar to any prior Bejeweled player. You use your mouse cursor to select one gem at a time to match up with two or more others, and pray that the stream of gems that fall from the top of the screen to replace matched ones will lead to bigger matches and sequential combinations of matches for more points. Matching four or five gems leads to the creation of power-ups that explode in 3×3 grids, zap all of the gems of a selected color, or eliminate everything running vertically or horizontally in the same line. Over the past two iterations of Bejeweled, this formula has become so polished—with charming little sound effects—that it’s worth coming back to play even without major updates.
Where fans of the series will either find themselves addicted or disappointed is in the variety of new play modes PopCap has added to this sequel. We were in the latter camp when we tried “Zen,” which basically adds ambient noises, textual affirmations, breathing relaxers, and binaural sound processing to what’s otherwise a plain jane Classic game. The Zen features can be individually switched on and off, and surely will please users looking to drop the rich soundtrack in favor of waterfall sound effects and some low-grade visual effects, but PopCap has added better features than this in free iOS updates. Thankfully, the rest of the modes actually switch up the gameplay. One is “Poker,” using gem matches to make rewardable hands of cards; “Butterflies” challenges you to eliminate butterfly gems before they move upwards reach the spider at the top of the screen, and another mode called “Quest” features 40 different mini-games that individually could have constituted sequels for most companies. Four of the modes are locked until you successfully complete a number of levels in one of the four unlocked modes, a very fair balance that incentivizes you to try everything.
What’s missing from Bejeweled 3 at this point is a Blitz mode—there’s no online multiplayer support—and obviously an iOS version for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users to play against their mouse-dependent rivals over Facebook. A mode called “Lightning” comes as close to Blitz as PopCap wanted to go with this release, providing you with a fixed timer that can be extended by making gem matches—leaving the door open for a post-release Blitz update while offering the opportunity to train for what’s likely to come. We think. Asked when the iOS version is coming, PopCap would say only “Stay Tuned!”
So until the iOS release comes out, there’s an obvious question: is Bejeweled 3 worth $20? iOS gamers will obviously balk at such a “premium” price, but by Mac standards, the game’s reasonably affordable and has so much new content in its Quest and locked modes that extended and repeat play is essentially guaranteed. PopCap’s traditional sales and post-release updates will surely expand Bejeweled 3’s appeal beyond the crop of early adopters who will no doubt snatch the game up during today’s release day. Once Blitz and the iOS port are released, this game is going to spread like wildfire.