Review: PopCap Games Bejeweled 2 + Blitz
PopCap Games was one of the first third-party developers for the iPod, having been invited by Apple to release the $5 puzzle games Bejeweled and Zuma for the fifth-generation "video" iPod back in 2006. A little less than two years later, PopCap became one of the earliest iPhone developers, releasing Bejeweled 2 into the App Store at a whopping $10 -- as much as top premium games were attempting to fetch back in July 2008, even though the sequel was largely the same as the half-priced iPod version. Today, with two more years of iPhone development experience under its belt, PopCap has re-released Bejeweled 2 as Bejeweled 2 + Blitz Version 1.3 ($3), evolving the game even further with an expanded play mode that will seriously threaten your free time: Bejeweled Blitz.
Blitz originally appeared in half-complete form via a prior update to Bejeweled 2, adding what might initially have seemed like a minor new mode to the well-established game. In every mode, Bejeweled 2 presents you with an 8 by 8 grid of gemstones that need to be matched in lines of three, four, or five, the latter either straight across or in an L shape, with any four-match creating an explosive Power Gem that is detonated with a subsequent match, and five-matches creating Hyper Cubes that destroy all same-colored gems in whatever single direction you select. Proper use of these special gems can help you rack up more points, and in the game’s main Classic and Action modes, more rapidly advance you to later levels with different backgrounds.
In Classic mode, you fill a bar to move to the next level, and the game ends when you run out of moves; in Action mode, the bar ticks down as you think about your matches. PopCap later added a third mode to the iPhone version, Endless, which never lets you run out of moves but won’t let you advance unless you fill the bar—a process that becomes more difficult every time you hit the bar-depleting “Hint” button for help. None of these modes fundamentally changes the Bejeweled 2 experience, and perhaps because of the iPhone game’s ever-declining price, PopCap opted not to add additional unlockable modes such as Puzzle, Twilight, Cognito, Hyper, Finity, or Original that are found in the “deluxe” PC/Mac version of the game.
But it did add Blitz, and Blitz is arguably a bigger deal than any of the unlockable or original modes mentioned above. Unlike the prior play modes in the iPhone game, Blitz adds new gems and point-scoring mechanisms to Bejeweled 2—point multipliers were one of the initial lures in version 1.2 of the iPhone game, enabling players to reach crazy high scores by properly taking advantage of 2X, 3X, 4X, and subsequent sequential multiplier gems that appear after successful simultaneous matches. The other hook: rather than using a progress bar, Bejeweled Blitz gives you only one minute to play, and then posts your results—if you want—to Facebook, letting you know how well you’ve done against your Facebook friends. A standalone version of Bejeweled Blitz is offered as a Facebook application.
Version 1.3 brings the iPhone and Facebook applications into parity, adding two features called “coins” and “boosts,” and it’s with these additions that Bejeweled Blitz on the iPhone transforms from addictive to the platform’s equivalent of crack. You earn coins every time you play Bejeweled Blitz, a currency issued by the hundred with perhaps a thousand coins as a reward for truly outstanding play—a few hundred is far more common. The coins let you purchase boosts, five different types of limited-use power-ups that enable you to achieve even higher scores more easily until they’re used up, which will generally happen within three or fewer games.
Mystery Gem starts you out for three games with either a Power Gem or a Hyper Cube, while Free Multiplier places one multiplier gem on the board to begin—these are the most expensive boosts at 6,000 or 7,500 coins, respectively. Detonator blows all of the special gems up once per gams, Scrambler is a gem-replacing icon that lets you mix up all of the on-screen gems twice, and +5 Seconds lets you continue making matches for five seconds after the one minute has elapsed. Fans of Blitz on the iPhone will immediately appreciate the value of several of these power-ups without requiring further explanation.
PopCap hooks players with the new system by offering a one-time 50,000-coin bonus to iPhone and iPod touch players, giving you the chance to experiment with the boosts and realize just how potent they are. Prior high scores will be shattered almost instantly as you combine the boosts, and your excitement level will soar into the stratosphere as you realize that you’ll finally be able to take on your most competitive friends. Then, as they learn about the boosts and you run out of coins, you’ll be hopelessly addicted, desperate to play the game enough to earn the coins necessary to keep on boosting. If that sounds analogous to the perils of a junkie, it is, and will make you wish for an Endless Blitz mode with the ability to keep using the power-ups all the time.
Therein lies Bejeweled Blitz’s ultimate beauty and problem: it will keep you playing and engrossed in a way that no other puzzle game on the platform has managed to do with us over the past couple of years, but you’ll struggle to match the joy of that initial 50,000-coin experience in successive tinkering—you’ll wish that there were ways to earn coin prizes, or occasional full boosts as rewards for awesome play. There’s also the fact that Blitz has no music, unlike Bejeweled 2’s other modes, leaving you only to enjoy collections of chime sound effects, and the continued omission of higher-resolution artwork that might make more of the iPad’s and iPhone 4’s new screens.
Those issues having been noted, however, it’s hard to say that PopCap really needs to add more to Bejeweled 2 + Blitz going forward. The original version of this game felt overpriced at $10 and underwhelming, but the successive price drops and updates—particularly this one—have made the game so incredibly appealing for $3 that we’d now call it worthy of a high recommendation, a full letter grade jump from the original release two years ago. Could it be even better? Yes. But even if the screenshots don’t show it, PopCap has put more tangibly exciting gameplay into this title over the past several updates than most developers have done with their early App Store releases, giving millions of players good reason to keep sharing their successes with friends over Facebook. At this point, we’re ready to see what it will do with an iPhone and iPad sequel such as Bejeweled Twist; until then, we’ll be playing and savoring plenty of Blitz.