As of the end of 2007, the best iPod game doesn’t star a character you know, look just like something you played 15 years ago, or come from a company with billions of dollars in the bank. Judged strictly on merit, the best iPod game is PopCap Games’ Peggle ($5), a block-breaking game that succeeds on every conceivable level except one: if you’re an adult or a teen, you’ll have to look past the cartoony unicorn and animal theme to see the incredibly well-designed gameplay that’s hidden underneath.
Contrary to the suggestion that iPod gaming should naturally be rhythm- or music-themed because of the origins of the platform, Peggle succeeds because it does what few other iPod games have done to date: it treats the iPod like any other gaming device and tries to actually make good use of its screen, headphone port, and controls. You’re placed in charge of a cannon located at the top of the screen, and tasked with removing anything red from a collection of pegs and/or blocks that are scattered across a flat, single screen playfield. The cannon shoots one ball at a time, and if you run out of balls before you run out of red items to shoot, you lose. If you clear all the red items, regardless of whatever else is left on the screen, you move on to the next stage.
Peggle’s game play is just right for the iPod’s limited controls: more cerebral than action-intense.
All you need to do is spin the cannon, using a trail of white dots to predict where the ball will go, and fire off your shot. What happens next is the surprise: Peggle’s gravity and peg arrangements make the ball fall in pachinko machine style, bouncing around blue, red, purple, and green pegs that either sit still or rotate around, using the iPod’s 3-D rotation effects for convincing motion. Blue pegs disappear without a trace, purple ones give you bonus points, and green ones trigger stage-specific magic powers. When the ball falls to the bottom of the screen, it either lands in a moving well, giving you another ball, or into an abyss, leaving your stock of balls depleted. Lucky or skillful shooting will keep your supplies up, and the game going on.
It would be hard for us to offer more praise for PopCap’s game design: not only do the levels change—and with them, the background art, music, and magic powers such as multiball or well extension—but the company actually successfully integrates humor, excitement, and new challenges into the experience.
For instance, as you prepare to hit the last red block or peg in a level, the game shifts into a slow motion “Extreme Fever” mode, plays a classical audio track, and gives you an opportunity to score a 100,000 point bonus. Though somewhat out of your control, the results are exciting and fun to watch, accentuated by “style points” for tricky shots and amusing comments from the game’s animal avatars.
There is also a lot to like about the game’s value equation. Bomberman, an aged but popular game that was just released for the iPod, can be torn through in an hour or two thanks to its relatively brief selection of 20 levels and four bonus stages. Peggle has fifty-five levels, each varying more than Bomberman’s, as well as additional “Grand Master Challenges” if you beat the main mode, plus a two-player duel mode that lets you play any stage you’ve unlocked.