Peggle is a puzzle game that involves clearing coloured pegs from a board by shooting balls from the top of the screen, but that's not what the game is about. It's about getting to the explosively colourful celebration at the end of each level, and Peggle 2's celebrations are the most satisfying yet.
It could be argued that any level-based puzzle game is all about the big payoff at the end, but the Peggle franchise takes that concept to the extreme.
The camera zooms in on the ball, following it in slow motion as it collides with the final peg, a tense moment that explodes into a triumphant festival of lights and sounds. A rousing rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" rings out as fireworks splash across the screen, the level score counting up dramatically, like a reverse New Year's Eve countdown. In Peggle 2's initial levels, a cartoon unicorn bangs his head along with the music.
It's during these brief periods of raucous merrymaking when Peggle 2 almost -- almost -- feels like a sequel to the 2007 original, and not just a slight variation on a theme with a sharp graphical makeover. The rest of the time, that's exactly what it is.
Setting aside the semi-ironic excitement surrounding the game's announcement as a timed Xbox One exclusive, Peggle 2, as with its predecessors, remains one of the most casual of casual games. A mix of arcade classic Breakout and Japanese mechanical arcade game Pachinko, the core gameplay of a Peggle title involves aiming, firing, and then waiting as a ball the player has absolutely no control over slowly bouncing to the bottom of the screen. The game handles well enough with the Xbox One controller, and supports stupid Kinect control for people who crave the danger of reduced precision and looking silly.
It's not particularly exciting, watching those balls drop. In fact, early on in a new round when the field is filled with pegs, I'm often so lulled by the relaxing plunking noises that I find myself dozing off. It's not until I get down to those last few pegs that the excitement for the celebration begins to build. The rush of finishing a level carries directly into the next level, and before I know it I am gently snoring on the couch with controller in hand.
There's just not a lot of room in the Peggle formula to inject excitement, and Popcap stuck closely to formula, at least for the game's initial release. The most stimulating improvements they've made are in the visual and animation departments -- the game's four new Masters (there are five at launch, including the returning Bjorn the Unicorn) are colourful characters that wouldn't be out of place in an animated feature. Unfortunately their charm is limited to the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and aside from Master two -- a troll modelled after Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski -- none of them have anything interesting to say.
Sure, they lend their special powers to the game, but it many cases these new abilities do more harm than good. Lebowski troll's bowling boulder smashes its way straight to the bottom of the screen, ruining many potential skill shots along the way. The yeti-ish Berg's power actually mildly breaks the game, allowing pegs to slide about the board freely.
Peggle 2 isn't so much new Peggle as it is more Peggle. 60 main stages and 60 skill-based challenges looks like a lot of content on paper, but the game's "one more level" structure means players can burn through all of those in a couple of hours. There's online multiplayer, in which up to four players compete on separate boards to see who can score the highest, but it's not so much playing with others as it is playing near them.
This is only the beginning for Peggle 2. Earlier this week, Popcap announced a free multiplayer Duel Mode, in which players take turns clearing the same board for points, which actually sounds rather exciting. The promise of additional levels down the line and perhaps even more game variety suggest the game may grow far beyond its modest debut.
As it stands, Peggle 2 is just more Peggle -- charming, casual and classic. No game has ever made a player feel so good about hitting pegs with tiny metal balls.