PopCap Arcade Volume 1 Review (Xbox360)

In a world where convenience is a necessity and time is of the essence – whatever that means – “casual” games have found a place in just about everyone’s lives. These games are so ubiquitous that chances are you have played through a fair amount of them already. Microsoft uses its Xbox LIVE Arcade as a tool to dispense the pick-up-and-play genre to an eager audience, who only seek a reprieve from everyday clutter. However, not everyone enjoys the commodity that is broadband internet. Thus, Seattle-based casual game developer PopCap Games delivers Xbox 360 users a compellation of arguably its best creations.

Special blocks make combos; combos make big scores, big scores for the win!
Why does a stone frog care if different colored balls touch a golden skull?

PopCap Arcade Volume 1 comes packed with four complete puzzle-based games. Included on the DVD is the “sequel” to one of the most recognizable casual games, Bejeweled 2; followed by the Mayan-themed Zuma; the brick-popping space puzzler, AstroPop; and the aquatic adventure, Feeding Frenzy. Each of these titles have already been available by download through Xbox LIVE, for a combined total of 2600 Microsoft Points (roughly $32.50), so buying the disk wont net you any deal or cost you anything extra.

The premise of each game keeps it simple, but completing each puzzle is anything but an easy task. Like its predecessor, Bejeweled 2 has the player swapping around one of five different gems to match up three-of-a-kind; match four and get a Power Gem (with explosive powers), and line-up five to create a Hyper Cube (destroy all like-kind gems on the board). There are four game modes to play through initially and four to unlock, with Endless Mode being the most therapeutic.

While Bejeweled 2 will have players swapping around shiny gems, AstroPop takes elements of RPGs and tacks in onto its puzzle play. In the game, small ships grab up-to six blocks to rearrange them in color combos from more blocks making their way down the screen. With special blocks at your disposal, the goal is reach a score by popping four or more blocks of the same color. Starting out with only two selectable characters, you can play through Story Mode to unlock an additional two characters and level-up your special weapon: the SUPA weapon. Complementing the main game is Survival Mode where players have to, well, survive. Each subsequent level will become harder as bricks move faster with a limited amount of time.

Rounding out the puzzle-based games is Zuma, a mix between Bust-a-Move and Centipede. While playing as a Mayan-themed stone frog, your goal is to prevent a stream of color-coded balls from reaching the golden skull by shooting like-colored balls, to match-up a group of three. Just like the other games there are special balls which have different effects, and multiple game modes.

The final game breaks from the previous puzzle games and is strictly a casual adventure title. Feeding Frenzy will have you progressing through the seas from a flounder all the way to an orca whale. Each level consists of eating different sized fish to grow bigger to move up the food chain. Planted throughout the progression are a few timed bonus stages where the goal is to eat a certain number of fish. Aside from its Story Mode is a Survival Mode - by now you already know what means (if not: a limited amount of time to beat each level).

The dynamic thing about critiquing casual games is the same criterion which is used for core-style games does not necessarily fit with the genre. In each game Story Mode does not actually mean there is a story to experience, so it’s impossible to judge the game based on any sort of character development or other engrossing aspects. Although AstroPop and Feeding Frenzy present something that resembles stories, they really are only weak fillers to give reasons for progressing through each level. In other words, Story Mode is just another expression for the main game, and a way to differentiate from other game types.

Casual games just are. They’re a means of escape with easy accessibility to start and stop the game whenever you want. In striving to achieve this mandate, PopCap Arcade accomplishes its goal. Each of the four games are simple enough to pick-up and play for 15 minutes or even an hour. The three puzzle games may seem like rehashed attempts at Tetris but play with their own unique characteristics. The games themselves are no easy run-though either. The first few levels may seem like a breeze, but once you’re through the introductory stages it takes quick maneuvers and on-the-fly thinking to stay in the game.

The best thing about these types of games has to be their implementation. With today’s controllers, games become inundated with complex control schemes. However, these casual games utilize a simple two or three-button setup. For the most part each game involves using only one joystick and one face button. With this setup, it’s easy for anyone start a game.

Along with easy to execute controls, is the simple nature of the games themselves. There is no complex, convoluted reason for what you’re doing; you’re simply trying to get to the next level. Feeding Frenzy is the best example of this, as eating fish to grow bigger becomes a completely addictive activity.

Look at all the pretty jewels! If you can’t figure out a next move you can always use the conspicuously placed hint option
Each other fish before they eat you, but no matter how big you get, you’re always food for giant clams

The games aren’t without their faults, however. The casual genre is capable of implementing a strong and crisp graphical prowess, as is evident in many of the Arcade titles released through LIVE. However, each of the games bundled on the disk lack a bit of this luster. This is understandable as the true draw isn’t to how they look, but what kind of mechanics they employ.

Another simple misstep is in deciding not to implement some sort of multiplayer aspect to any of the games. Generally it’s a bad thing to use an ad hoc approach to multiplayer setups, but in this case, it would have been desirable. A simple addition of being able to play against a buddy in Bejeweled 2 by trying to beat puzzles faster, or adding additional bricks to an opponent in AstroPop, would have only increased the games replayability.

As it is, the games suffer from a session-play aspect. Unless you’re absolutely addicted, and need to come back for more, there’s no base to keep hardcore gamers hooked for long stretches of time. Arguably, on the flipside, this defect could also be the games’ best asset. Instead of becoming burned out by a game in a few days, Arcade has a longevity based on a play-whenever and however-long approach. It obvious the developer had this in mind as completing Achievements for the games is no easy task. If you’re bent on racking up these points, it’s going to take awhile as some require ten hours of play, or an obscene amount of patience and dedication.

In the same strain of plus-minus critique is the music. Each game has its own theme. The music is catchy, delightful yet repetitive. The novel aspect of each theme wares out after only a short time and can start to drain any reserve to continue playing. With a synthesized, Enya-esque melody Bejeweled’s theme is the most enjoyable and soothing out of the mix.

In the end, PopCap Arcade Volume 1 is certainly a deal if you are without any access to broadband and are craving a casual game fix on your 360. The four titles on the disk mix accessibility with addictive gameplay. However, due to the fact that all of these games are free to play online in some capacity, or if you only want one game at a time, it’s really up to the person if they want to shell out $30 plus dollars on this four-pack of similarly endless games.

Top Game Moment:
Narrowly escaping defeat on Endless Mode in AstroPop by getting a Giga-combo to finish the level.

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