Why I love Peggle and hate Peggle: Blast
It’s Peggle’s 10th anniversary and we need to talk about its legacy
Peggle is divine. Peggle: Blast is an aberration. This is a story on how a videogame first touched perfection and then became a vessel for evil. It could be compared to The Fall of the Abrahamic religions, when humankind was collectively expelled from Paradise— if the Demiurge was perverse enough to have invented microtransactions along the way. If Peggle was an almost mystical experience, Peggle: Blast urgently needs an exorcist.
Peggle was discovered circa 2007, by PopCap, a company known for casual games (i.e: Bejeweled, which spawned other minor aberrations like Candy Crush Saga). PopCap was bought by Electronic Arts in 2011, a company known for having a lot of money and FIFA. According to Wikipedia, Popcap fired 50 employees in 2012 (for all we know, all the talented people that still worked there) “in a move to address a shift to mobile and free-to-play games”.
“Mobile and free-to-play” like, say, Peggle: Blast. I don’t want to argue something as absurd as “the cultural industry is responsible for killing all good ideas and feeding the so called consumer with its tainted leftovers, repeating the same menu year after year until the whole world is made barren and stripped of all its meaning and becomes a giant parking lot where you cannot see the ground, only pile after pile of empty plastic DVD cases”. No. But I do want to point out that before becoming an EA subsidiary PopCap used to create original and fun games like Zuma, Peggle, Bejeweled, Bookworm Adventures, Plants vs. Zombies — and also some shitty ones like Insaniquarium. Now, only shitty ones like Peggle: Blast or… Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare…… (what the hell was that, seriously?)
To understand why Peggle: Blast is a terrorist attack upon our humanity, I have to explain why the original Peggle is a heightened pleasure that even a cat would understand. To prove that, I searched for “cat” + “peggle” on youtube and found all these videos. It may seem that these cats are only scratching the screen and reacting to the noise and vibrant colors, but no, look again: they’re actually understanding the inner essence of Peggle. Objects move, noises are made, colors shine bright. If you dismiss everything else, that’s what you get; and it’s beautiful.
This is Peggle’s first level. Let’s restate some of the basics of Peggle to show how Peggle: Blast makes a mess out of it. Peggle is made for terrestrial humans (or cats) and based on a fundamental aspect of being alive: gravity. Click to throw a ball from the top of the screen (note: in Peggle: Blast you “touch” to throw, way jerkier). The ball is launched and it kicks all over when hitting “pegs”, directed by momentum until falling down on the bottom of the screen. Pegs disappear after being hit. Your objective is to hit all orange pegs (25) with a limited number of balls (10). Always. It’s always that. There are two ways to get extra balls: if you can make a lot of points in a single shot, or if the ball falls inside the moving bucket on the bottom of the screen. The bucket is exactly as big as it needs to be, and it has a nice shape to assure that the ball will make interesting arcs even if you miss the hole by a little. In Peggle you aim, you shoot, you enjoy the show.
There are two basic pleasures in Peggle: the satisfaction in clearing out the screen methodically, which makes us go for another ball and then another; the illusion that slowly but surely we can control Chaos. The second basic pleasure is the celebration of Chaos: when something unexpected or difficult happens and the game rewards you with points and extra balls. And Peggle does a great job at celebrating such small moments: sometimes a characters pops out and says you have “MAD SKILLZ”; there’s aslow motion camera and a drum roll when the ball is closing in the last orange peg; or when you finish a level and the screen is bombarded with fireworks, colors, and the unforgettable Ode to Joy explodes through your sound system. “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity!”. Peggle makes you feel like the funniest person in the room. It’s like a warm blanket, tea and human touch when you’re feeling not so great.
The negligible backstory of Peggle places you on the Peggle Institute. You’re there to become a Peggle Master. The other Masters — like the unicorn Björn and the egyptian cat Kat Tut — are there to help you. They assure you that with patience and persistence you can achieve anything you want. If you lose, you can always play again, whenever you feel like it. Peggle believes in your potential, even when your parents don’t. Peggle likes you.
Peggle: Blast hates you. Peggle: Blast would want you dead if that meant you’d pay more. Peggle: Blast would kick your dog just to enjoy your desperation, and then would charge you money to not do it again. The Peggle Institute was the target of a hostile takeover, and the shareholders are still foaming like rabid dogs. It’s everything you could expect from a free-to-play version of Peggle for mobiles made by EA.
I have played more than a hundred levels of Peggle: Blast and I need to exorcise some demons.
It’s not that I hate the concept of microtransactions in itself (I do, but that’s not the point), or hate having to watch ads, or the awkward suggestions to buy extra balls when I couldn’t finish the level through the usual means. You can’t complain about the bottle if you’re given free beer.
What is distasteful about Peggle: Blast are the subtle transformations that the original design has gone through to accommodate the habitual villainy of monetization. Like the reanimated dead body of someone you once loved that now became just a piece of meat filled with electrical impulses and should be buried already so it cannot traumatize you any further.
Peggle has 50 levels. Peggle: Blast has 195. Every level in Peggle has a unique background picture, with the pegs vaguely following the drawing. Peggle: Blast has the same background picture for every level in a world, all of them lifeless so they can be simple enough to fit in any context. The bucket was also made smaller, and its shape was altered so it becomes harder to get extra balls. This game wouldn’t want you to have too much extra balls.
It’s possible to play Peggle forever. Not physically possible, but Peggle wouldn’t complain. You can play until you want to quit. It’s part of its chaotic nature. It creates an environment where it’s fun to try different strategies just to see what would happen, how the game reacts, an environment where it’s fun to have fun. In Peggle: Blast you have 5 lives, and when they’re over you have to wait for them to refill so you can play again — the hateful energy mechanic: the game stops you from playing, unless you want to buy a life or two. What may look like a simple corporate decision taken by an ill-guided young man wearing a suit worried about conversion rates and investment values turns out to be the quickest way to turn Peggle from a fun design to something akin to swimming in biomedical waste, trying to avoid the syringes. Peggle: Blast infuses in you a conservative mindset by making you dread losing lives and that contaminates every single aspect of the design.
When you only have 5 lives and is fighting hard to keep them, of course the game will throw you a bunch of nonsense obstacles to make you lose them as fast as possible. And thus it begins: there’s a fireball that burns any ball that touches it; stupid gnomes spread oil on pegs that make the ball lose all the momentum when hit, and then you have to hit it again to clear the peg (where did they get oil anyway?); some peggles are frozen and must be hit three times to be cleared; bombs that must be hit in a set number of turns or they will go off and you lose; new objectives: you have to hit eggs to hatch them, and if they fall from the bottom of the screen you lose.
It all adds an artificial layer of “strategy” that wasn’t there before. Peggle worked just fine without all that mess. Victory, which used to be big, cathartic moment — fireworks, colors, ode to joy — becomes a moment of relief. It’s not fun; it feels more like release from an exhaustive, stressful experience, a Skinner’s Box in which the reward is not to die. When I think of Peggle, I think of how much fun I had running through every advanced challenge with my girlfriend until we had completed all of them (Peggle Nights too). I think of warmth, outbursts of happiness, glee. When I think of Peggle: Blast I think of how much I could achieve by washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom. Björn was sold and his owners want him to keep a happy face as to not scare the customers away.
Peggle is sublime. Peggle: Blast should have rocks thrown at it. In 2008, a psychological experiment backed by PopCap was made to test if Peggle could improve a person’s mood. RPS reported on it: “a slew of mood-affecting factors were tested for: psychological tension, anger, depression, vigour, fatigue and the amusingly nebulous ‘confusion.’ Peggle was clear champ, improving the total ‘mood’ by 573% across all study subjects”. I fear that if the same study was conducted with Peggle: Blast the game would smother the subjects in their sleep.
Today is Peggle’s 10th anniversary. Instead of an ode, an elegy.
“Life gently touched thee, and passed as softly.
Yes, and passed as softly.”