Games Review: Popcap Hits Vol 1 & 2

As mentioned last week, the collected works of one of the finest small developers in casual games at the moment have been complied and released to the shops for the xbox360. Casual gaming is a boom field at the moment, with digital distribution on all platforms allowing smaller games, at lower price points, to flourish without the need to become blockbuster titles with huge development and marketing budgets. All of these games have previously been available on XBLA, and other platforms, but these collections get them shelf space, where people may not have seen them, and at a discounted cost. So, is it worth it?

Volume 1 contains, as much as anything, a couple of big niggles. The first is that as ports of the XBLA versions, when you quit any of the games it dumps you straight out into the Arcade Menu of the xbox’s menu system rather than back to the game selection screen that the disc launches, leaving you heading back to the front page to pick up the disc launch screen again. It’s not the end of the world but it is a little annoying. The second was more serious – when I launched Astropop and Feeding Frenzy I got errors about the screen mode I was running in, and instructed to change it – fine, you think, except that the mode it was wants me to run in I can’t as the xbox is setup to output Component based 1080i, not the output mode the game thought it was. Now, rooting around in the loft to find a different set of cable to play what is essentially a small arcade title seems like a bit of an issue to me.

Thankfully Bejewelled and Peggle do not have this problem and launch smoothly from the game launcher disk. Both are excellent examples of the sort of small scale gaming these discs should be showcasing. First up, Bejewelled is a simple game that is surprisingly addictive. A grid of coloured gems you can shuffle around to match up sets of three, which then vanish and bring in more gems. The game has several modes, a standard high-score mode, a challenge/puzzle mode and even a competitive mode over Xbox Live. Its quite compelling, clicking away, and the sort of game that eats time without you noticing.

Peggle though, is the real gem. Deceptively simple, it’s a game of hitting pegs with a small ball to make them vanish, over increasingly fiendish levels, it’s done with such style its hard to resist. As you clear each level of the campaign mode the game bursts into the “Ode to Joy” and throws fireworks on the screen and that’s almost reward enough for playing, but the core gameplay, not to mention the strange tension as the ball ricochets around screen, is solid and friendly.

Volume 2 still has the “kicked out to the arcade screen” thing going on but I was relieved to learn that all the games work without issue, which is surely the whole point of consoles, right? Here you have three fluff titles sharing disc-space with what is one of my favourite games of recent years period – casual or not!

I mean of course, Plants vs Zombies; If you’ve not played this, I can’t really recommend it enough. PvZ is a take on the popular tower-defence genre, in this case you are defending your house against waves of zombies that advance down the lanes of your garden to eat your brains. Your only defence is the plants you can grow on your lawn, a mix of blocking units, offensive spitters and chompers, and sunflowers (and later sunshrooms) that give more resources with which to build. As I’ve come to expect from Popcap it’s colourful and fun, and underneath the hood is a fiercely tight and balanced campaign with a lot of variation and replay-ability.

The rest of the disc is more mixed. Heavy Weapons is, frankly, pretty poor – a fairly generic, retro-themed 2d shooter with little to recommend it. Feeding Frenzy 2, in which you play a small fish, eating small fish to become a larger fish and eat larger fish, has a cute visual style but gets repetitive quite fast, and suffers from a woolly control scheme. Zuma on the other hand, is the discs other bright spot. You play a mechanical ball-spitting frog (what else?!) and by pairing up the ball colours you can spit against balls on a converging series of tracks you gradually destroy  them all to prevent the lead ball reaching a “hole of doom”. Yes, it’s a little hard to explain, so you’ll have to take my word for the fact I found it pretty addictive and fun.

So overall, what’s the verdict? Well both discs are very mixed – they contain some great distractions, and, with the inclusion of Plants vs Zombies, one cut-and-dried modern classic. That said, they retail in the mid-price range and if you have access to XBLA, and can stand Microsoft’s slightly fiddly MS Points system, you can pick up the ones you like for less – not to mention that these are available on many other platforms ranging from cut-down versions in Facebook up to Steam and iTunes. I guess it’s an inherent problem with compilations of this sort, in the modern gaming age and something that these discs may struggle against.

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