I've attended my fair share of launch parties for videogames, but I was still surprised when casual game publisher PopCap invited me to the shindig celebrating the release of its newest offering. If new casual games are announced at all, it's with a press release or a website banner, not a full-blown party with actors, spotlights, and lithe young acrobats. But this was no ordinary game being released, this was Bejeweled Twist.
Take a moment to consider the gaming force of nature that is Bejeweled. From its humble beginnings as Diamond Mine, it has gone on to sell millions of units, and accounts for 40% of PopCap's earnings. It's on practically every gaming platform possible, and has even been integrated into in World of Warcraft. Few games short of Tetris have achieved the kind of saturation into the mass consciousness that Bejeweled has. It is, simply put, a monster of a game, even if it is "just" a casual title.
To be honest, I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about playing Bejeweled Twist. I didn't love either of its two predecessors. I understood why they were great time-killers, but I personally didn't find them to have the addictiveness of a Peggle or the depth of a Bookworm Adventures. Though I was intrigued to learn that Twist was in development for three years, I figured it would simply be more of the same. And it is - but only if you want it to be.
The core mechanic of matching gems, which then vanish, making room for new gems, remains. The twist, pun intended, is that now instead of moving a single gem at a time, you're rotating a block of four. Not only that, you no longer have to make a match on every move - you get bigger bonuses if you do, but if you're willing to sacrifice the points, you can make several non-matching moves to set up a spectacular chain, or match six in a row. Matching four or more gems earns you power ups like flame and lightning gems, which explode, wiping out entire swaths of the gameboard.
If Twist sounds like it has a lot in common with Hexic, the complex Xbox Live Arcade puzzler, that's because it does. The game's bombs, immovable gems, rocks, and even its basic twisting mechanic are all cribbed from Hexic, but it seems only fair for one of the most copied games ever made to do a little copying itself. The result of this most sincere form of flattery is that Twist offers options for both casual players who enjoy simply matching gems and hoping for the best, and players looking for a more robust challenge - those folks who think that that "casual" games are for housewives and sissies. You know who you are.
Though it destroys my gamer cred in certain circles, I've never been ashamed to admit my love for casual games like Dairy Dash and Wizard's Pen. I find they provide just enough challenge to keep my game-loving brain engaged, without really taxing it too much - a better way of dealing with a tough day than drowning myself in margaritas. (Though that has its place, too.) After playing Bejeweled Twist, I don't really consider it a casual game. It may have easy-to-learn controls and simple goals, but Twist is a cagey beast, with challenges that will put any gamer's skills to the test.
I'm not talking about setting up cascades of matches or somehow getting five and six gems to line up at once - advanced Bejeweled players have already mastered those skills. I'm talking about bonuses that require you to make specific color matches on consecutive turns. Or the challenge mode, which presents you with tasks like getting a certain number of red gems on the screen at once, or clearing 15 gems at once without using a flame or lightning powerup. Then there are the fruit gems that are so hard to acquire, I've yet to actually see one. Think you've got mad gaming skills and that casual games are somehow beneath you? Clear all of Twist's challenges and then we'll talk.
PopCap consciously emulated Blizzard's recipe for success while making Twist, seeing it through many iterations and refusing to released it until it was the best game it could possibly be, and the extra effort shows. Twist has been polished until it sparkles like...well, you know. Our gaming plates are full of greatness at the moment, what with Fallout, Fable, LittleBigPlanet and the impending releases of Lich King, Mirror's Edge and Gears of War 2, and I'm not about to suggest you put any of those aside to play Bejeweled Twist. But when you've run through those games, or simply need a break, go download it. Even if you don't normally like casual games, even if you didn't like Bejeweled, download it and see what happens. You may never look at "casual" games the same way again.
Susan Arendt has yet to make gem-shaped ice cubes with the tray she got from the launch party, but she hopes to soon.