Popcap Games, the reason your mother owns a computer, recently unveiled their magnum opus, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe. BAD is more than a fun variation of the productivity-killing Bookworm, it’s a casual gaming monster, with a $700,000 budget and two and a half years of development time. You might say it’s one of the first serious casual games, and the high price tag ($30) reflects just how serious Popcap is about their new title. Scoffers, take note: Bookworm Adventures Deluxe is a highly-polished title, deeper than it seems at first glance, and worthy of its price tag. It’s the kind of game Blizzard might make if they were into Zuma and Bejeweled rather than giant MMOGs; polished, refined, full of humor and incredibly addictive.
The premise is straight out of any RPG: Our green hero, Lex – that’s the bookworm – makes his way through simple side-scrolling “chapters” (similar to the levels in Ghouls and Ghosts) that consist of several battles against stronger and stronger enemies, until he finally comes to an all-powerful boss monster at the end. Dramatic music plays, and the final showdown begins. He gains experience as he defeats enemies, levels up (current favorite: Level 2: Encyclopedia Salesman), picks up items and treasure, and advances to new chapters.
Upon completing the chapters in a book (there’s a theme here, see), some cool stuff is unlocked, triumphant music plays and Lex – bolder and wiser – moves into the next book. There’s a suitably goofy wraparound story using lots of literary humor.
Where BAD excels is in the depth of its game system. Combat begins simply enough, familiar to anyone who’s played Bookworm. Players are given a selection of lettered tiles and make words out of them, which damage enemies, whose life bars are measured in Zelda-style hearts. Small words do a small amount of damage, and longer words do more. Tiles disappear once used up, lending an element of tactical decision-making to the combat proceedings: Do I go for GUN and keep wearing down the hydra, or do I pick something else and pray to god a W falls so I can get the one-shot GUNWALE that’ll finish off the cursed thing once and for all?
What’s more, as Lex advances, new tile types and items become available. Gem tiles, for example, may increase Lex’s attack power, decrease the other guy’s attack power or any number of nifty effects. Items all have their own unique powers, and since the intrepid worm can only carry three, entering a chapter requires an element of strategizing: Do I take in the shield that absorbs damage, or the bow that’ll make my attack stronger on those dreaded Xs, Ys, and Zs?
Complicating matters even further, enemies have their own special attacks (like destroying tiles or making them unusable for a number of rounds), immunities (“immune to three-letter words” made me spout four-letter words) and vulnerabilities (extra damage on metal-themed words) familiar to any veteran of, say, the Final Fantasy series. It even has the unlockable areas and minigames.
Bookwork Adventures Deluxe feels like a labor of love from a designer with a lot of time in the JRPG genre. It’s both a send-up (boss speeches tend to be polysyllabic versions of the “I’ll crush thee, worm!” boss monologue) and tribute.
Above all, it’s fun and satisfying. The surprisingly tough, even tense, battles are interspersed with the goofy storyline and dialogue, fun mini-games, and even the humor in the loading screen. You can imagine my expression when my coworker glanced over just as a cheerful loading screen announced I was “Pretending to Work.” Not a moment later, he turned to ask me something and was greeted by “Playing Video Games.” And call me a nerd, but there’s a tremendous fulfillment in turning a decent FAIR into a powerful FAIRWELL.
BAD is like Scrabble, but with boss fights and items, and without picking up the board and all the pieces after throwing them across the room because someone pulled off XYLOPHONE. This is all topped off by the little touches, the dabs of polish, like the occasional slow-motion finishing move replete with Unreal Tournament-style announcer voice when you pull off a particularly awesome word to finish off a foe. The price tag is a bit steep, but considering it’s just about endlessly replayable, it’s more than worth the cost.