This is Peggle all right: a stock of ten balls, a screen full of pegs to hit them with, and an immaculate physics model. While the initial reaction may be one of vague disappointment, it gives way to relief the minute you first fail a stage. In the years since PopCap’s riff on pachinko first appeared, much has changed in the game industry, and this is a formula ripe for the monetising. Yet when we run out of balls with a handful of orange pegs still onscreen, we’re not asked if we’d like to cough up 69p for a few more goes. There are no purchasable boosters to clear the bits of the screen that we hadn’t managed to get ourselves. Although we suspect the delay from its Xbox One launch-day release was to help Peggle 2 not choke under a cloud of petrol fumes and zombie viscera, it does stand out from the launch-window crowd. And not just in style and tone, but also because it’s that rarest of beasts: an Xbox One game not infested with microtransactions.
Perhaps that will come. A main menu icon has a picture of a shopping cart and bears the ominous legend ‘Coming soon’. But given what Peggle 2 has shipped with, it seems most likely that PopCap’s DLC plan will focus on Masters. Just five are available now, and only Bjorn, the dopey unicorn that’s the closest thing Peggle has to a protagonist, will be familiar to fans of the first game. The Master selection screen – all five in a row, with the space below occupied only by a single icon that randomly selects one – suggests more will follow.
The other Masters are obviously PopCap creations from the second you lay eyes on them. There’s Jeffrey, a troll glugging from a keg whose eyes are permanently closed and who offers up Big Lebowski quotes by way of encouragement. There’s Berg, a yeti who turns his back to you and dances when you clear a stage, with his bare arse pixellated for modesty. Gnorman is a robotic gnome whose Gneighbourhood (PopCap’s word, not ours) is a cutesy steampunk village; Luna, a ghostly pigtailed skeleton, offers up wry existentialist thoughts.
These aren’t just additions to PopCap’s swollen book of excellent character design. Each has a special power, accessed via one of the two randomly placed green pegs in each level. Bjorn’s Super Guide, which shows you the trajectory a ball will take after it hits its first peg, gives a welcome leg up to newcomers, but even old hands will benefit from the gleaming trail when they’ve lined up a shot that will take out a sweeping arc or loop-the-loop of pegs. Jeffrey’s Bowlder tumbles downwards after the first peg you knock, destroying all in its path. Berg’s Deep Freeze locks moving pegs in place, and pegs your ball connects with will slide across the icy plane created by his frosty breath, taking out obstructions along the way. Gnorman’s Uber Volt, meanwhile, clears out the two nearest blocks to the one your ball lands on. Luna’s Nightshade takes some getting used to – it renders blues translucent, letting you aim straight for hard-to-reach oranges. She will be the leaderboard-focused player’s Master of choice; you still get points for every blue peg your ball passes through, and they all respawn next turn.
Each Master hosts a world comprised of ten stages – making for a comparable offering to the original’s 55 – plus there’s a sixth world in which you get to take your pick. Each world also contains a set of ten Trials, and these are more specific and skill-based than the regular stages, where success so often comes more by luck than judgement. Some Trials task you with pulling off extravagant skill shots, such as using Gnorman’s Uber Volt to hit ten separate pegs – a move marvellously dubbed as Major Discharge. Others ask that you clear a level of pegs with a single ball. You might need to finish the level with a high score or, more onerously, a low one. Some give you infinite use of a Master’s superpower, or maybe none at all. They’re a delightful change of pace: you know there’s a solution, that what it tells you to do is possible, and as such they require a lot more thought than the fire-and-forget nature of traditional Peggle.
There’s an element of skill involved at all times, of course, though it rarely extends beyond the trajectory of a ball’s first bounce. Thereafter, you’re in the hands of the Peggle gods. While it’s tempting to take the credit for a shot that cleared half the screen, scored 100,000 points and bounced off the lip of the bucket that patrols the bottom of the screen, off a wall and back in for a free ball, you know you had little to do with it.
But Peggle’s secret is the way it makes you feel about these successes – and it’s here that this most feels like a true sequel. Clear out a level and the resulting Ultra Extreme Fever is a bigger festival of light and colour than ever, and Xbox One’s Game DVR popup serves as an extra pat on the back. The accompanying crescendo is no longer limited to Ode To Joy either – each Master has their own piece of classical music. Meters fill and refill with cascades of colour. Bonuses send your score rocketing while the William Tell Overture builds to a thrilling climax. It’s like winning a fruit machine jackpot on stage at the Last Night Of The Proms.
In the first game, this dopamine rush helped you overlook the rather obvious role played by lady luck. Here, its remit has expanded, also helping you get over that spartan Master select screen, ensuring you forgive the rather sparse single-mode multiplayer component, and making you forget that the new Masters’ powers have a whiff of gimmickry about them. Peggle 2, then, is still Peggle, but there’s little to justify the seven-year wait or its spot in Xbox One’s launch window. And while it may not ask you to shell out 69p for turns, it’s seemingly only a matter of time before you’re invited to pay for modes and Masters that in the past would have been part of the package from day one.