Simple to learn, hard to master. It's a well-worn cliché, but couldn't be more applicable in the case of Peggle. New to the Xbox LIVE Arcade, Peggle has been one of the most highly rated and popular casual games on the PC released in the last couple of years. The basic concept could hardly be easier to grasp. After your induction into the illustrious Peggle Institute, you are guided through the Adventure mode (consisting of 55 levels) by 11 so-called Peggle Masters, each of whom train you in the art of how clear each stage of pegs and bricks using a humble, well-aimed pinball and enlighten you as to how their unique special powers may help you. The levels are predominantly populated by blue pegs, most of which must be cleared in order to reach all of the orange pegs, all of which must be hit to move onto the next stage. To assist you in your task, two green pegs are placed in each level, which (when struck) trigger each master's special power. Additionally, a purple peg randomly replaces one of the low-scoring blue pegs once each turn and provides a big score boost if hit, increasing your odds of earning an extra ball.
The game's presentation is uniformly excellent, with plenty of humour and character throughout the script for each of the Peggle masters. The special powers range from the profoundly worthless (Kat Tut's Pyramid power) via the quirkily cool (Master Hu's Zen Shot) to the exceptionally useful (Jimmy Lightning's Multiball). Using these special powers at the right time (usually within your first couple of shots, but not necessarily always) can be a big factor in completing a level, but more often than not, it comes down to your skill at aiming, your grasp of physics - i.e. predicting where the ball will go - and timing your shot to increase the odds of the ball being collected in the bucket sweeping back and forth at the bottom of the screen. Initially it might seem that random chance and luck outweighs all these factors, but luck actually only plays its part at one point: right at the beginning of each stage, when the distribution of blue and orange pegs is decided.
Peggle's level design is imaginative throughout, with plenty of variety in both the background themes and the obstacles used to complicate your task (such as pinball bumpers and wormholes). Completing the Adventure mode unlocks the 75 challenge levels, which reuse stages from the Adventure mode. It's here, in the Challenge mode, that the game demonstrates its long-term term appeal. The challenges themselves build on what you have learned in the Adventure mode (which could be viewed essentially as an elaborate tutorial) and have a nicely judged learning curve, starting at the relatively easy (clearing levels with 35 orange pegs) ranging up to the nigh-on impossible (completing ten random levels with just ten shots). Anyone still thinking that Peggle is largely dependent on luck will be quickly disabused of that thought by playing the challenges. Scoring more than 450,000 points per level or hitting every single peg to beat a challenge simply cannot be achieved through random chance alone.
So it's slightly frustrating then that during the conversion from PC to console the level of precision in the controls has been slightly degraded in the translation from mouse to joypad, making it harder to achieve the pixel-perfect precision necessary for the trickiest shots. It's the only flaw in the port, however, and is largely offset by new online multiplayer modes implemented for Xbox LIVE. Two online multiplayer modes and one local multiplayer mode are available, the most eye-catching of which is the Peg Party, which allows up to four players to compete for the highest score over a number of rounds set by the host. The Peg Party mode doesn't quite have the same competitive edge as the online and offline duel modes, but is still quite fun, if you can find an open group to play with, or don't mind waiting for other people to join when you play the host. One curious design misstep by Pop Cap is not being able to play the local two-player duel mode with a single controller, given each player takes their turn separately. It's an odd, uncharacteristic oversight, given the level of polish throughout the rest of the game.
Fortunately, this doesn't detract too much away from the sheer quality of the core of the game. Its simple aim-and-shoot mechanics draws you in for repeated plays and with the short completion times needed to complete levels, you can easily fall prey to 'Just One More' Syndrome. A well-intentioned half hour pick-up-and-play session can easily turn into a six hour all-nighter if you get seduced by the lure of the online high score charts and just have to break that 500,000 point barrier. That the game plays you the rousing strains of Beethoven's Ode To Joy upon the completion of every stage is no accident, either. Completing a level of Peggle might not exactly stand up there with completing Halo 3 on Legendary as one of the pinnacles of gaming prowess, but you could almost be fooled, the way the game fetes your success. It has all the same ingredients of the classic arcade games of the 1980s. It's easy to learn and simple to play, but hard to truly master and achieve the highest scores. But its biggest strength is that it's fun. With such polish and attention to detail in not just the presentation but the game mechanics as well, Peggle is pure, distilled fun in digital form. This is accessible, feel-good gaming at its very best.