Peggle remains every bit as brilliant even 17 years after its release

By John Walker, Contributor

We are all extraordinarily good at Peggle—apart from when it’s unfair. When it’s unfair, when the ball somehow bounces on a route that impossibly takes it between 13 pegs without ever touching any of them, it’s an outrage. It’s something governments should be looking into. Certainly, somebody somewhere should be facing consequences. But when that ball makes a spectacular bounce from one peg in the top left corner to a perfect path down a passage on the right, hitting so many orange pegs on the way that it spawns a free ball, and then plops with perfect timing into the bucket at the bottom—that’s our astonishing skill. We deserve medals and statues.

This is the complete brilliance of 2007’s Peggle, PopCap’s casual pachinko game that saw the developer catapulted from enormous success with your aunt to world-conquering success among hardcore gamers. While the company will always be known first for its match-three mainstream mega-hit Bejeweled, it’s Peggle (closely followed by Plants Vs. Zombies) that made it known to games enthusiasts. And all without a gun bobbing at the bottom of the screen.

It helped that Peggle was released at a time when digital distribution for PC games was brand new and choices were extremely limited. This was not the sort of game that would shift boxed copies in stores, and many gamers weren’t browsing the sorts of casual portals where PopCap games would usually reside, so a game this good (and not buried by tens of thousands of other titles) was able to shine. It then enormously helped that Peggle caught the attention of the developers at Valve as they were putting together the compilation of games included with 2007’s The Orange Box. Alongside industry game-changers like Portal and Team Fortress 2 was a special version of Peggle, Peggle Extreme, with levels themed around Valve’s library like Half-Life.
But brushing up against popularity isn’t enough. Peggle was inherently good enough to sustain its own success, and that was thanks to some deft-handed restraint. Based on pachinko, a physical game popular in Japan but not enormously well known around the world, it's all about firing a ball into a screen filled with mostly circular pegs, then watching as it bounces off them at random to make its way to the bottom of the screen. With pinball physics, each peg slightly propels the ball, maintaining its momentum as it pings about the screen, with the goal being to hit all the orange-colored pegs (among the many blue pegs) before you run out of balls to fire.

This, alone, is a compelling format. It engenders all those feelings of personal glory when things go right as well as universal outrage when they go wrong. Then PopCap added their flair in the form of themed levels with each collection offering a unique bonus ability that mixes up how it plays.

Peggle begins with Bjorn the unicorn, who shows you a short trace of the path your aimed ball will take after its first bounce. Through this tutorial, you not only learn how pegs can deflect your ball but also begin to believe you have some level of influence over the ensuing descent. And to an extent, you do. You can deliberately bounce a ball toward an area, try to time it to slide into a gap amid a rotating circle of pegs, and impose some degree of influence over the turn. But then chaos arrives as a second, third, or fourth bounce becomes impossible for a human to predict, and luck takes over.
After Bjorn is Jimmy Lightning, a skateboarding rodent who—when you hit one of the green pegs that trigger his abilities—spawns a second ball. Kat Tut, a cat in ancient Egyptian regalia, gives the sliding bucket at the bottom of the screen pyramid-like extensions on either side to help the ball bounce into the bucket so it can be fired again. Claude, a lobster with a strong French accent, causes pinball-like flippers to appear at the bottom left and right of the screen for a few turns, so you can ping the ball back into action. Then the last of the 10 Peggle Masters, Master Hu, a wise owl, uses zen-based abilities to fine-tune your chosen shot in a way that humans cannot, calculating the complete path the ball will take and adjusting for the best possible route.

A total of 55 levels means there’s a lot of fun to be had in the original Peggle, even 17 years later. Once you’ve completed them all, you can replay the whole game with the added option to select which of the 10 bonus abilities you want to have in each level. Or you can check out Challenge Mode, where every level is given a far harder win condition, like increasing the number of orange pegs that you need to clear or setting a minimum score for a level to an eye-watering 400,000. There’s even what Peggle calls Insane Challenges, described as “the hardest challenges offered by the Peggle Institute.”

Which is all to say, there’s so much game here that it’ll keep you occupied for days on end. And it’s still as compelling and infuriating as it ever was. (It’s a shame that the game was made in a very fixed 800 x 600 resolution, but it can expand to fullscreen on any screen and remain very playable. I’ve proven this to the extreme on my 3,440 x 1,440 monitor.) And when you’re finally done with all that, you can hop right into Peggle Nights, its first sequel that has another 60 levels to play!

And don’t let others cause you to doubt yourself. It’s absolutely all thanks to your skill when things go well, when you score the extra 50,000 points with an extra-long shot, even though it only came about when the sliding fish happened to move at that exact moment and knock the ball in the right direction—you were almost definitely planning on that! But good grief, Peggle cheats when you somehow miss every orange peg on the route down, and then the ball takes a split second longer to fall than it feels like it should and misses the bucket. That’s because the developers of this game were deliberately picking on you, because they’re bad people who are just jealous of how good you are at their game. That’s just science.