The creators who worked during the “golden age” of American animation harnessed the power of music in a way that’s hard to find in modern works. It’s not just that prolific cartoon composers like Looney Tunes’ Carl Stalling introduced multiple generations to the titans of classical music and the pop standards of the early 20th century. What makes that era special is the way those pieces and the various expressive elements of orchestral music were integrated into the toons. Every sneaky step that Daffy Duck takes is accompanied by playful strings, and any scene involving cash is scored with “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re In The Money).” Music was used to sell jokes, set a mood, and build the characters’ personalities.
Since its debut in 2007, PopCap’s Peggle has exhibited a similar understanding of music’s ability to heighten an experience. The game is played on a pachinko-like board covered in colorful pegs. You aim and launch a ball from the top of the screen. It bounces around like mad, and pegs vanish as the ball ricochets off of them. The primary goal is to clear away all the orange pegs, and when you do, the screen erupts into a rapture of fireworks and rainbows as history’s most rollicking rendition of “Ode To Joy” blares. Every victory in Peggle ends the same way, but it doesn’t get old. It’s the perfect song to push the jubilation over the top and ring in a hard-fought victory…over pachinko pegs.
The game at the heart of Peggle 2 is unchanged. (Its endorphin-releasing charms were already insidious enough; PopCap didn’t need to tinker.) There are plenty of levels to clear by hitting all the orange pegs and optional objectives and trial levels for those looking for more challenge. Instead of reworking their core formula, the developers at PopCap have bulked up the bells and whistles surrounding it, and it’s their masterful use of audio that does most of the work. Music and sound drip from every bit, and the audio does more than amplifying the joy of victory. Each of the five playable characters, called the “Peggle Masters,” has their own suite of sounds effects and musical motifs that flesh out their personality and orchestrate the mood swings of every match.
When you’re first starting out in a level and there’s not much to lose with a poorly placed shot, the music is sparse and jaunty. As you clear out orange pegs, new, more confident melodies join in, usually led by bold, noisy brass. The game intersperses pieces of your chosen master’s victory song—all of which are boisterous, pop culture-approved classical tunes, like “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” that would be a natural fit in any Merrie Melody or Silly Symphony. And so the music and the tension build until you have one orange peg left. Now, the music is gone and your character becomes a nail-biting wreck while a few nervous violins tremolo away. Then you let loose with that final shot. Cue the rainbows and your character’s signature song.
This dynamic score adds a lot to the experience of shooting a ball at a bunch of knobs. By comparison, the original Peggle feels sterile. Imagine taking away all the music from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. There’s hardly anything left but slapstick and catchphrases. And while the Peggle Masters are not as endearing as Bugs or his Looney peers, their unique sound palettes eke out enough personality to at least place them within the same circles as the lowly supporting casts of old Mickey Mouse shorts.
Gnorman, for instance, an angry gnome with a Napoleon complex and a handcrafted height-enhancing suit of steampunk armor, enters with a fanfare fit for a brutal medieval dictator. The music quiets to a few of the quirkier woodwind instruments and the clinks of whirring gears. In classic Peggle style, each successive peg emits a tone that climbs a musical scale to high-score nirvana. In Gnorman’s case, these tones are rendered with a synthesizer buzz, fittingly mechanical and abrasive. As the game goes on, the score returns to a militaristic mode, with booming brass, a chanting choir, and eventually—if you win—Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” unfortunately sans cannons.
And now players know not to mess with the short-fused, tyrannical Gnorman, essentially the Yosemite Sam of the Peggle-verse. There are only five characters in Peggle 2 (half the complement of the original) and one is Bjorn The Unicorn, the relatively bland series mascot. Bjorn aside, the four new masters have unique special abilities that are more powerful than what we saw in the original. Luna, the mischievous skeleton girl, can turn blue pegs into ghosts, allowing your ball to travel through them and reach the precious orange pegs they often block. Jeffrey, a laidback troll who also serves as an extended Big Lebowski reference, drops a bowling ball—excuse me, “bowlder”—that crushes everything in its path as it plummets to the bottom of the screen. Gnorman’s power, a lightning-imbued ball that can clear out huge portions of almost any board in a single shot, is a little too powerful. There were only a few instances where picking someone other than Gnorman made sense once I had unlocked all the masters.
Then again, Gnorman and his slightly less capable friends are just another example of how Peggle 2 separates itself from its retrospectively primitive forebear. This is a bigger, bolder Peggle, but it’s the little musical details that end up making the difference. Like melodic menus where moving to a new option produces the next note in “Morning Mood” (i.e., that song that plays in cartoons when everyone is waking up) or the skeletal xylophone sound you hear whenever the ghoulish Luna hits a peg. That latter nuance is the clearest bridge between Peggle 2 and the musicality of classic cartoons. The trope of skeletons played as xylophones was ushered in by “The Skeleton Dance,” the first Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon and one of the earliest works in which music and animation blended into something transformative.
Platform: Xbox One