There’s A Zombie On My Lawn

Not too long ago, I was busy lambasting PopCap Games’ Peggle on the grounds that the skill component was too far removed – you could only reliably predict 2 or 3 bounces and after that it’s up to luck.

Thus, all the Peggle love out there was sort an indicator that the admirer was, deep down, not somebody who particularly cared about getting better at a game.  Who cares if they’re having fun, right?  But, in terms of judging Peggle as a game, a cap on how well the player can play it is a major disqualification of sorts.

But, despite the fact it was developed by the same company, I’ve been enjoying  Plants vs Zombies over the past couple days.  Of the mere $10 Steam was charging for it, I’d say the music video alone was worth $2.50.

The game has a lot in common with the song. It’s not perfect under great scrutiny, the casual friendliness of it may even insult your intelligence a bit, but the whole package nonetheless harnesses great fun.

The main thing to notice about Plants vs Zombies is that they’ve successfully bridged a certain gap between casual and hardcore.

The tower defense genre is hardly the most difficult to control, but Plants vs Zombies simplifies things a bit further by breaking your attackers into just 5 short lanes of attacks.   The vast majority of the plants (towers) you place simply fire forward, and your attackers all move on a straight line down their designated lane.

The game is so simple to pick up that the “help” button on the menu is a joke: keep the zombies from getting to you.  If you’re still confused, don’t worry, the first couple missions transition you from 1 lane to 3 lanes before making you worry about tackling a whole 5.

Casual accessibility well established, how did this game come to entertain me, the hardcore gamer who is far too experienced to tolerate simplicity for long?

The easy answer is that the simplicity hides a deeper game beneath due to several factors:

  • There’s a staggering variety of 48 plants in Plants vs. Zombies, where most tower defense games settle for about a half-dozen to a dozen player-controlled units.
  • You can only take a few plants with you each battle, so there is some deck building aspects to it.  This provides a bit of variety and experimentation that c an only enrich the game.
  • For the most part, these towers have a well-defined niche in the game.  There are some that are replaced with better versions as adequate resources come available, but this is a healthy lifespan issue.
  • There’s an unusual number of extra play modes provided. Survival mode (practically a given for a game like this).  A variety of puzzles and mini-games (very unusual for a game like this).  A “Zen Garden” mode that is a fair Tamagatchi implementation tied to raising plants.
  • All the different modes are tied together through earning cash which can be used to purchase additional plant types, abilities (such as carrying more seeds) and supplies for your Zen Garden.
I made it to about the 25th flag in this run of unlimited Survival mode.

I made it to about the 25th flag in this run of unlimited Survival mode. I was undone by gagantaurs. Maybe I'd have been able stop them with corncob cannons? That's the appeal!

As of today, I’ve already completed the gold statue achievement in the game of completing the adventure mode, all the mini games, all the puzzle games, and most of the survival modes.

Yet, I still haven’t purchased everything in the shop and my Zen Garden is mostly empty.  The game still wants to be played, and I’ve considerable variety of activities to choose from.

Another aspect to consider is the presentation.

Plants vs Zombies is an awesome theme carried through with great effect.  All the different units, whether they be plant or zombie, are individually stylized with a unique character to them.  Naturally, there was a great opportunity for laughs here, which was not wasted on PopCap.

On top of that, I rather liked the general musical theme, especially the night theme when zombies are particularly thick on the map.  It was a little heavy on the synthesizer, and to an extent I pulled a bit of retro-gaming appreciation from that – the tunes brought fond memories of puttering around in an early Sam and Max era Lucasarts game.

Conclusion

Plants vs. Zombies is a great bargain for $10 on Steam, a fabulous little gem even if it was hardly hidden.

I like to try to learn design lessons from the games I play, and the design lesson I learned from Plants vs. Zombies was simple but vital:

You know how people say, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?”  Well, those people are twits and that saying exists mostly to mock those that use it.  However, Plants vs. Zombies does demonstrate that, at least as pertains to game designs, “a happily occupied mind isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” For all its different modes and aesthetic appeal, Plants vs. Zombies does only this one thing very well.

Moving On

Plants Vs Zombies was a great ride while it lasted, but despite being a bit deeper than the usual PopCap offering, I’ve pretty much exhausted it after about 2 or 3 days.  I’ve got my gold statue (indicating I’ve done the adventure mode, puzzles, mini-games, and survival modes).

More importantly, I’m quite close to mastering the provided plants.  Once the core gameplay is mastered, there’s really nothing left other than collection activities which contribute little to gameplay quality.  It might have taken a little longer if the game didn’t have such a casual-friendly focus.

I’m nonetheless glad for the opportunity to have tried Plants vs Zombies at length.  I think I’ve learned that all this painting-myself-into-corners I’ve been doing have been under a pretense that any game that would have a chance at entertaining me would have to be excruciatingly innovative.   Because this game entertained me, it turns out that all a game really has to do is keep my mind occupied while providing an activity that cannot be immediately mastered.

The trouble experienced among the hardcore players is that they’ve already mastered a good deal of the popular activities in gaming.  For me, Plants vs. Zombies might be played out until PopCap can get around to putting out an expansion (so I can master those units too) but the nice thing about being the creator of your own game is you can add as many new aspects to the game as you can imagine.

I’ve always been told I’ve a creative mind –  seeing how well I can introduce new aspects to a game of my own invention would be good place to prove it.

One Response

  1. […] May 6th-7th, I played Plants versus Zombies. […]

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