The Terrible-and-Wonderful-ness of Candy Crush.

I don’t review mobile games. I don’t like talking about mobile games. I hate most mobile games with a passion that I would literally rather read soap bottles while sitting on the toilet than play any of the freemium garbage I can download from the Google Play Store (except for the GameBoy Color emulator. POKE’MON CRYSTAL, Y’ALL).

But dude. Candy Crush. Candy Crush is the most addictive piece of crap ever. I am not above saying this (however I am above saying “addicting” because that’s not a flippin’ adjective. Didn’t you learn parts of speech in 1st grade? You didn’t? Not my problem). Point being, I’ve sunk some time into this freemium piece of empty calories, and I’ve concluded through long hours of research (aka. travelling, waiting for doctor’s appointments, etc.) that this dumb game is made by very, very smart people.

And they look like this.

And they look like this.

“But Another Gamer,” you pleadingly reply. “It can’t be so! Addictive freemium games are made simply by people who want money! If they thought they could do that by making a game, they’ve GOT to be dumb!” And you’re right, gentle reader. People who make games simply for the money are, in fact, so dumb that they make a box of rocks look like Einstein. But Candy Crush has got some magnificent stuff going on that makes a convincing argument that they not only knew what they were doing, but that they did it so subtly that most of us didn’t even realize when we clicked “Send to all friends” on our request for extra sprinkly donuts.

For those of you who don’t play (hopefully most of my readers), I must explain how the game works. And then I’ll proceed to blow your mind.

It’s essentially the same kind of nonsense as Bejeweled or Tetris Attack or Match 3 or whatever else you wanna call it. You have a limited number of moves, and in each move you have to make a combination of 3 or more tiles, which disappear in a delightfully crush-y way, and are replaced by falling tiles from the top. Repeat ad nauseum.

But there are different goals in each level! For instance, in some levels you must break the “jelly.” Jelly blocks sit on the screen, and to destroy them, you must make a 3-line in the same square as a jelly block. Often they will be double jellies, which means you must make a combo at two separate times in them. That’s one goal. Another is getting fruit that falls from the top down to the bottom. Also challenging. There are many different goals, but they all amount to the same thing in the end: crush your candy in a specific way to get the desired results.

That’s all well and good, but let’s now talk about powerups. Powerups do special things when you make a combo with them, and they can also be mixed together for extra potency. So there are three powerups worth mentioning: the 4-powerup, which clears either a horizontal or vertical line when you make a combo with it. The 5-T-powerup, which you get by either crushing candy in a T shape or an L shape, which explodes twice, destroying a 9-candy block with it at the center, and the straight 5-powerup, which, when switched with any single candy, destroys all candies of that color.

The 5-powerup is obviously the best, and if you mix it with one of the other powerups, it turns all candies of that color into the powered-up version, which essentially beats any level, or just about. It’s just devilishly difficult to get. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.)

You can collect powerups outside of the levels (of many varieties, too), but you have to ask friends for them (or buy them with money). Remember this part.

Now, on to level design. There are hundreds of levels of Candy Crush. They are remarkably easy to make, because there aren’t too many controllable criteria: number of different colors, number of moves, shape of the level, goal of the level, and obstacles/location of goals. That’s it! All levels of Candy Crush are simply variations on those five things. So let’s look at some levels to see what I’m on about!

Level 10? I think?

Level 10? I think?

Pretty run-of-the-mill level. You have to crush the jelly (see the jelly-shaped squares? Those). Your only obstacle is a handy-dandy hole in the middle, which, although it may provide some difficulties, isn’t that big of a hindrance to your performance. Would you lose if you got unlucky? Maybe. But chances are you could pull this off with pretty much any given combination of candies.

Level 28. One of my favorites.

Level 28. One of my favorites.

Let’s break down this bad-boy. First of all, you’ve got bunches of columns of double-jellies. They are blocked by stones, of course. Stones must be broken by crushing a candy next to them. For instance, were I to slide the blue candy on the left down to make a combo, the 3 stones on either side of the combo would be broken, for a total of six.

Easy enough, right? Wrong. Most of the time, it’s impossible to make combos in the free columns, which means you’re eating away at your 50 moves by making a combo on top of each column, slowly whittling away at the number of stones *before you even GET to the goal of the level*. Although the setup above isn’t very bad-looking, it could more than easily turn into a defeat if you weren’t careful and a bit lucky. The columns also mean that for the beginning of the level, it’s next-to-impossible to make 4-chains and larger, reducing your supply of powerups as well. Once the board is freed from stones, things get a LOT easier, but let’s just hope you have enough moves to pull off some stuff before things run out.

I want to say that this level’s just exquisitely designed. That’s all. Moving on.

My absolute favorite, level 33.

My absolute favorite, level 33.

Let’s look at this puppy. I want to mention that I’m stuck at level 35 (because of an option to either “quest” for 3 days or ask your friends or pay money, and I don’t have friends or money), but up until this point, this level is the most brilliantly designed piece of BULLSHIT ever to grace the mobile market. I’m going to break it down for you.

The level number is 33. It’s not expected that it’ll be a tough level because it doesn’t have any hooplah surrounding it, like a “boss level” or “beat this to unlock yadda-yadda.” It’s just there, another step in your “saga” (or so you think). You may also think that this quality isn’t that important, but it ABSOLUTELY is. Why? On a boss, you expect to lose. Your expectations are that it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a little bit unfair, and YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TRY A LOT TO BEAT IT. But without fanfare, without warning, if you get an extremely hard level like this one, your tenacity isn’t going to be as strong. You’re going to get frustrated, maybe quit for a day or two, and reopen it when you’ve waited long enough to regain your lives (and your dignity). Maybe.

The next part is the design itself. Fourteen moves to destroy 16 double-jellies. This means at some point, you’re going to have to destroy three jellies with one swipe. It’s not a difficult feat, as crushing candy makes more candy fall, and sometimes creates pretty decent chains. But with only 14 moves, each move is precious and one wrong move (or the lack of a good move present) screws you over. Moves that don’t destroy jellies are taboo, but with only a 4×4 square to work with, you will often have one or more squares without ANY valid combos in them, forcing you to perhaps visit a square whose jellies you’ve already popped, and forcing you to waste a precious move.

The candies from the top squares fall to the bottom squares. That much should be plain.  But here’s the kicker: if you can’t make a move in one of the bottom squares, that square is dead and so are you. You can’t get any new candies to it, outside of making a well-timed powerup in a living square, and that wastes quite a few moves unless you’re unbelievably lucky. Essentially, one slip (or bad turn of fortune) and you’re forced to start over.

But here’s the biggest “Eureka” moment: 4×4 squares. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to make a straight 5-powerup, because the squares aren’t big enough. Your heavy hitter, your game-winner… it’s gone. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to realize this or not, but that alone makes this level significantly more difficult.

Now, let’s backtrack: you can use powerups that you’ve collected from friends (or by paying) at the start of each level. However, there are many kinds of powerups and each level has its own specific allowable powerups (usually two or three different kinds, to accommodate “playstyles”? I guess?). And I bet you can guess which powerup is usable in this evil level: the straight-5 powerup. Allowing by pay (or Facebook harassment) what you’ve denied by level design: un-flipping-believably brilliant (and evil).

All of these things come together and subtly whittle down your resolve by telling you that you can’t beat a “normal” level, denying you the tools you need to beat it, and gently pointing you in the direction of how to get more. It’s your best friend, your worst enemy, and a successful drug dealer wrapped into one.

So there you go. Smart, evil people have created this game, and I can’t help but be inspired by their brilliant level design. I’m excited to unlock more levels of Candy Crush, not because it’s addictive (okay, maybe a LITTLE bit because it’s addictive), but because there are going to be new gimmicks, new levels thrown at me, and now that I can see the strings that control the candy, I can’t wait to delve deeper into the bad game made by good gamedevs.

~AG

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on September 9, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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