Think back to the ancient time that was 2010. Back then, LTE phones were exceptional, iPhones were tiny (and didn’t bend), Google Fiber was still a project in development, and The Verge didn’t even exist. Much has changed in the past four years, but one constant in my life has been a humble game by the name of Bejeweled 3.
Bejeweled is the poster child for a genre of casual games that revolve around shifting colored blocks to match three or more of them in a line. It's a mashup of the geometric puzzles of Tetris and the cartoony exuberance of Candy Crush Saga. I’ve been playing Bejeweled 3 on and off since its release, I continue to use it to fill voids of downtime, and I question if there will ever come a point when it won’t be utterly compelling and involving. I say all of this about a gem-matching game; a colorful, flamboyant gem-matching game with clinking sound effects and kaleidoscopic explosions and squeaking butterflies. It’s not the most common thing that a young man brags to his friends about.
This game’s reputation as a flighty distraction belies the mastery of its gameplay. Underneath the vibrant visuals and exuberant explosions, there is an extraordinarily intelligent game engine that strikes the perfect balance, both challenging experienced players and welcoming new ones. There are no difficulty settings, and the only limit to how far you can go in a game of Bejeweled is your own endurance and skill.
It’s difficult to convey just how coherent and individually accomplished each game mode in Bejeweled is — you can sell a game built around each one and nobody would feel shortchanged by it. The untimed Butterflies and Poker modes require a nicely laid-back mix of foresight and luck, while the frenetic Lightning and Ice Storm provide substantively and tactically diverse takes on the classic task of busting gems before time runs out.
Instant gratification, followed by a subtle aftertaste of accomplishment
With the popularity of similar games like Candy Crush Saga, you might think my Bejeweled habit is nothing unusual, but then I’m not playing Bejeweled 3 on my phone. I am booting up The Verge’s gaming rig — replete with a 3.3GHz quad-core processor, a GeForce GTX 680 graphics card, SSD storage, and oodles of RAM — and then navigating past desktop shortcuts for the latest Call of Duty, Far Cry, and Dragon Age games to land upon a blue diamond with a golden "3" stood before it. Bejeweled endures.
Probably the biggest reason why I keep coming back to Bejeweled is its immediacy. Yes, it’s gauchely decorated, but I can get halfway through an Ice Storm game in less time than it would take NBA 2K15 to run through its opening cinematic. By the time you’re done shadow-boxing with the Assassin’s Creed Unity tutorial, I’ve set multiple new high scores, thought up a couple of new tactics, and exercised my brain thoroughly in Bejeweled. It’s a game all about the gameplay, which is regrettably rare these days. Even the delightfully thoughtful new Civilization title, Beyond Earth, suffers from a need for repetitive micromanagement and excessive loading times when things start to get interesting late in the game.
A perfect sidekick to your favorite podcast
Casual games like Bejeweled are also much easier to combine with some other activity. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of enlightening podcasts and lectures while busting gems in this game: from the political counter-narratives of Noam Chomsky, through the amiable sci-fact musings of Neil deGrasse Tyson, all the way to the nutritional diagnoses of Robert Lustig and Marion Nestle. In an age when I feel my attention slipping before I’ve digested the full contents of a tweet, I can be tamed and focused for hours at a time, with one part of my brain working on the mechanical task of gem realignment and the other absorbing wisdom from the internet’s sagest voices.
This is the game I'd take with me on an interstellar voyage
PopCap Games, the small studio that got its start with the original Bejeweled back in 2000, has proven time and again that it knows how to make addicts of us all. The Mayan-themed Zuma, the dino-rific Dynomite!, and the warm and fuzzy Peggle have offered various remixes on the basic Bejeweled formula, and all have consumed substantial chunks of my life with their endless streams of colorful puzzles. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but the regular attaboy stimulation of being told my play is awesome and spectacular (delivered by a Darth Vader soundalike) does actually make me feel good about myself.
Bejeweled is the sort of game I’d take with me on an interstellar voyage of space exploration. As with Tetris and Sudoku, there’s an element of randomness to this game that keeps renewing its appeal and challenge, but it’s not so large as to overwhelm the sense of real accomplishment when reaching a new high score or milestone. The reason I keep playing Bejeweled is simple: good gameplay never gets old.