AstroPop, the latest collaboration between Glu Mobile and Internet games specialist PopCap, is another set piece that shows off the duo's considerable design talents. Like its cousin, Zuma, this game takes a bunch of conventional gameplay ingredients--colored blocks, starships, laser weapons, and combo-making, in this case--and rearranges them in an interesting new way. The best casual games on mobile become serious in a hurry, as they have the deceptive ability to occupy a player's full attention after a short introductory period. AstroPop is a natural occupant of this elite category.
Fire up AstroPop and you'll see that the game has a pretty familiar tableau. Jumbles of colored blocks occupy the top section of the screen, and your ship scoots from column to column on the bottom. Thanks to some almost mystical technology (magnetism?), your vessel can attract up to six blocks of the same color and attach them to its prow in a big column. From there, you're free to maneuver from side to side and spit them back out at the rapidly encroaching mess. Any group of four or more like-colored blocks will blow up, granting you points and breathing room. As in most games of this type, it's also possible to touch off cascading combos that clear large parts of the pile for big points. If you fill up the Brick-O-Meter before your ship is crushed, you'll advance to the next level.
AstroPop's truly impressive distinction is the manner in which it slowly ratchets up the difficulty and forces you to develop your skills. It's very possible to sail through the first couple of levels in AstroPop's challenge mode by making the obvious play and staying at least slightly alert. Around level five, though, you'll realize with a start that there's suddenly a lot more going on in the playing field. By level 10, you'll probably be sweating and twitching every time the "danger!" warning Klaxon goes off. Level 15 is an unholy mess. In addition to the simple fact that the pile's speed accelerates, this relentless pressure is also due to the wide variety of special blocks that start to pop up in the stack--some helpful, others not so much. There are bricks that will grant an immediate boost to your Brick-O-Meter when popped, speeding up your departure from the level. Others will destroy entire columns or rows of blocks, nuke a single color, or supercharge a color for larger explosions.
On the other hand, steel block and brick blocks require an adjacent reaction or two to get rid of. As you get further in the game, these bogus blocks will be seeded throughout the pile more and more regularly, and they'll really start to impede your progress. The most pernicious obstacle is the cancer brick, which will actually spread to adjacent, healthy blocks and turn them into worthless scar tissue, if given enough time. As you continue to progress, you'll need to plan way ahead to reach the right beneficent blocks in time to set off combos--and you'll also have to make recourse to your ship's "supa weapon" to bail yourself out of a jam. The challenge mode features three different ships, two of which you must unlock, and each ship has its own supa attack that charges up as you destroy blocks conventionally. These are a great X factor, and they're unique enough between the vehicles to make you want to unlock the better ships. For instance, your first ship's supa attack is a simple laser beam that torches a handful of blocks at a time, while the next ship sets off a fusion explosion that takes off the first two layers of bricks, in addition to a random assortment of others buried in the pile.
Every four levels or so, AstroPop will automatically save your progress and reward you with a bonus level, which is a nice break from the regular action. Instead of dealing with random assortments of oncoming blocks, you have to try to totally eliminate a prefabricated pattern by cleverly setting off combos; each block that remains docks your bonus score. The game also features a one-level challenge mode that times how long you can survive, as well as local and network high-score tables.
AstroPop may not qualify as an aesthetic masterpiece, but it's certainly one of the nicer-looking games you'll find on the LG VX7000. This colorful game's frame rate is solid, and there are lots of neat special effects for the various types of blocks that set off firestorms, explosions, and cometlike discharges. The sound effects are also impressive, especially since they include a small amount of tasteful digitized speech. On the other hand, there are too many types of warning signals, which can get confusing in tight moments.
In all, AstroPop is a game that should appeal to virtually every mobile gamer out there, since it strikes just the right balance between minimalism and challenge. Zuma, while fantastic, could prove frustrating for those who simply can't aim, and AstroPop ameliorates that problem. It's faithful enough to the Web game to interest PopCap's Internet following, too. We highly recommend it.