Welcome to another exciting edition of “From the PopCap Vault,” in which we grab our flashlights, say a quick prayer, and then pry open the iron doors of our storied gaming library to peer into the darkness and shadows at some of our old forgotten classics of yore. Today: AstroPop (2004).
By 2004, match-3 games were everywhere, led, of course, by PopCap’s own Bejeweled, the undisputed (at least according to our official literature) king of the genre. Not wanting to rest on our laurels, and weary of the endless series of pretenders trying in vain to dethrone us, we decided to preemptively one-up everyone with something totally unexpected: A match-4 game. Yep, that’s right. Now gamers were going to have to match FOUR colored objects, not three. It was a watershed moment in the history of gaming.
AstroPop looks and feels like some kind of strange, mutant lovechild of a menage a trois between Space Invaders, Bejeweled, and Tetris. At the top of the screen is a wall of colored bricks moving slowly downward. You control a ship that moves horizontally along the bottom of the screen. You use your ship to grab colored bricks from one of the descending columns of bricks, and then fire them back up to create a match of at least four same-colored bricks, which “pops” them and removes them from the screen. You need to pop a certain number of bricks each level to complete it (monitored by the cleverly named Brick-O-Meter), after which you move on to the next, more challenging level. The game unlocks a series of special bricks along the way — like a Radial Bomb that blows up all adjacent bricks regardless of color — as well as rewards you with bonus levels to keep things interesting.
As usual with PopCap games, AstroPop starts off ridiculously easy but by the final levels will have you cursing out the designers and all their family members. It’s entirely appropriate, in fact, that the game has an “outer space” theme to it, because only a super-powered Martian with extra fingers and the ability to travel faster than time could possibly beat the final levels without a struggle, or at least cheat codes.
And speaking of outer space, the game does make a valiant attempt to graft a “story” of sorts onto the puzzle action, a breathlessly exciting space opera featuring the four pilots whose ships you command: Vector, Vixx, Sprocket and Turbot. Without revealing any spoilers, let’s just say, if you’re like me, you’ll be hard-pressed not to fall for the lovely Vixx, described in the game as “an alien telepathic beauty, origins veiled in beauty.” You may come for the puzzle action, but you’ll stay for the story. Okay, not really. But it does break up the levels a little bit and makes for a good intermission while you fetch more Cheetos.
If all of this sounds as awesome to you as I hope it does, you’ll be happy to know that AstroPop is still available for purchase You can get it as a PC download right here, on Steam, and for Xbox 360 through the Xbox Live Arcade for a measly 800 points.
 Needless to say, the match-3 community was in a total uproar, as this heretofore never-published transcript of a closed-door roundtable at the 2004 International Match-3 Game Developer Conference (IM3GDC), released under the Freedom of Information Act, bears out:
Unidentified developer #1:Dude, I hear those putzes at PopCap have a match-4 game coming out.
(Sounds of panicked shouting and chairs being overturned, and, oddly, a sheep bleating.)
Unidentified developer #2: This is OUTRAGEOUS! This completely defies the 2003 international edict, which PopCap itself helped draft! They did this on purpose!
Unidentified developer #3:That’s it. I quit. PopCap is just too damn good!
Unidentified developer #4: Pardon me, but is this not the Hidden Objects conference?