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Preview: Popcorn Dragon

5:00 PM on 10.18.2011 // Samit Sarkar

PopCap has made a name for itself by creating charming, addictive games like Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle for computers, and then bringing those experiences to all kinds of game-playing devices such as consoles and handhelds. With Popcorn Dragon, PopCap's new IP, the studio is -- for the first time -- starting on iOS, building a game from the ground up for that platform.

Mobile gaming is perhaps best suited to simple, pick-up-and-play experiences. In Popcorn Dragon, you play as Ignatius Flambé, a cutesy dragon who pops corn and eats it. (The title might be a bit too on-the-snout.)

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Popcorn Dragon (iPad [previewed], iPhone)
Developer: PopCap Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: November 2011

Ignatius might be a dragon, but he's not so different from you and me: for him, films and popcorn are inextricably linked. Popcorn Dragon is essentially a twin-stick shooter with dual-finger touch controls instead of joysticks. The game contains ten movie-themed stages in which corn kernels float across the screen. You drag a finger on the touchscreen to fly Ignatius around and orient him in a particular direction, and you tap with another finger to unleash a burst of flame. (A translucent but noticeable arrow ahead of Ignatius' snout indicates which way his next breath will go.) Once he's roasted the kernels, it's time to swoop in and snatch them up.

The game takes the form of a "time attack," tasking you with scoring as many points as possible within 90 seconds. Eating popcorn racks up points, and buttery (i.e., bright yellow) popcorn provides more points per piece. If you can manage to keep popping corn and eating it nonstop, you'll build up a multiplier that further adds to your score. As you progress through the game, you earn experience points, which you can use to upgrade Ignatius' abilities. You also pick up ticket stubs that can be redeemed for dragon outfits. (Sadly, as far as I could see, there was no actual flambéing -- i.e., dousing with alcohol and then igniting -- of corn in the game.)

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But outside forces conspire to try and keep Ignatius from his fluffy, inside-out corn snack. Each level throws obstacles at you, so you have to weave your way around them if you're going to fill your belly with popcorn. For example, in the prison-themed stage (seen above), Ignatius has to pop corn clandestinely -- that is, away from the harsh glare of the guard tower's spotlight. Getting caught in the beam temporarily brings the action to a halt, and resets the points multiplier to 1x. In some cases, you can fight back instead of just evading: Ignatius is, after all, a creature that can shoot fire from his maw, and that flame is good for scorching more than just corn.

I played the iPad version of the game, and I didn't feel like using two thumbs was the best way to play -- the tablet's screen real estate was just too large to navigate solely with my thumbs on either side in "landscape" mode. (Or maybe I just have really small hands.) I seemed to have better luck using one hand to hold the device, and another to both move Ignatius around and unleash a jet of flame. I didn't get to try the iPhone version, but I'd bet that its smaller screen would be more conducive to dual-thumb control.

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From my (admittedly limited) time with the game, Popcorn Dragon seems to be more of a quick diversion rather than a full-fledged experience. But on these platforms, that's not necessarily a drawback; it might be exactly what iOS gamers are looking for. We'll find out when Popcorn Dragon launches this holiday season.

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