Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Matt Gardner learned that too much of something that’s not even that good can be even worse.

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the much-loved American poet that I obviously and definitely knew before this review and didn’t look up on Goodreads. The man also must have been a soothsayer for correctly predicting the effects of Candy Crush Saga on me, over 135 years after his death.

The quote, which I know off by heart – I didn’t just Google “depression quotes” for a good lead-in – effectively describes my life for four days in late December 2016, when I got a sugar dependence that wasn’t caused by the contents of my Christmas stocking, but by my trusty LG G4. The digital diabetes it doled out wasn’t hurting my teeth; instead, it was rotting my brain.

I was distracted, quiet and withdrawn, while my phone needed recharging twice a day – that’s if it even left my hand. My girlfriend became increasingly riled at how much I was fannying about on my indispensable gadget at all opportunities, specifically when I was “killing time”. It just so happened that towards the end of this 96-hour debacle, “killing time” had included nearly all time spent with her.

Before getting into this piece, it’s nigh-on imperative that you press play on the video below, letting it run as you read on. The song, used for Candy Crush Saga’s “jelly levels” – arguably the most frustrating level style in the game – sets the mood for the piece. It’s a 22-second song put on a five-minute loop, much of it in the minor key, and it wonderfully reflects the depressing endlessness and futility of a game that, at last count, has 1,895 levels.

The logo for King's Candy Crush Saga (2012)
Platform

Mobile

Year

2012

Genre

Puzzle

Developer/ publisher

King

‘King hell

The game was once best known, upon its browser-only release in April 2012, for really pioneering unwanted Facebook invites. King persuaded people to sell their social souls to get more lives, unlock new levels, get a handful of power-ups or, in super-rare cases, genuinely recommend the game to others. The company managed to disgust and recruit people in equal measure for the best part of six months, before it rewarded them with a full app release across all mobile platforms between September and December of that year.

From there, the Facebook invites subsided, but people were more hooked than ever – buses, trains, school canteens and quiet days at work had suddenly become a hell of a lot more colourful. I’d always seen it from a distance, looking like the bastard lovechild of Bejeweled and The Fairly OddParents, and psshed under my breath. “What a load of bollocks,” I’m sure I said in my internal monologue, probably. “You’d never see me playing that shit.”

Roll on four years, and there I was, taking in a wall-to-wall ad campaign for the entire Candy Crush series. Its production values were through the roof; it wasn’t a ten-second set of Ken Burns-effect stills, or a breathless 20-something female voiceover making borderline racy comments about the speed of play – no, it was a woman in a real-life street smashing shit up with a comedy lollipop. To know that so much money had been made off the back of the game to produce these blockbuster movie-level effects was one thing, but to be assaulted by this Candy Crush Saga ad so regularly, and in prime-time TV slots, only emphasised how big the marketing budget was. And it was free to play!

All it took to push me over the edge was my septuagenarian mother; the Kindle Fire I’d bought her suddenly had it installed – my uncle wanted to show her the other “benefits” of the entry-level tablet I’d bought for her birthday. She’d only cleared four or five levels, which wasn’t surprising because the most complex thing she’d really played prior to that was Spider Solitaire. Or Solitaire. Or, her personal favourite, a shit ad-heavy copy of Solitaire that meant I had to delete 765 tabs from her Silk browser every time she complained that it was running slowly.

I figured she wouldn’t mind if I wrenched the gaming baton from her hands, so I fired it up. I mean, it was still going to be shit, wasn’t it? It was just another puzzle game, right? I’d had limited fun with Pop Cap’s titles; I was a strong hand at Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine; I’d enjoyed watching my dad play Columns, at least. Still, match-three puzzle games had never truly hooked me.

Three days later, I was on my phone, on level 92, and thoroughly miserable. How did I get here?

In-game shot of Candy Crush Saga, on Android and iPhone.

How the game works

Simply put, you swipe to swap candy to get three or more of a kind in a row, occasionally using power-ups, and you hope for the best. There’s no skill – only luck. Let’s move on, otherwise this’ll be another 7,000-word epic. You have a limited number of lives, though. Let’s focus on that.

Getting a life

Following the success of Angry Birds – and its expansion to a “freemium” model in later game releases – developer King learned from its peers and cracked the formula to finely balance a free-to-play arrangement with small micro transactions. It was, and continues to be, a true trailblazer of the payment system, not least because it gave you enough of a game to avoid having to pay, if you were patient.

It opted for a lives format, which were replenished over time. This was perfect for me; it meant I had enough time to work through the game on the bus to work, then regenerate lives during working hours, as I’m tighter than a duck’s arsehole when it comes to mobile games.

Once you ran out of lives, you could either wait a while, pay for lives, or select one other option: you could just watch an advert. Now I wasn’t averse to this idea; I’d used it to a shocking degree in Flick Kick Football Legends in order to get more goodies, and as eye-tracking software isn’t built into phones to make sure you’re actively watching, you could put your phone down for 15 to 30 seconds and try to cobble together the semblance of an actual life before you were pulled back in.

This was, especially early in the game – by which I mean the first 100 or so levels – shockingly regular. Like, six or seven times in a row regular. Clearly the developers were thinking relatively short-term, as even a cursive search of Google throws this up into the Knowledge Graph…

Knowledge Graph data for Candy Crush Saga level volume search.

But even when you overcame the hard levels, you were immediately thrust into the next stage. Candy Crush Saga took the task lengths of the Crystal Maze and crossed them with the conveyor belt of The Generation Game, then added a dash of The Krypton Factor, but only if it’s the episode where Judith Stafford broke her ankle on the assault course but soldiers through anyway because that’s what you have to do in Candy Crush Saga, you have to keep going against your better judgement because you just have to, oh god the pain though, but no it’s worth it, even though oh shit it hurts so much.

And so after reaching something like level 167 and being in, I dunno, the Candy Floss Mountain stage or whatever the zone’s called after King ran out of cutesy naming ideas, I got stuck. Like, stuck stuck. I have Vietnam-style flashbacks of a moving stage, maybe some jelly, and a few unbreakable boxes.

Nothing was going my way. All my hard-earned, sparingly-used power-ups were gone forever. I’d played games for 25 years and knew every trick in the book – I knew I could figure it out, I just had to… no, that didn’t work. Each replay only mixed everything up. No, I couldn’t do that either. I couldn’t get a chain reaction. No, that was impossible. I couldn’t figure it out. I’m terrible at games. Why had I spent so much time on this? What have I missed in life because of this? What if… what if all the games I’d played had made me miss out on–

And THAT is when I deleted the game. Because fuck games if they make me question my loyalty to gaming.

The old adage

“It’s important to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all,” as the saying goes. Yet the more I think of my time playing Candy Crush Saga, the more I wonder if I even liked it before I lost it. I certainly didn’t love it, looking back, but if someone asked me after 48 hours of non-stop sugar smashing, I’d’ve probably foamed at the mouth and gone into hypoglycaemic shock while telling them, as I faded into a babbling mess, that it was the best thing that had happened to modern gaming.

I don’t think I even enjoyed it. I remember the jelly level song, and I’m swept off my feet by a wave of depression. The song keeps pulling itself back round to a happy high, but then slams the minor key back in. There’s not even payoff in the music.

There are a lot of excellent mobile games that are more frustrating and mentally brutal in the long run, but at least there’s an element of satisfaction once you overcome the odds. Rescuing your ship from critical failure in Out There, for instance, is something that sticks with me – as is finally figuring out that puzzle you know I’m referencing in The Room Three, despite it being so stupid, and all of the hints being absolute horseshit.

But some games are outright unfair. And past the lack of fairness, some are just unnecessary. I don’t need Candy Crush Saga to constantly taunt me, offering no end in sight. I don’t need it to imply that I need a lollipop to complete a level, or that I was one move away from greatness, or that I can only continue playing if I watch a seventh ad about that war game which Schwarznegger endorsed because it also has a marketing budget to rival McVitie’s, and no wonder the UK’s economy is going to shit after Article 50, with all these foreign games coming over here, taking our ad breaks.

Candy Crush Saga in-game shot

Cold turkey

Like ex-smokers, former alcoholics or reformed drug fans with their past vices, I still crave the game; I just have to suppress those urges. Despite a brief flirtation with Candy Crush Saga to get a few screenshots for this retrospective, I backed away from it pretty sharpish, and it’s once again gone from my phone – and, hopefully, forever. It’s the biggest game addiction I’ve endured in three decades, and I still feel like I’m recovering from it now, nearly one year on.

A game doesn’t have to be good to be good. Candy Crush Saga was, and continues to be, an incredible example of near-perfect puzzle game design, playability, and simple monetisation. It’s just a shame it’s so damn depressing: there’s no lasting sense of achievement, no real endgame, and even if you do complete the last level, you’ll only be rewarded with more in a week or so’s time.

Sometimes, prevention’s better than the cure. If you’ve got any common sense, you’ll avoid it completely – failing that, you’ll follow in my footsteps…

In-game shot of Candy Crush Saga, on Android and iPhone.

Pros

  • Incredible puzzle concept
  • Colourful, largely attractive visual identity
  • Strong power-up ideas
  • The best time waster money doesn’t have to buy
  • Entrancing, strangely compelling soundtrack

Cons

  • No lasting sense of achievement
  • No light at the end of the tunnel
  • No happiness
  • No hope for humanity
  • No-one survives, everyone dies, no seriously, no-one survives, not even the children, in fact they die first

Matt’s take

At first, it seems like simple, honest, kind-hearted fun. But Candy Crush Saga soon turns that positivity on its head, gradually filling said kind heart with a thick, jet black emulsion of nothingness that you may only detect too late. This hideously addictive, brilliantly executed game may seem completely innocent, but at its core it’s guilty of crimes against happiness.