How to outdo Zuma?

As the ten-ton gorilla of ball-blasting arcade puzzlers, it’s a question many casual game developers have posed, yet few have answered.

Ask Russian studio DayTerium though, and they’ll say Birds on a Wire. One of the more inventive and reflex-intensive takes we’ve seen on cannon-shooting, color-matching fun, this puppy’s guaranteed to drive you clucking mad.

Here’s how it works.

Cords stretch out across the screen. A line of multicolored birds steadily advances along them. Using a gun positioned at the bottom of the playfield and randomly-hued ammo (right click to swap colors), you’ll shoot back at them. Aiming is handled with the mouse; firing, its left-hand button.

Match three or more birds of similar color, and they’ll squawk and disappear in a sudden puff of feathers. Should gaps in the advancing line be created, front-running birds wait for their friends to catch up before moving onward. Alternately, if a similarly-colored bird is next in line behind them, they’ll instantly zoom backwards to assume an adjacent position. Naturally, this presents great opportunities to boost your score and gain a little breathing room by creating screen-clearing combos.

Fail to stop your avian adversaries from entering the mouth of an idol waiting at the end of the cord, and you’ll lose a life. Lose all lives, and you’re forced to surrender your score and restart from the last level beaten.

But, of course, the designers also include a few cool surprises.

Birds can be bounced off walls, significantly impacting play mechanics by allowing you to make split-second trick shots. Obstacles like logs (which prevent you from eliminating birds concealed beneath them) and aim-foiling bumpers add cause for concern. Enemies arrive in waves, frequently mounting multiple cords and blocking you from blasting their oh-so-inconveniently obscured friends. Options for jumping between potholes further let you man different gunning positions and access different ammo supplies.

Nifty power-ups – earned destroying birds which sport randomly-appearing icons that shift position every few seconds – are plentiful as well.

Standard varieties (pause, slow, rewind, laser targeting) are, of course, provided. More interesting, however, are bonuses like lightning, that remove all birds of a certain color, or kamikaze bullets that rocket through entire lines of opponents. Ditto for additional types of extras such as the phoenix and gangster, which haphazardly destroy single targets or large groups of foes.

Better yet, three intriguing play modes add even more fun.

Adventure lets you play through a scenario-based solo campaign. Action remixes the excitement, giving you the chance to complete levels faster by removing a fixed number of birds. Arcade switches things up entirely, demanding you blast row after row of stationary, downward-advancing birds instead of cord-traversing baddies.

But it’s the presentation that truly sets this one apart.

Birds are animated – they squeak, warble and roll like living cartoons. Backgrounds too. Whether playing atop a sunlit beach complete with rainbows and sand castles or on scarecrow-protected farmland, little touches like rolling waves and tiny birds flying off in the distance delight. Between constant activity (even idols roll their eyes when danger’s near), comedic sound effects and upbeat music, the title’s a pleasure to watch in motion.

Then, sadly, there’s the difficulty level. In a word: Oy. Even on its beginner-level setting, Birds on a Wire is a handful.

Watching a gaggle of birds come skidding onto the screen proves amusing at first. Seeing it happen when you’re already juggling another cord full of the little goofs? A real nightmare, especially when you factor in stage-specific obstacles and hand-eye coordination-taxing options for collecting coins and gems.

Imagine thinking you’ve cleared a stage too. Rewarding, right? You won’t think so when not one, but literally four more troops of opponents suddenly appear in rapid succession. Suffice it to say finishing certain boards can take a large time commitment.

And that’s the irony – for all the title’s advancements in terms of adorability, it’s best-suited to diehard gamers.

Novices will appreciate the outing, apart from the associated challenge factor. Veterans, cherish its attention-getting enhancements.

In short, DayTerium’s latest may be surprisingly hard, but on the bright side, hey… It’s still a Bird of a different feather.