Wednesday, August 4, 2010

iPod Gaming For Newbies and Doubters

ipodtouch When Apple first proposed the iPhone and iPod Touch as gaming platforms, I chuckled. Here it is, I thought – Apple’s attempt to crack open one of the last markets they have yet to dominate. Good luck, guys. We’ve all had a few go-arounds with Parachute while bored on the metro. It was nice, but ultimately superfluous. iPods are for music.

But iPhones are for everything, right? If there’s an app for shaking babies, there’s an app for playing Halo – or something like it. When Apple rolled out its first iPod Touch in 2007, the prospect of touch-screen gaming was opened to those of us who didn’t want to ink an inevitably regrettable deal with AT&T and shell out the (then) many hundreds of dollars needed for an iPhone.

With my recent purchase of a third-gen iPod Touch (which I dubbed Touch Myself), I decided to get touchy-feely with the current splay of games in the iTunes app store. Hit the jump for the fruits of my exploration.

iPod games break down into two categories: humble diversions and AAA. Games in the former group have more in common with board games than first-person shooters. They rely on a simple premise, simple aesthetics and, more often than not, clever manipulation of the touch interface and/or accelerometer (motion sensor that makes the tilty stuff happen). Flight Control, a breezy game about trying to land dozens of aircraft at once, is a good example. Cartoony visuals only add charm to ingenious mechanics: as planes enter the screen, you trace their landing path with your finger.

1812n.o.v.a.nearorbitvanguardalliancev1.1.0iphoneipodtouchcorepda The latter group aspires to emulate the big-budget experiences found on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. NOVA, a first-person title developed exclusively for the iPod/iPhone, isn’t coy about its influences: basically, it’s Halo. And because it’s least as good as The Conduit, an ostensibly current-gen title developed for the Wii, it gets serious credit. After a brief period of adjustment, first-person shooter veterans should feel right at home with NOVA, which is about a space marine named ___________ on planet __________ seeking _________. Even if it does take you a while to turn around, the controls are sharp and responsive.

201134 HAWX, a port of the console flight simulator, doesn’t fare so well. Like NOVA, it seeks to deliver a big-budget experience on the tiny screen of your iPod/Phone. Unlike NOVA, its controls have a troubling flaw – to dip your nose, you tilt the Pod/Phone forward. As in, away from you. I don’t know many pilots who enter a dive and cover their eyes. Switching to the touch-joystick is also a liability. Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a gussied-up port of the PC classic, suffers from a crowded screen, clumsy controls and a stuttering framerate.

flight-control_4 Compared to these glitzy affairs, Flight Control is a breath of fresh air. The swing soundtrack lends a deceptive calm to the first 10 or so landings. But when you’re trying to land 12 jumbo jets, biplanes and helicopters at once, things aren’t too fucking calm. In these moments, Flight Control has more tension than NOVA and Red Alert combined. And it isn’t even breaking a sweat. Local leaderboards let me know who in the surrounding five miles is landing more planes than me. It does not, however, give me their addresses. This is probably a good thing.

Words With Friends is another must-have for any iPod/Phone/Pad/Whatever user. It’s Scrabble. Like Scrabble? You’ll like Words With Friends. Except your friends won’t see you scurrying to the dictionary (dear opponents: I have not done this, not once).

Paper Toss is another gem. You flick paper balls into a trash can, accounting for varying winds and distances. It’s a blast. And it’s free. Hell, it probably cost, like, $5 to make.

At this point, low-budget, simple-concept games are trumping the gussied-up ports being produced by major studios. The best gaming experiences on the iPodPhonePadEtc are ones designed exclusively for the platform.

But there’s certainly room for improvement. HAWX left me cold, but I was surprised by how well it worked. As Apple refines its hardware and developers learn how to optimize it, flight simulators could see a rebirth on touch platforms. The iPad, with its crisp resolution and large screen, could host a similar renaissance for real-time strategy games like Red Alert.

Look: the core essence of gaming isn’t being a nerd, or steeping yourself in a niche culture. It’s having fun. And if the subways of the tomorrow are full of commuters stressing out over Flight Control IV: The Quickening, then the future is bright not only for iPodsPhonePadEtc, but for gaming in general.