Bad UI stains memories of arcades past


— 2:46 PM on December 17, 2009

The last couple of weeks saw the iPhone release of two video game favorites from my days of misspent youth—Dragon's Lair and Arkanoid. I had anticipated the arrival of Dragon's Lair with bated, basted, and battered breath. Arkanoid, while I had spent no small amount of time avoiding high school physics homework playing it on my Amiga 500, didn't particularly pique much interest in the slightly-atrophied gaming centers of my noggin.

Back in the summer of 1983, between my fifth- and sixth-grade years, I poured countless tokens into Dragon's Lair machines at Aladdin's Castle and Showbiz Pizza before finally conquering the game at an arcade in the White Oak strip mall in Blue Springs, Missouri. You know, the one that was just down the road from the Legion Hall and Ginger's Hair Shanty. (The strip mall, hall, and shanty still remain today; the arcade is quite possibly a 99¢ store.) I was the first—and possibly only—of my nerd herd to defeat the dragon Singe and save the Bimbo Princess Daphne from a fate worse than death—starring in Dragon's Lair creator Don Bluth's feature flick, An American Tail. While Dragon's Lair would never be accused of being the most immersive of games—it was, ostensibly, a choose-your-own-adventure-via-joystick LaserDisc game—it was just so different from anything else lining the cheese, snot, and gum-encrusted floors of the nation's arcades that it became a massive hit.

Arkanoid was also an arcade game, although I never played it in such a setting. After all, why would I waste quarters on an enhanced version of Breakout when I could be playing Discs of Tron? Or even Gorf? But when the game migrated to the home computer market in the late 80s, I ended up a fan. Arkanoid is basically a 'roid-raging Breakout clone with a fairly superfluous backstory grafted onto it. Something about the mothership Arkanoid being attacked by beet farmers in the S.S. Shrute and the Vaus escape craft (which is your paddle) winging its way through some kind of interdimensional brick-laden wormhole wangus. Whatever. Yars' Revenge made more sense to me, even though it had nothing to do with pirates.

Through the years, Dragon's Lair has been released in a couple of home formats. Various console and PC ports of various and often dubious quality emerged, as well as faithful reproductions on (not surprisingly) LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. I vaguely recall being disappointed in an Amiga port, and I do own the DVD version, even though I've played it once. Basically, I just thought it was cool that I could own a "real" version of the game for $19.99. Which, naturally, is why I plunked down $4.99 for the iPhone version.

Sadly, it's also about the only reason I'll keep it on my phone.

The problem isn't with the look or structure or anything else. After all, it's the same exact video files from the original now sized for the iPhone. The problem is the UI. In the arcade version, a flash of yellow light would tell you which direction to move the joystick or when to press the sword button. Again, not the height of immersive gameplay, but it worked and you could focus on the cool, vaguely Disney-before-Pixar animation. On the iPhone, a directional touch pad is overlaid on the lower-right quarter of the screen. The arrows on the pad light up to tell you what to press. Which means you spend the game staring at the touch pad and catching the actual gaming action out of our peripheral vision. That wouldn't be so bad if you'd just stepped out of a transporting chamber in which a fly and/or Jeff Goldblum were hiding, but my eyes just don't have that kind of wide-angle-focusing goodness. My only hope is to memorize all the patterns once again so I don't have to look at the pad. But I'm not sure hypnosis or acid flashbacks to my husky Toughskins days are worth the reward.

Arkanoid, on the other hand, has a highly effective user interface. Instead of resting your finger directly on the paddle/Vaus craft, you place it on a bar underneath. So, you get to slide your finger to and fro without obstructing the view of the playing field. Or stargate portal. Or MCU. Whatever. It's simple, and it works. I've seen more than a few reviews wonder why there's no tilt control. I'll tell you why: because that would be overkill. Just because the iPhone has accelerometers doesn't mean you have to use them. And good luck positioning your paddle just so while rocking your handset back and forth like a caffeinated monkey.

In the end, I'm happy to have Dragon's Lair on my iPhone, if only to show it off to the youths and lecture about how you couldn't make slugs into tokens without a really good metal grinder. Arkanoid, however, is the game I'll play more often. Even if "vaus" makes me think of feminine hygiene commercials.

Later,

Fox

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