The wild and wonderful world of iOS gaming

I think I made my feelings about the iPhone 4 pretty clear two weeks ago. In short, I'm enamored with the device, but I wish iTunes had a better, more user-friendly interface. I've discovered something else since then. Beyond being just a solid smart phone, the iPhone is a surprisingly capable gaming platform.

Now, I've never been much for handheld gaming. I got my mom to buy me a GameBoy when I was 13, but that thing quickly found its way to the bottom of a drawer. I watched with interest as Nintendo unveiled the DS and Sony the PSP, amazed at the graphics fidelity those small devices could achieve, but neither product really seemed worth the investment to me. Why should I blow well over a hundred bucks on a handheld gaming device if I didn't feel the urge to game on the go that often? It's not like I commute to work by bus or train. Most of the time, I'm sitting in my apartment in front of a perfectly good gaming PC. Especially in recent years, I've felt pretty far removed from Nintendo's and Sony's target markets.

In my darker hours, I also caught myself playing primitive Java games on my previous cell phones. Those were more curiosities to kill time while I was sick in bed than anything, however, and I never had any fun playing them. (In retrospect, perhaps being bedridden with a fever had something to do with that.)

Meanwhile, I had looked on from the sidelines as Apple did an amusing 180: almost begrudgingly allowing third-party apps on the iPhone and iPod touch, then, two years later, touting the iPod touch as an honest-to-goodness gaming device with "hundreds of games." I wasn't sold on the idea of playing real games with a touch-screen display, a tilt sensor, and no buttons, but I certainly saw game developers were gravitating toward the platform. Too bad I was stuck with a semi-dumbphone during all that time.

In the three weeks or so since getting the iPhone 4, I've finally gotten to try iOS gaming first hand, and  have to say I've had tremendous fun. In fact, I've caught myself sitting at my computer playing games on the iPhone, completely ignoring my computer screens. Those titles include, in no particular order:


Monster Dash by Halfbrick Studios. Price: 99 cents.

This may be the iPhone game I've sunk the most hours into so far. On the surface, Monster Dash is a simple platformer based on the same concept as Canabalt: take a running character as far as you can while dodging precipices, walls, and other deadly obstacles. Halfbrick has enhanced the experience with guns, zombies, great pixel art, a delightful soundtrack, and plenty of polish, making Monster Dash both catchy and extremely addictive. The controls couldn't be simpler, either: tap the right side of the screen to shoot and the left side to jump.

Doom Classic by id Software. Price: $6.99.

I got id's port of the original Doom on sale for $1.99 during Quakecon because, well, it's Doom. Come on! The best part about this port is that it looks, feels, and sounds pretty much exactly like the original DOS game—just with a choice of three touch-based control schemes. I like the one pictured above, with my left thumb controlling forward, backward, and sideways movement, while my right thumb controls orientation. There was a bit of a learning curve, but I can now circle-strafe and gore imps with reckless abandon. The best part? I can play for a couple minutes, then hit the home button and slip the iPhone back into my pocket. The game will let me resume exactly where I left off.

Fruit Ninja by Halfbrick Studios. Price: 99 cents.

Downloaded at the suggestion of no51 from the comment thread for my last blog post, Fruit Ninja was my first iPhone game... and I don't suspect I'll be uninstalling it any time soon. Playing Fruit Ninja basically involves swiping your finger across the iPhone's touch screen to slice fruit that bounce into view. The more fruit you slice at once, the more points you get.

In the Zen mode, a timer counts down while you scramble to score as many points as possible. In the Classic mode, you must avoid bombs while slicing every fruit that appears on screen; miss three, and the game's over. My girlfriend and I have played the Zen mode almost compulsively, swapping the iPhone back and forth to see who can score the most points. I think it's something about the noise of the fruit being sliced and the general graphical style.

Trundle by mobile bros. Price: free. (Unlimited version is $1.99.)

Trundle is probably the most original of the four—and definitely the most difficult. Playing involves carefully tilting the iPhone and tapping the screen to guide a little... gear thing... across a level past puzzles, precipices, and beautiful background art. I should probably grab the Unlimited edition eventually. Something about the game's art style and music just strikes a chord with me. Getting past some of those puzzles can be surprisingly tricky, though.

I mentioned some of these games while chatting with a friend of mine, who pointed out similarities with more elaborate titles for the PSP and Nintendo DS. Thing is, those games seem to be priced an order of magnitude higher than most iPhone games, and the hardware required to play them doesn't really double as a general communication device. Simply put, I'm going to be carrying a phone in my pocket anyway, but I don't want to purchase and lug around a secondary device just for games. I certainly don't want to blow 30 bucks on a casual game, either.

In a way, iPhone titles are similar to the many free Flash games that have cropped up on the web over the years. However, the ones I've seen so far are much more polished than their web-based cousins. Perhaps that's because developers are free to charge a small fee, allowing them (hopefully) to turn a profit instead of having to rely on often-unrewarding ad services and shoulder web-hosting costs. Paying one or two dollars for a good casual game seems like a no-brainer to me; it's like grabbing a candy bar or a bottle of pop at the 7-Eleven, but with much more protracted enjoyment. I pay an insignificant amount of money, I get a fun little pastime to play whenever and wherever I feel like, and the developer gets paid. That all sounds pretty great to me.

In fact, just yesterday, two other acquaintances of mine released their own iOS game. While that title has a little too much crude content to recommend on a family-friendly site like TR, it just shows how open the platform is to indie programmers, as well. I've gotta hand it to Apple—and, of course, the many iOS developers out there—for turning a fancy smart phone and a fancy MP3 player into fantastic little platforms for casual gaming.

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