Mobile gaming — that is, gaming on mobile phones rather than dedicated portable consoles by dedicated videogame manufacturers — has always been an aspect of gaming that I’ve been happy to let pass me by, because mobile gaming has almost always been awful. When the iPhone was first released it didn’t come with any games at all, and although there was a promise of some iPhone version of Super Monkey Ball in the future, the iPhone’s usefulness as a gaming device didn’t factor at all into my decision to buy it.
That was then, though, and nowadays with the Apple App Store providing simple access to a huge library of games, the iPhone isn’t just doing mobile gaming well, it’s doing gaming well, and with its multi-touch screen and total absence of hard buttons, is providing a similar paradigm shift to the one Nintendo created with the Nintendo DS, which offered developers a variety of inputs beyond the traditional d-pad and face buttons.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to seriously explore the gaming possibilities on the iPhone. When games became available I still didn’t have much interest in them, largely because of my preconceptions regarding mobile phone gaming and also because there just wasn’t much information available in my usual channels about which games were worth looking at; my only exposure to recommended iPhone apps was people in the office gurning over a light sabre simulator, so as far as I was concerned this was an area of gaming that was Not Aimed At Me, alongside Dance Dance Revolution and anything involving online multiplayer and guns. This quote from Penny Arcade sums up my feelings from the time:
I spent a considerable amount of time last week getting up to speed with gaming on the iPhone…and the conclusion I came to is that I don’t need another Goddamned gaming system. It’s more than capable of the task, and some have laid out great feasts upon its platter. I just have no appetite for it…
…I really don’t want overarching campaigns or even especially sophisticated gameplay, here – when I play Rolando, seeing this big book full of levels open up doesn’t invigorate me, as it would in any other context: it stresses me out. What I want is something like a next-generation Snake, and I have a couple games like that. You are welcome to want more, but I already have more, on any of the six other dedicated game machines I own. Maybe it’s okay if I don’t tuck in a round of tower defense when I’m buying my herbed cheese curds.
I had expected to react in a similar way, expecting that my DS would remain my first choice for on-the-move gaming due to its large games library and its traditional input mechanisms alongside the stylus and mic. What actually happened was the opposite – the iPhone has usurped the DS as my mobile gaming platform of choice. That isn’t to say I don’t use the DS, but it’s pretty much a house-bound platform these days.
To start with, fairly obviously, the iPhone is the device that I carry with me at all times, whereas the DS was carried with me only when I remembered it, and then usually only on journeys that I knew were going to last longer than an hour. Thus, right from the start I was finding myself in many boring situations, faced with the choice of killing time by playing a game on my iPhone or not playing a game at all, so I figured it would be sensible to get a couple of casual games – a crossword here, a block-destroying puzzle game there – downloaded for emergency play.
Pretty soon I had a respectable collection of casual games, though calling them ‘casual’ is a bit of a misnomer as they’re usually the sort that have me obsessively playing for hours at a time. It harks back to what I was saying about The World of Goo a few weeks ago; my gaming habits have subtly shifted, favouring simple, fun, addictive games over those that are long and story-based. The ready access the iPhone provides to this sort of game meant that the DS wasn’t being used for them any more. It’s a shame in some ways as I waited a long time to buy — for instance — Soul Bubbles and when it arrived I hardly touched it. At home I just don’t want to play those sorts of games — I want a game with more depth at home — and now away from home I’ve got no need for it.
Then there’s variety: the iPhone allows me to carry around dozens of games at once, whereas with the DS, it’s usually just one game per cartridge, so if I didn’t feel like playing that game or I’d become stuck, tough. At one point I considered acting dangerously and buying a cartridge carry case, so I could carry around maybe six DS games at a time, but the problem with that was I never had six DS games at a time, for the following reason: cost.
iPhone games are cheap, with prices ranging from free to a few pounds. With the DS, the typical price of a new game is around £25, high enough to make me both cautious and thrifty about what I’m buying, selling on past purchases in order to finance new ones making it that much harder to build up a collection. With the iPhone, the low cost also equals lower risk, and it doesn’t matter so much if I’ve the sum I’ve wasted is just 59p. Again, the result of this is one device with many games from a wide spectrum of genres, instead of one device with one game from one genre.
So, for me, the DS loses when it comes to casual games, and as for the larger games (the RPGs and real-time strategies and what-not) they have to be excellent, otherwise I end up playing something on the big screen instead, my ageing frame complaining if I try and spend an evening hunched over a couple of 3-inch LCDs. There’s a lot out there that is excellent — I’m currently enjoying Chrono Trigger and must have spent at least a year playing Animal Crossing — but at four years old the DS is showing its age, and it would benefit from a serious hardware and feature upgrade to keep itself relevant in the iPhone era.
Sadly, all Nintendo has to offer at the moment is the DSi — £50 more expensive than the DS Lite and offering only a smattering of new features, none of which are likely to become system-sellers — two low-quality digital cameras, an SD-card reader and downloadable, low-budget games. That latter feature has potential but I’m sceptical; if the Wii’s WiiWare service is anything to go by, it will end up underpopulated and underused, with very few must-have games. Time will tell, but currently it doesn’t seem that Nintendo is concerned about competition from the iPhone, but as they’re still selling DSs as fast as they can build them, four years after launch, it may be that they just don’t have anything to worry about.
What I’m playing
To finish up, here’s a few games that I’ve been impressed by so far on the iPhone, and by and large they’re games where the developer has embraced the touch screen and motion sensor interface, rather than trying to shoe-horn in a traditional, button-based control scheme.
A touch-and-tilt-based puzzle games in the vein of Lemmings, Loco Roco, etc.
Another puzzle game, this time one where you must draw your character’s route to the goal using your finger, before using touch-based directional and jump buttons to get him there. Though I’m not keen on games that try to create touch-based d-pads, it’s not too badly implemented here and the rest of the game makes up for it.
Similar to the above but entirely based around the conceit of drawing your way to the goal. I understand it’s similar to Crayon Physics but I’ve not played that yet.
A beautiful chill-out game where you must wrap a wooden object up in rope. Sounds stupidly simple but I’ve played it for hours already and love it — the soundtrack is excellent and the physicality of the rope combined with the creaks and scrapes as it wraps the object make for an unusually tangible experience.
Using gestural controls on the touch screen, the objective here is to swing your character through the level to the goal. Controls are a little tricky to pick up at first but once they click, they feel very natural.
A block tower puzzle game, you must build a tower of irregularly-shaped blocks that wobble and shift as you place them.
If you don’t know what Rogue is, you’re not nearly geeky enough to click that link.
A tower defense game, you place towers that fire water, arrows, bombs etc. to destroy the advancing hordes of Hellish demons.
There are already PS2, PSP and Xbox 360 versions of this game but the iPhone version is pretty good. If you’ve not seen a Katamari game before, the video link above will explain things far better than I can.
So that’s it. Congratulations if you’ve read this far, you get a prize of some kind, probably. If you’re an iPhone gamer, what else is there that I’ve missed? Do people think that Nintendo are being complacent in the face of the iPhone or is there room in the market for everyone?