iPhone Game Showcase

I wouldn’t be the first to say that I do a lot of my best thinking on the toilet, and it was in this situation that I found myself convinced of how good the iPhone’s distribution model is. In the time that I was in there, I was able to find a new game, download it, and play a couple of rounds. It’s proper, ubiquitous digital distribution and, I think, a glimpse at how all handheld gaming will be done over the next couple of generations.

But as with anything like this, there’s some real crap on iTunes. For this reason, here are a handful of iPhone games that I think do a particularly good job of playing to the format’s strengths, without trying to shoehorn in traditional, button-reliant gameplay.

  • Airport Mania: First Flight (£0.59; Lite version available) – This is a representative of the popular ‘time management’ genre, this time casting you as an air traffic controller. Handle queuing up the aircraft for runways, terminals, repairs and refuelling, making sure not to keep them waiting too long, lest they give up and leave for another airport. It’s fast, makes intuitive use of the touch screen, and it’s only 59p. Quite a reasonable amount of content, too.
  • Flight Control (£0.59) – Another air traffic controller game? Don’t be fooled. They’re not really that similar. Flight Control is more of an old-school arcade game where you try to land as many aircraft as possible by managing their flight paths so that they don’t collide, drawing them with your finger. It gets more complicated as the screen fills with jets of different speeds, and has a nifty leaderboard system that actually uses the phone’s GPS to put you in a local leaderboard. I thought that my high score of 48 was fairly respectable, but someone within a mile of me has somehow managed 194. I’ve got work to do. Oh, and it’s 59p again and has a pretty nice age of flight theme.
  • MotionX Poker (£1.79; Lite version available) – One of the earliest hit iPhone games and now actually has two versions: MotionX Poker and MotionX Poker Quest – they have pretty much identical gameplay, so it’s all down to whether or not you prefer the Chinese or ancient Egypt theming. Use the accelerometer to shake up your dice and aim to create dice poker hands against the computer. It’s got a pile of unlockable dice and achievements, and it’s maddeningly addictive – I’ve clocked up 12 hours across both versions.
  • Rolando 2 (£5.99) – It’s a couple of quid more than its still-excellent predecessor, but I think it’s worth it. The original was more than slightly ‘inspired by’ Sony’s LocoRoco, adding in the tilt controls that that game was really crying out for, but this one outdoes it with 3D environments, a much better difficulty curve, more innovative uses of the iPhone controls, and a lot of game for your money. The original is still getting free updates with bonus levels, so expect to get plenty for your money here.
  • Star Defense (£3.49) – My favourite of the popular tower defence genre, with cutting-edge graphics and connectivity, including day one use of push notifications and ngmoco’s new Xbox Live-esque Plus+ network for challenges. It really does look gorgeous, and it’s a great example of the genre, whether you’re a beginner like I was or an experienced tower defender. Did I mention that it’s really, really pretty?
  • UniWar (£1.79) – It’s described as a cross between StarCraft and Advance Wars, and that pretty much sums it up. It plays very similarly to Nintendo’s turn-based strategy series, with three factions/races that bear more than a resemblance in looks and style to Blizzard’s series. What impressed me the most, however, was the suite of multiplayer options, from the obvious system-sharing style that suits the portable format to the 21st Century equivalent of correspondence chess, where you are notified of a remote opponent’s turn via email, with a link that’ll take you straight back into the game. It’s more expensive than what I paid when it came out, but I still think it’s worth it.
  • WordFu (£0.59) – The third and final ngmoco game on the list, which combines MotionX Poker and Boggle to decent effect. Set out your dice in a world with a slightly incongruous kung-fu theme, and make as many words as you can in 45 seconds. Ideal fare for bite-size gaming on the bus or when you find yourself at a loose end for a few minutes, which is what the iPhone is great for.
  • WordJong (£1.79; Lite version available) – Another word game, but this one is slightly more involved. Create words to clear a board and get a high score, but it gets tricky when you have to completely clear it without any leftovers. There’s a new puzzle every day – not to mention a massive backlog of them by now – so comparing scores is easy if you have friends with the game. But what is it with word games and martial arts themes on the iPhone?
  • Zen Bound (£2.99; Lite version available) – This is probably the most arty game here, but it’s a great demonstration of both the iPhone’s graphics and up there with Star Defense as an example of how multitouch controls work. Wrap a tethered rope around a wooden carving to paint it, getting higher scores for using less rope or covering more of the shape. No time limits or anything like that means it’s a great game to chill out with, boasting a brilliantly mellow soundtrack – free to download when you buy the game, incidentally – that, as one of the opening splash screens suggests, is best experienced with headphones.

All prices are correct at the time of posting. Feel free to let me know any of your recommendations that I might not have spotted and I’ll do a follow-up at some point, because, judging by the variety on offer after only a year, what we have in 12 months could be very exciting.

Monkey Island: Not-so Special Edition

Seriously, I feel like some kind of traitor by posting an opinion like this, as someone who owns every SCUMM game and would give the world for legitimate DS and/or iPhone versions, but The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition has left me quite disappointed. It’s not entirely the fault of the new version but rather the fact that the flaws of the original seem magnified with the shiny new presentation and without the full benefit of nostalgia.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

It’s not bad, though. The voice acting is excellent, bringing great delivery to the old jokes and with some great touches, like the way selecting the wrong riposte during an insult swordfight will result in a different delivery to if it was correct; the new background art is superb, with some nice enhancements to familiar environments – I particularly liked the ships docked behind the previously uninhabited Scumm Bar, for example (see above); and it even controls acceptably with the analogue stick, only becoming mildly annoying during certain sequences that involve time-sensitive manipulation of certain corrosive materials between receptacles.

I also love how you can switch between the old and new versions completely seamlessly, which is a feature that should be in more retro remakes. In fairness, I suppose having to keep the versions in sync was limiting in what could be done to update things, and it is quite technically impressive – I assume that the Special Edition is some kind of new ‘skin’ running on top of the emulated classic version. It shows when you occasionally get overlapping dialogue, presumably when a line runs out of time to run without bringing the two versions out of sync. On a similar note, it’s also a shame that you can’t play the old game with voice acting, but it seems like that’s more of a technical limitation than anything else.

But as nice as it is to see the original Monkey Island looking fresh, I’m not the biggest fan of the new art style. I thought that just flicking between the two versions on the close-up character portraits – compare this and this – shows the new style as really soulless, particularly when there are existing sources of inspiration to use when taking the Monkey Island series in a more cartoony direction.

All this makes me wonder if it really justifies the ‘Special Edition’ tag. The voice acting is the only absolute improvement, there’s no new content whatsoever, and the flaws of the original – my main beef is the to-ing and fro-ing when you’re going from place to place, in particular the arduous walk from the town on Melee Island to the overworld map, which you’ll have to do several times – are still there. If this was a DVD special edition, it would be from the days when ‘interactive menus’ counted as a bonus feature.

Even so, it’s still Monkey Island and I’ve already finished it twice in the five days it’s been out. It’s still very funny, only helped by the voicework, and I’ll be first in line for Monkey Island 2: Special Edition, if only because it’ll be a nice experience to play one that I haven’t finished several times before with the new look.

And, while we’re on the subject, how about those DS and iPhone versions?

Ghostbusters Impressions

I went into the Ghostbusters game having just watched the original movie – over 25 years old now, if you can believe it – on Blu-ray. Its effects may be a bit rough around the edges and they really do smoke a lot compared to what you could get away with now, but it’s certainly not as embarrassing to look back on with 21st Century eyes as some of the popular films of the era and holds up amazingly well.


This is where it’s tempting to spout a cliché about the traditional shortcomings of movie-licensed games and the dangers of resurrecting beloved classics – never forget – but Ghostbusters is notable for the involvement of the original creative team, still clearly enthusiastic about it and what it could mean for the seemingly inevitable Ghostbusters 3, and it makes a massive difference. Much of the original cast is in it, and while some are better than others – Dan Aykroyd’s apparently never left character, for example, whereas Bill Murray sounds slightly phoned in in comparison – the script is great and it’s genuinely funny.

Now you may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how authentic and funny it is and not much time on what it’s actually like to play. This is where it becomes a bit hit and miss. It’s absolutely brilliant when you’ve got the whole team together, wrangling a ghost as it struggles to escape the trap – and the effects here are spot-on, it must be said – but it’s less so when you’re using the shotgun-like attachment to your proton pack to shoot down waves of flying ghosts or slowly whittling down the health of another palette-swapped golem.

Despite the flaws, though, I’m really enjoying it. Setting it in 1991 was a smart decision, and the modern hardware – well… some more than others – proves more than capable of recreating 80s special effects. The aforementioned ghost-wrangling really is a treat for fans.

Terminal Reality has also done a great job of creating an atmosphere and actually proves pretty adept at getting in some decent scares. There are a couple of moments in the hotel when particularly powerful apparitions bend reality itself, like when an area is flooded with water and comes over all nautical while you’re in it. The game takes delight in forcing you to search for paranormal disturbances using your PKE meter and the narrow field of view that comes with it only to make something jump out or, when it’s being more subtle, flash just outside your field of view, all to good effect. It’s hardly Silent Hill scary, and it’s probably not even up there with when the library ghost traumatised you as a child, but it proves that there’s more to the game than Dan Aykroyd’s script.

While Ghostbusters may be a little rough around the edges, those with fond memories of the film will likely have fun with it. I certainly have.

Battlefield 1943

Remember when I said that Killzone 2 was the new Battlefield? I was wrong. Battlefield is still the new Battlefield.

This series is an old favourite of mine, going back to when I first got a gaming PC and played hundreds of hours of Battlefield 1942 and its expansions. It’s had its ups and downs, but few gaming franchises have reached the heights of the sublime Battlefield 2. That was the end of my affair with it, though, because after that the likes of Modern Combat, Battlefield 2142 and Bad Company just seemed like a step down.

Battlefield 1943

This, though, taking three of the maps from 1942 and porting it all to the Bad Company engine – complete with the real-time destruction that it entails – for only a tenner, is genius.

I see a lot of criticism doing the rounds, calling it some variance of Battlefield for babies, often with a dig at the console audience in there for good measure, but I don’t get it. Maybe it’s just that I’m a whore for this kind of games, putting countless hours into the good Battlefields as well as the decent pretenders like Warhawk – still the best game on the PS3, by the way – but I can tell that this will be a favourite for a long time. I still play Warhawk because it’s perfect for dipping in and out of, and having it there all the time, launchable from the hard drive, is extremely conducive to dipping in and out occasionally. Keep it fresh with new maps and you’ll keep me coming back for a long time.

Yeah, this only has three – soon to be four – maps and three character classes. Does this damage the game? Not really. This has been planned as a trim and accessible version of Battlefield, designed for new players and veterans, and everything from the consolidated classes to the infinite ammo – it recharges in the same vein as health now does in every FPS ever created – reflects that. I suppose you could argue that it’s ‘dumbed down’ if that’s your thing, but it hasn’t really affected my enjoyment. There’s something to be said for keeping things simple when your base product is already so good.

The first few days were pretty rough going, with a delightful combination of the expected DICE bugs – BF1942 still had launch bugs after gigs of patches – and EA’s always-wonderful server infrastructure, but the teething problems seem to have been ironed out and it’s smooth sailing now. It’s quite stable and things should continue to improve fairly rapidly, so this one gets a definite thumbs up.