I’m surprised by how completely this slipped under my radar, but I’ve recently been enjoying Transformers G1: Awakening for the iPhone. With it being only the second Transformers game of reasonable quality – this is the first – and the first featuring the only arm of the franchise worth bothering with, I couldn’t say no for £1.79.
Its form should be obvious from looking at the above screenshot, because it’s pretty much Advance Wars. Most of the mechanics are identical, and it’s only that your units can transform into vehicles to further their movement allowance, the downside being that you’re defenceless in this form – makes sense for a VW Beetle, but not so much for a fighter jet – that really differentiates it at all. Fangasms will be had over the 3D models on the battle screens, there’s a bit of Transformers storyline in there, and there are ‘Showdowns’ that make use of characters traits, like a single Autobot desperately powering up before Trypticon reaches him, but there’s still not much to separate Optimus Prime and an Advance Wars tank.
Who cares, though? I wanted a good Transformers game and now I’ve got one, and it cost me less than today’s lunch did. Awesome.
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.
It’s weird to be treating a genre that’s around 20 years old as a new discovery, but my minor obsession with iPhone games has collided with the resurgence of tower defence games on the platform. I’ve always suspected that I was mentally incapable of playing strategy games, even making the likes of Advance Wars an exercise in frustration.
I still find myself going back to strategy games, though, in the hope that the latest thing will be ‘the one’, and I’m frankly astounded that I’m still resisting the purchase of Halo Wars, but the plethora of cheap examples on the iPhone has been very tough to resist.
It was the much-hyped and technically fantastic Star Defense that did it for me and tower defence in the end, and unsurprisingly the first few minutes with the game were met with that familiar feeling that I’d wasted my money. The very first level, which tasks you with surviving a minimum of 20 waves of enemies, was fraught to say the least, and the epic 60 waves of the later stages was pretty frightening.
12 hours later… I still suck at it. I’m getting better, though, and I’ve made it through the first three planets and scored a fairly respectable 40 waves – challenge me here – in the game’s endless Challenge mode. And what’s more, I like it enough to buy the previous must-have iPhone tower defence game, Fieldrunners, which I so far haven’t enjoyed quite as much but still like playing as a slightly more traditional example. It’s not as technically impressive, but it’s still very polished and different enough to coexist peacefully on my phone.
There are people who follow the iPhone gaming scene more closely than me who reckon that tower defence is past it now, the iPhone equivalent of twin-stick shooters in the early days of Xbox Live Arcade, but as a latecomer who has been playing games as long as I have it’s not often that I find a new genre that I’ve never really played before. It’s just the sort of thing that I want to play on a phone: fun for a few minutes but also suited to sitting down for a marathon session when I really should be, you know, working or something. Let’s have more of this stuff that actually works with the touch screen rather than trying to cram first-person shooters or driving sims onto the iPhone, eh?
Let’s face it: phone games have, generally speaking, been completely gash. If you asked me to list the good ones I’d start struggling after Snake and Doom RPG, and as phone hardware has become vastly more capable the quality of the software hasn’t risen at all.
Rolando, however, the first ‘big’ release from dedicated iPhone game developer ngmoco, has blown me away. It doesn’t have the flashy 3D graphics that you’d expect a killer app to have, but it arguably looks better for it. Trying to cram PSP-quality games onto the iPhone is as effective as porting PS2-quality games to the PSP has been, just showing the limitations of the hardware rather than working around them. Rolando doesn’t push the iPhone’s modest 3D capabilities, but you’re not going to be hitting the walls of what it can do and remind yourself that you’re playing on a phone.
This does make it slightly ironic that the game that shouldn’t look like a PSP game does, in fact, look very much like a certain PSP game, but, unlike most knock-offs, this does it better. My main complaint about LocoRoco was that it was crying out for motion controls, and this essentially does it with that and plenty of other gameplay mechanics made possible by the touch screen.
LocoRoco still has the presentational edge, it must be said, with its infectious music and active, multilayered graphics, but when comparing this 25MB download to a pretty full UMD it’s a damn good attempt to imitate it. I have to say that I believe Rolando to be the better game, however. LocoRoco got repetitive fairly early on, but Rolando is constantly throwing new gameplay systems at you all the way through, from bonus levels that require you to rotate the iPhone – or iPod touch, as it works on that as well – through 360 degrees to touch-activated bomb dispensers and ‘draw-bridges’: bridges that you literally draw – get it? – with your finger. Continue reading Rolando: When iPhone Games Came Good?