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.
It’s an odd comparison, but for some of the game I was reminded of Braid, in that if you’re trying to pass a sticking point by luck or brute force you’re probably doing it wrong. The time attack times are often under two minutes, which is an indication that if you’re trying to painstakingly edge your way up a steep hill or complete some inhuman feat of fast reactions there must be a faster way. In that way it’s been very well designed, albeit without the brilliantly original design of Jonathan Blow’s game.
As I mentioned before, Rolando was in consideration for my top ten of the year. Well… in truth it was never going to make it because there are more than ten games from 2008 that I both liked more and played more, but it was more a statement on the potential that phone games could finally be fulfilling. We have a popular, powerful phone with an open distribution model – in the sense that anyone can do it without huge investment and a publishing deal – and the support of a number of big publishers, that’s actually making money for developers big and small and doesn’t charge £3 for a two-minute movie-licensed Java game.
So am I getting carried away with the hyperbole about gaming’s Next Big Thing™ or is it simply evidence that – *gasp* – designing a game around the unique capabilities of the hardware will give better results than a game designed by the marketing department? It’s cheap enough to pay the £3.49 and see for yourself, because I’m not the only one impressed by Rolando.