Planet of the Apps: Honey, I Shrunk the Games!
Nobody ever forgets the old school. This era of a medium sparks a person's imagination, and infects them with a curiosity about its depth and possibility.
Game publishers aren't stupid. They know they can mine this nostalgia for cheap and easy bucks, and the latest place they're doing it is on the iPhone. But the Apple portable platform presents a special challenge in that it has no buttons. Many of these games were initially built with some kind of physical input in mind, and the iPhone and iPod Touch only sport touch-screens. Still, that's not the biggest problem.
The thing with App Store videogames is that they have to be eminently playable and immediately charming. As Ryan Kuo put forth in his recent piece, a game on the iPhone isn't just competing against other games for your attention. It's got to be compelling enough for you to ignore incoming e-mails, phone calls or text messages. There's little leeway for learning curves, and no room for twiddling with display or control schemes.
These old-school games may have commanded your attention when you were sitting on a couch, ready to transported to another world. But times have changed. You're on the move. Let's take a look at how some franchises have managed their migration to iPhone.
1. Time Crisis Strike
Original iteration: Even in an age where arcades have largely died out, Namco Bandai's light-gun shooter manages to thrive in multiplexes and Dave & Buster's locations. One or two players aim their brightly colored pistols and pull the triggers at on-screen enemies in timed stages, while stepping on and off a pedal to pop in and out of cover.
Why it works on iPhone: The Time Crisis experience translates surprisingly well to iPhone play. Tapping the screen to shoot feels instinctive, and the tilting reload mechanic -- which doubles as a cover toggle -- oddly feels like a natural replacement for the pedal in the stand-up cabinets.
2. Missile Command
Original iteration: The Atari shooter that fed off Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation tasked players with protecting buildings and bunkers from an ever-increasing flurry of ICBMs. Players had a limited supply of anti-ICBMs that they could launch, creating blooming explosions that could eliminate multiple threats. Extra tension came from the fact that you had to steer a slow-moving reticule where you wanted it, and the missiles only got faster as the levels went on.
Why it works on iPhone: With tap-to-shoot, you may not have that slow-moving reticule to worry about -- but the speed and number of missiles still get daunting in later levels. The change in format adds an element of twitch-shooting to what was always a strategic game. Trying to keep your landscape from getting bombed-out still makes for a stressfully good time.
Original iteration: In 1980, what made the shooter stand out from other arcade cabinets was trackball control, an unusual method for movement when just about everything else relied on joysticks. The frantic action in Atari's shooter focused more on movement and also had a bit of a trippy vibe, what with all the mushrooms, spiders and fleas.
Why it works on iPhone: The floating thumb-pad that replaces the freewheeling trackball works excellently. As a bonus, automatic shooting means you don't have to worry about creating another control input. (More on that later.)
Original iteration: Immortalized in that one "Seinfield" episode, Komani's title pit frog against freeway. The goal was to weave as many croakers as you could in and out of highway traffic and across a river to reach a safe haven.
Why it works on iPhone: The iPhone version offers three control options: Tap, Slide and Tilt. In Slide, short swipes do a good job of substituting for the joystick taps. So, don't mess with the other options. The graphical upgrade is nicely done, too, and doesn't go overboard like the "Remix" or "Ultra" versions of many other classic games.
5. Metal Gear Solid Touch
Original iteration: Built specifically for the iPhone, this game essentially presents the same story of the hit PlayStation 3 exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Don't go expecting any spiffy, adaptive Octocamo action, though. What you're getting doesn't at all resemble the sneak-and-shoot action that's been the series hallmark. MGS Touch is basically a shooting-gallery game with Old Snake.
Why it works on iPhone: Regardless of the fact that you're getting a shallower experience compared to console versions, MGS Touch is still a fun and fast-paced game. It's got good, smooth controls -- especially the use of pinch to switch weapons as well as zoom in and out.
Original iteration: It's Tetris ? surely you know it? Falling block shapes aligned into lines that disappear? Yeah, that's the one.
Why it works on iPhone: Oh, Tetris! If only the games in the following category had it as easy as you. Tap to rotate, slide to move, flick down to slam down the pieces. EA's officially licensed version includes a Hold function and ghosting overlay, so that you can pause the stream of blocks and also see where they land.
But not every classic has the touch...
7. Galaga Remix
Original iteration: Galaga is the sequel to Galaxian, Namco's 1979 riff on the Space Invaders formula. Released in 1980, Galaga spiced things up by adding changing formations and having the alien army swoop and swirl across the screen. It was also one of the first games to track statistics.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: While the slider control at the bottom of the screen works much better than a virtual d-pad or joystick, you still need another finger to shoot. Your fingers start to crowd the screen, and it's like playing peek-a-boo. What's worse is when you notice the ship's not moving because your thumb moves off the slider. Repositioning it means that you'll have to pull your eyes off the action.
8. Dig Dug Remix
Original iteration: Gaming's most iconic spelunker started pumping enemies full of air in 1982. With the player creating his own paths and rocks that you could drop on enemies, it was an early example of using the game world as a resource.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: Of the control options available for Dig Dug, the finger-sliding of Flick works much better than the virtual controller -- but it's just not fast enough to make playing the game feasible. Add in the same fingers-crowding-the-screen problem as in Galaga Remix, and Dig Dug Remix doesn't perform well enough to honor the memory of its forebear.
9. I Love Katamari
Original iteration: One of the surprise successes on the PlayStation 2, Keita Takahshi's sticky rolling-ball game became a cult phenomenon thanks to its quirky art style and singularly unique play mechanic. The King of All Cosmos may not deserve your help in rebuilding the cosmos from rolled-up Earth objects, but he needs it.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: At first, the tilt controls seem like a natural fit for a game all about rolling a ball through environments. But the way the angling translates into actual movement is terribly imprecise, and trying to make quick adjustments to your momentum is just an exercise in frustration. Only buy this if you desperately want the awesome music from the series; but honestly, there are better ways to get it.
10. Resident Evil 4 Mobile Edition
Original iteration: Resident Evil 4 marked a bold reimagining of Capcom's signature survival horror series when it hit the GameCube. Changing the camera view and making it a more action-oriented experience drove millions in sales.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: The controls are just a mess here. You'll need to toggle between movement, gun aiming and melee knife attacks with three on-screen buttons, while using a virtual d-pad to move or aim. If RE4 Mobile shows us anything, it's that there is no way to realistically play a console game that required two analog sticks and half-a-dozen buttons on the iPhone. Aside from the terrible controls, there is no way that this version of RE4 can set the mood of the console versions.
11. Golden Axe
Original iteration: Sega's barbarian beat-'em-up raked in the cash when it hit arcades in 1989. Aside from the leather-and-loincloth swordplay, you could use dash and magic attacks to dispatch enemies, too.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: Navigating screen depth -- which was a key attraction in Sega's side-scrolling beat-'em-ups -- feels flat-out terrible on iPhone. Going up or down into the foreground or background of the field isn't smooth and just leaves you open to attack. Golden Axe also joins the ranks of iPhone games with too much on-screen clutter.
12. Mega Man 2
Original iteration: The Mega Man series always gets held up as the cream of the crop when it comes to action-platformer games. You weren't tied to a linear path when it came to the Blue Bomber's battle against Dr. Wily and his specially-empowered robots, and that allowed you to create your own strategy. The unique structure and blistering difficulty in Mega Man 2 burned it into the minds of a generation.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: With a game as difficult as Mega Man 2, you need to be able to do two things at once. Like, say, run and shoot. Or jump and shoot. It's not possible here. As John Teti, Crispy's resident Mega Man expert, fumbled around with it for a few minutes, he grumbled, "If this were on the NES, I'd be done with this level already!"
13. Sonic the Hedgehog
Original iteration: Sega's spiky blue mascot got his start on the Genesis in 1991. The first Sonic game boasted ridiculous speed and sharp graphics, along with level design that gave players a huge playground on which to execute platforming stunts unlike anything ever seen before.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: This port of Sonic runs beautifully, and shows off all the cartoony charm that made the character iconic. But, again, the problem comes down to controls that just can't deliver the reaction time necessary to channel the title character's trademark quickness.
Original iteration: This fusion of cyberpunk and anime for PCs and Sega Genesis offered a twisty storyline about an amnesiac secret agent in the future. This was coupled with an aesthetic that looked hand-drawn, making Flashback a well-remembered critical darling.
Why it doesn't work on iPhone: Precise navigation is hopeless, as inaccurate controls plague this game, too. And, in an adventure-style game where puzzle-solving is a heavy component, toggling between the menus is too slow and clunky.
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