Historically, my relationship with cell phone games has been relatively flaky. Before the era of the iPhone and the advent of touchscreen devices, I owned a few Samsung or LG flip phones, and every so often would find myself scrolling through their primitive browsers, trying to judge whether it was worth it to buy a five dollar game based on a press release description and maybe a single low-res screen. Yet, for all the fun that Gradius and, say, Tetris afforded me when America was getting what was arguably its first real taste of the cellular app addiction that’s been the norm in Japan for years, I rarely played these games for more than few minutes. I guess this isn’t abnormal for cell phone titles, perhaps by virture of their platform alone. In fact, the only cell phone game I remember actually beating is Doom RPG, which for some reason I actually found engaging enough to sit down and play through its entire eight-or-so hour span.
Obviously, the iPhone and other touch devices that have followed have completely changed the landscape of cellular game design. Thanks to as simple a concept as technology that registers pressure placement on a screen, fully-formed games with impressive-for-its-parameters processing with real control inputs can be created, rather than forced schemes crammed into an array of numbered buttons whose primary purpose is comparative light years from game design.
Of course, the first games I wanted to try after getting a phone that seemed an actual, viable game platform were the tiny iOS editions of my favorite series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. But upon actually playing them, I found Resident Evil horribly vacant—which is no surprise, considering even with its relatively powerful OS, the iPhone’s primary function is not to function as the architecture of a game console would—and Silent Hill’s sloppy design relegated it to little more than a portable rush-job. Even Metal Gear Solid Touch, though designed well enough for what it is, was just Snake playing Duck Hunt with PMCs and Gekkos—a disappointment, to say the least.
Another problem most people have experienced with iPhone titles is that the controls can be terrible. The on-screen mapped control pad scheme, a defacto setup for many arcade and 16-bit console ports (as well as a slew of newer developed titles) is hit-or-miss, since the right proportion of screen viewing space and room to accurately navigate the controls is vital, and when it isn’t achieved, well, let’s just say you won’t want to play a game that you can’t easily command for very long. Touch sensitivity is also at often at odds with the idea of the controller itself. It’s a logical conundrum of tangibility, really, since you can’t very well control digital representations of an object with no physical form. And since video games more often than not require a deft touch, negotiating with cell phone iterations of well-known console series can be difficult. Some genres, schmups like R-Type or the criminally-underrated Space Invaders: Infinity Gene for example, are almost impossible play on phones for these reasons. (Not to mention the obstruction your finger makes on the screen can entirely overlap your ship, making precision play impossible at times.)
There are of course ways around these types of issues—id’s on-rails installments of Doom 3 and Rage, for instance, look and play exceptionally well, but at the cost of true player agency within their environment. It took a fair amount of hands-on time with various iPhone titles to really understand these points, but after owning one for a few months, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the reality of iOS game design, questioning its fitness for anything aside from casual game types like tower defense or, say, billiards.
Then I played the system’s Mirror’s Edge.
As Mirror’s Edge was one of my favorite games of 2008, I had been eagerly waiting to play the iOS version for some time. (In fact, it was the first game I was interested in for the phone.) Wisely eschewing the first-person and 3D design for a straight 2D platformer (likely inspired by the flash-driven Mirror’s Edge 2D EA authorized shortly after original console game’s release), I was intrigued with how they would pull off Faith’s repertoire of Parkour maneuvers, particularly since screens I had seen were uncluttered by any HUD at all. It turns out that Mirror’s Edge works near-perfectly on the iPhone, and Faith can do almost anything she can in her console outing here with a few quick directional swipes. By somehow translating a complex set of moves into a few simple arrow-based commands (forward to run, down to slide, down in mid-air to roll on landing, etc.), the developers were able to take the kinetic feel and beautifully unfettered aesthetic of the console game and streamline it just enough to maintain the core gameplay experience—and more importantly, its fun factor—on a much smaller scale. The key is its simplicity: whereas the HD Mirror’s Edge was a process of trial, error and constant re-orientation until you instinctively developed the necessary skills to be a Runner, the iPhone version could be mastered, more or less, in a matter of minutes.
Thus it seems that if iPhone game developers can successfully simplify controls without sacrificing the integrity of a game’s design itself, what most gamers would consider a core gaming experience can still be achieved. Dead Space’s impressive new iPhone game manages this, thanks largely in part to the in-game HUD provided by the protagonist’s engineering suit (the suit’s functions themselves are integrated into the control, so as not to fill the screen with input icons for various in-game actions). Infinity Blade handles its melee combat with swipe commands similar to Mirror’s Edge and only minimal background display. Even Capcom’s newly-released iPhone rendition of Devil May Cry 4, which uses an on-screen control pad set-up, works relatively well because Nero’s moveset is lessened and streamlined—you can equip up to three special moves per weapon, which can be swapped out between levels—but somehow the game is still fun.
This may seem like an obvious (and obviously necessary) design choice, but nevertheless it feels pretty significant to me that some developers have learned the necessity of capturing the essence of a console game experience that’s still enjoyable to play, at least if you can forgive the necessary cutbacks. And the fact that, in the hands of some dev teams at least, it actually works? To me, that is pretty amazing.
As technology marches forward and even the most seemingly-mundane devices become more powerful and sophisticated, controls and performance in touch devices and their ilk will probably become less and less of an issue. The Xperia Play, Sony’s so-called Playstation phone, is already going to be hosting a catalog of PS One games, and apps are only going to keep evolving as time goes on. While we’re still stuck in the infancy of touch-related technology, however, it appears that making things as easy as is feasible is probably the best course of action.