With the advances made by casual gaming in the mobile phone market, one could safely assume it was the portable gaming platform with the largest user base in the world. But what about the iPod? It certainly is the most advertised, most talked about and most lucrative piece of personal electronics ever to be released to the masses. In a not-so-unexpected move, the release of the 5th Generation iPod late last year saw Apple adding yet another form of consumable media to their repertoire: games.
It wasn’t so hard, either, considering that the games that were ported started out as Flash applications that are easily handled by the iPod’s video functions. The games were also guaranteed successes: Pop Cap’s ubiquitous Bejeweled, EA’s version of the venerable Tetris, and arcade classic Pac Man, which was clearly targeted at the nostalgic. With a total of nine titles to choose from, consumers were suddenly looking at the new and improved video iPod. I know it caught my attention.
While this may seem like a new thing for the iPod, games have been available for the device since its release, and I’m not referring to the factory-installed “Brick” or the innumerable text-based quizzes available for download. Thanks to the iPod Linux Project, prospective iPod gamers could install ported emulators for arcade games, Gameboy and the NES. As long as they were able to get past installing Linux on their iPod — obviously not a very lucrative approach for the typical iPod user.
Indeed, Apple made it easy for people to enjoy snack-sized gaming sessions on their MP3 players, but how do they stack up against their more traditional portable gaming counterparts? The obvious shortcoming to the iPod as a gaming platform is the control scheme: the clickwheel isn’t very conducive to a large variety of game types, resulting in a Puzzle-heavy library. Well, except for the frustrating Pac-Man: A game based entirely on being able to control the direction of your avatar is made artificially difficult by Apple’s over-sensitive touchpad. Luckily, there are other games worth playing on the iPod.
Tetris is synonymous with portable gaming, if only because it helped Nintendo sell the original Game Boy. Lots of them. So it’s only natural for Apple to make EA’s version of the classic puzzler available for the iPod. I wasn’t sure what to expect given Apple’s insistence on using the wheel more than the actual buttons for control, but the smooth side-to-side motion afforded by the wheel wasn’t hard to get used to. The “ghost” of each brick before they fall are training wheels for getting used to the control, and only in the higher levels where the game speed increases dramatically do precision movements become necessary. It’s certainly a polished effort, but I wouldn’t say it was iPod gaming’s shining moment.
Zuma (PopCap/Astraware, 2006), a game that borrowed liberally from the Japanese arcade game Puzz Loop (Mitchell, 1998) is better suited to the circular motion of the clickwheel. The concept is making chains of like-colored balls moving around a central point on the screen. Rotating the Frog statue that shoots the balls is made smooth and effortless by the clickwheel, though the game often suffers from slowdown on larger puzzle boards where there are more balls on screen. Like Tetris, the game is already available elsewhere for free, and mainly provides substance to the iPod’s meager games library.
However it is Apple’s own Vortex (Apple, 2006) that had me transfixed for hours on end, with its well-integrated control scheme and relatively unique gameplay. While some have dismissed the game as simply Arkanoid in a circle, the way the controls are seamlessly integrated into play makes it obvious that it was designed for the iPod. Vortex has you in control of the all too familiar paddle that must deflect a ball and break bricks. Except the paddle can rotate 360 degrees. And the bricks are formed up in a sequence of rotating rings inside of a tube. Destroying all of the bricks in one ring will give way to another, eventually bringing you to a new section of tube with a familiar selection of power-ups to help along the way. Vortex is the only game that seems to emulate a 3D-like engine, and shows some real potential for the device. It is also the only game that is exclusive to the iPod.
With that said, the pricing scheme seems like a mis-step: $5.99 CDN per game is incredibly steep, considering that the majority of the titles are available for free in some form or another (like PopCap’s freely downloadable library). Not to mention a deluxe version of Solitaire that is available, despite the basic game being part of the iPod’s factory-installed games.
Ultimately, making new games readily available for iPod users was simply a way for Apple to test the viability of expanding the functions of their device; the recent announcement of the iPhone and the subsequent media hype that followed is evidence enough of that. Unfortunately, with the frequency of hardware revisions that have taken place since the first iPod in 2001, it appears that the early adopters are a makeshift focus group, letting Apple see how their faithful customers react to each new feature added to their best-selling MP3 player. The real test would have been to make the iPod an open development platform, to see what the independent game development community could do with the device. After all, if iPod owners are at the whim of what Apple decides to offer through their download service, it doesn’t give much credence to the device as a gaming platform. Instead, it’s simply another piece of portable electronics with games featured for their own sake; a distraction not to be taken seriously.
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