Apple's iPhone and iPod touch: Gaming And Other Entertaining Playthings
Back in early June, I discussed at length the potential for the Apple iPhone to fulfill the longstanding industry aspiration to supplement cellphones.with gaming functions. And yesterday, I pointed you towards my just-published teardown of Apple’s 2nd-generation iPod touch. The two hardware platforms share a common OS X software foundation and, since the iPod touch can (simplistically) be viewed as an iPhone without a cellular voice-and-data transceiver, camera or (in the second iPhone generation) GPS receiver, it’s no surprise that most of the programs currently available for download on the App Store support both product lines.
As such, I thought I’d share my hands-on impressions of some of the games and other utilities I’ve had a chance to test over the last week-plus on my 16 GByte iPod touch. While this unit doesn’t have a traditional set of input controls such as those found in Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP), it does have a combination of two things that those other portable gaming powerhouses lack; a touchscreen-augmented LCD (which the DS includes, but not the PSP) and a STMicroelectronics-supplied accelerometer (which is inside neither the DS nor the PSP).
It’s probably not a surprise, therefore, to learn that those two subsystem form the implementation nexus of the applications (most of them freeware…limited-function trials in some cases—I’m admittedly a tightwad—-but they still get across the point) I highlight in the following alphabetically-ordered list. Note that the links will only work if you have iTunes installed on your system:
- BlocksClassic Lite
- BiiBall 3D Lite
- FUNKY PUNCH Lite
- Koi Pond: This one’s quite amazing. Shake the iPod touch or iPhone, thereby triggering the accelerometer, and koi food appears on the surface of the water. Touch the screen, and the water ripples; the fish flee but, if you persist, they’re attracted to your presence. Koi Pond showcases the graphics muscle of the unit’s Imagination Technologies graphics core, along with the ARM CPU’s fluid dynamics simulation capabilities. Here’s an interesting interview with the developers.
- Labyrinth Lite Edition: A classic labyrinth game; control the movement and speed of the steel ball by tilting the unit, thereby manipulating the accelerometer.
- Lightsaber Unleashed: Swing the iPod touch or iPhone around, and it emits lightsaber sounds. What more could a Star Wars-loving engineer ask for?
- More Cowbell!: Its presence on this list is admittedly heavily influenced by my admiration of Christopher Walken and his classic Saturday Night Live skit. Shake the unit, or tap on its screen, and it emits that Reaper-reminiscent cowbell sound. Those who don’t own an iPhone or iPod touch can simulate the experience for free…
- Starmap: Given my longstanding love of celestial bodies, both natural and human-made, you had to know I’d put an astronomy program on my iPod touch, right? This one also makes impressive use of the system’s performance and quality potential. Had you read only the reviews of early program versions, for example, you might wonder why I bothered dropping $12 on it. But by more efficiently leveraging the available OpenGL APIs, the developer has dramatically improved Starmap’s responsiveness in the latest iteration. Starmap leverage’s the 2nd-generation iPhone’s integrated GPS capabilities to auto-locate you (with the iPod touch and 1st-gen iPhone, you need to manually enter your city or, for maximum accuracy, your exact location coordinates). And, although neither the iPhone or iPod touch contains a compass, once you’ve plugged in your current compass orientation, accelerometer feedback optionally auto-scrolls the display both vertically and horizontally as you reorient the device (you can also manually rotate around the horizon via the touchscreen).
- SuperBall 2 Lite Edition
- Tap Tap Revenge
- Virtual Zippo® Lighter: Does the App Store really need around a dozen lighter apps? This one’s notable for three reasons: it’s Zippo Corporation-blessed, it’s therefore free, and the ‘flame’ graphic realistically reacts as you tilt the ‘lighter’
Other non-factory-installed apps I’ve so far put on my iPod touch, by the way, include:
- 12C Lite RPN Business Calculator
- 21 Pro: Blackjack – Sponsored
- Air Sharing
- eBay Mobile
- FlyCast Mobile Broadcast Network
- Google Mobile App
- Graphing Calculator
- iEphemeris Lite
- Meditation Timer
- Mocha VNC Lite
- Pandora Radio
- Remote (by Apple)
- Sol Free Solitaire
While the above applications use the touchscreen as an input mechanism (and while many of them are quite compelling in their own right), their exploitation of the iPod touch’s potential isn’t IMHO as revolutionary as with the programs in the first list.
The iPod touch’s built-in Wi-Fi creates some interesting interactive possibilities, which few applications have unfortunately so far harnessed. Keep in mind that many applications (chess and other board games, cards, etc) don’t require low-latency communications between multiple clients, and even in situations where it’s necessary, the Nintendo DS ‘Mario Kart’ case study suggests that it’s certainly feasible. The iPhone’s cellular support provides a wireless WAN data connectivity alternative, and its GPS support enables intriguing geo-location functions.
So, with all due respect to the fine folks at the Cult Of Mac blog, I disagree. I think the iPod touch and iPhone make fine portable gaming platforms. Maybe not for ’serious’ gaming…whatever that means. But as the success of Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE Arcade program or, for that matter, Nintendo’s entire hardware and content product line suggests, a much more sizeable ‘casual’ gamer market exists. Certainly, porting existing titles from other platforms to Apple’s gear will be difficult if not impossible, due to the user interface discrepancies. But those discrepancies are, in my opinion, often a net sum gain. Even gaming ‘god’ John Carmack’s impressed with the platform’s graphics and other potential, accelerometer precision aside. And as for the oft-cited concerns about in-progress game conflicts with incoming iPhone calls…haven’t these folks heard about auto-suspend-on-ring or, worst case, a pop-up pause button?
p.s…I agree with Erica; as is the case with Atom-based netbooks, iPhone and iPod touch apps are in a rapid ‘race to the bottom’. Plenty of advertising-supported (dynamically updateable advertising, to boot, courtesy of the hardware’s pervasive Internet connectivity options) free programs already exist on the App Store, and I expect them to dominate in fairly short order.