An App Adventure

I’m an App virgin, which is not to say that I am completely oblivious to the kind of applications available to Apple iPhones, iTouches, iPads, iPencils, iLawnmowers and iRan-out-of-dears, but that as far as hands-on time goes, prior to about two weeks ago I had none.

It has been argued in some corners of the media that Apple products (particularly the iTouch and more recently the iPad) can stand shoulder to shoulder with the PSP and DS as a hand-held gaming platform. That statement had always interested me and with more and more developers seemingly jumping on the ever increasing App bandwagon it was the perfect time to dive in and start getting acquainted.

At this point it is probably best to point out that while I used an iPhone for my adventure into Apps, it’s probably only the iTouch that could fall fully into the medium of portable gaming considering the fairer (by comparison) cost to get one. Regardless of which product you choose you’ll still get the same basic object with the same basic capacity for App gaming. There will also be the clause in the user agreement where Steve Jobs is legally allowed to devour your soul to sustain his immortality, but that’s standard in all Apple products.

What first struck me when taking my first steps into the App Store is just how many there are. It’s been constantly reported how many hundreds of thousands of Apps there are and how many millions of downloads there are in a year. Breaking them up into types and then further separating them into paid and free columns helps, but it’s still very daunting.

I took refuge in the search tab first of all and decided to try my luck there. For no good reason I stuck ‘zombie’ into it to see what it found. Turns out there’s a few hundred Apps with something zombie related in the title. Should have known better. The undead get everywhere.

For a little while after that I took to randomly browsing each category in turn just to see what appeared to be the top free and paid Apps in each. In doing so I was exposed to some of the strangest programs I have ever seen. Two off the top of my head include a sex offender radius indicator and one for the ladies that just makes the device vibrate function go off non-stop (double thick screen protector recommended).

What’s also apparent after just a few minutes of looking for Apps is that there appears to be an awful lot of chaff. That’s the politest non-swearing way I could put that. However, the more time I spent browsing Apps the more I began to question just how those ratings and reviews worked. Quite frankly some of the negative reviews read like they had been typed by someone suffering severe head trauma, but conversely some of the five star reviews read like the worst kind of phony testimonials you’d find in a car insurance advert. I also got a hint of competition between similar Apps, though the gaming side didn’t seem quite as badly affected as, say, the financial related Apps.

What I needed was something simple – something that couldn’t be directly manipulated. The top twenty five selling Apps was the best I could hope for and from that I went in search of any games listed in it. There are of course many categories of App and there are some truly useful ones to be had, but gaming is the focus here and as such anything remotely productive has been ignored.

Really, everything prior to this has just been preamble before the main event. What follows is a brief summary of my experience with some gaming Apps and for some (if not all) there are so called ‘Lite’ versions. Apparently the word demo is too lowbrow for your average Apple customer.

There were some familiar names popping up in that top twenty five list. Two that caught my attention were PopCap games, the company that strives towards destroying your life via game addiction (if that isn’t their actual slogan it damn well should be). One of these two games, Peggle, I had already played on PC and was familiar with. The other was also on PC but had never really convinced me to try or buy.

Plants vs. Zombies. It had also appeared in my fun zombie search but I’d brushed over it. I knew of it, knew of the addictive quality present in it as with all PopCap games and as such tried very hard to avoid it. But there it was, staring at me in the top twenty five list just begging me to try the portable version and as a result it became the first game I tried.

DLC might have a lot to do with how good value I think that first purchase was. I’m sick of paying around £5-8 for half an hour of gameplay. Spending £1.59 and even just getting double that would be, in my opinion, a comparatively good deal. The fact I’ve been playing it for at least five hours has made it an astonishingly good deal. If you ignore the sleep deprivation and malnutrition I mean.

Given that Apple favours the single button design, it’s a little disorientating to do everything with your fingers on a touch screen. It’s nothing like using the DS though. In fact, after a few days playing a few games on my phone I went back to my DS and found myself trying to use gentle strokes and presses while playing and was frustrated when nothing registered. PvZ was a good way to ease in though as all you need to do is tap various points around the screen. The more daunting challenges were yet to come.

After successfully enjoying PvZ it was time to branch out a little, to see what the little contraption could really do with a gaming App unique to it that also needed a bit more interaction from my end than a single finger furiously poking at the screen like an animated Pillsbury dough boy was belly dancing on it.

Given that I’m quite fond of RPGs, I picked out a couple of those to try. The two that caught my attention were an exclusive MMO called IMO: The World of Magic and an old school 2D hack and slash called Zenonia. Both these titles presented the problem of getting used to a touch screen D-pad control style.

Holding your device landscape, your left thumb is required to control the software D-pad semi-transparent on screen while your other thumb is for activating skill short cuts or simply hitting the interact/attack button. Now, perhaps it’s just because my thumbs are particularly large and manly, but I did find this very cumbersome at times and often found my character going off in some direction different to what I was trying to make him do. However, once you get used to a very different style of playing it does get a little easier. A little.

Another slight issue was thrown up regarding menus, with some featuring very small writing and very small areas to tap on to upgrade points or move to another sub menu. These aren’t particularly down to the fault of the games or those who made them as they are working with a single small screen that needs to fit a lot onto it.

What was nice to see was how alive and vibrant the colours were. It might not be a huge screen but it certainly is high quality and for a typical RPG colour is very important. While IMO was very basic (you can’t expect more than that considering it’s free), Zenonia provides an excellent example of the kind of atmosphere the little rectangle can produce – even if I am adamant that it must have been made in a slightly newer version of RPG Maker 2000.

Further exploration into the games available also led me to the special release of The Secret of Monkey Island. Before trying it, I’d have figured it would be a very simple process to transfer an old school point and click style over to a touch screen. Where the first MI complicates things slightly is the old SCUMM interface and as a result a pointer you need to trail around the screen had to be used. This is very, very cumbersome at first and doesn’t feel smooth at all when you want to do some quick movements or interactions. The re-recorded dialogue is crisp, clear and a welcomed addition though, as is the slightly updated art.

As we reach the end of my little adventure into the world of gaming Apps there are a few honourable mentions that I’d like to throw in, as well as recapping the ones I have mentioned.

1. Plants vs. Zombies (£1.79): Defend against huge hordes of undead with various types of killer plant with the help of your neighbour, Crazy Dave. It’s more fun than it sounds. Apparently the portable version is quite scaled back additions wise compared to the more costly PC version.

2. IMO The World of Magic (Free): Free to play MMO, seems popular judging by how many people are running about. There is the option to pay in order to get some bonus items, access to certain features and to remove adverts.

3. Zenonia (£1.79): 2D slasher with RPG elements, very old school in its look and approach but surprisingly fun. Simple enough plot though – worked out ‘the twist’ purely from what was in the demo. There is also a Zenonia 2 available which is a re-working of the first that builds and improves upon it (most noticeably with easier to read and navigate menus).

4. The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition (£4.99): Probably still better off playing it on PC or similar, but for those of you without the option this would be a great way to play one of the best point and click games ever made.

5. Angry Birds (£0.59): Green pigs have stolen the eggs of some birds, which has naturally made them quite annoyed. With the birds ready and waiting inside a slingshot all you need to do is use your finger to aim and pull, in order to launch suicide attacks on forts made out of stone, glass and wood to kill the pigs hiding within.

6. Zen Bound (£1.79): Bizarrely peaceful addition to the Zen series where you move an object of some kind around in order to tie a rope on every surface while listening to some relaxing music.

7. ZombieSmash (£0.59): Grab zombies and smash them with your finger. A great way to get out some pent up aggression, but may also make others observing you believe that you are writing the angriest text message ever conceived.

8. Chaos Rings (£7.49): A late addition to this list, but important as it is an exclusive RPG by SquareEnix specifically for the App gaming market. Whether it’s worth the costly (by comparison) price to get I don’t know yet, but from what I’ve seen so far it may be substantial enough to warrant more than a one sentence recap or review, and is a good example of a large company taking notice of this format.

There are of course millions more Apps and I’m sure there are plenty of games I haven’t found yet that are as good as or better than some examples I’ve listed here. That’s part of the fun, I suppose. If ploughing through all the chaff to find the gems can be considered fun anyway. Throughout, though, it is hard not to fight the feeling that perhaps it all comes across as a short lived gimmick no matter what game you find for it and that the ‘proper’ hand-held platforms will always hold more value to a gamer. Big names might be paying attention to it, but with App prices being so low compared to other gaming formats I can’t see it being a big money spinner either.

To end with I’d just like to point out that it occurred to me while writing this that I would have had a far easier time navigating the App lists had I just used iTunes instead of committing myself to only using the actual device. Still, that would just be making it too easy wouldn’t it?

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Written by Ian D

Misanthropic git. Dislikes: Most things. Likes: Obscure references.


  1. Krazyface /

    Nice write up. I should tell you about an App called Pandoras Box though, thus gives you a list of apps on sale, brand new and free with an ‘as they’re released’ list which is updated every half hour. Since finding this app, I’ve only ever paid for games if I really have to, though it does have a funtion where you can add an app to a favorites list and it’ll alert you when it goes on sale. Also try Shift, Retro Shooter and Edge for so cool gaming on the iPhone.

  2. Krazyface /

    Sorry, that’s ‘Retro Fighter’ supposed to be, there’s also a very nifty little C64 simulator with a catalogue of free games availible for it. And while I’m here, might I suggest grabbing the iPhone’s version of Flashback from the SNES days. Like you said about the virtual D-pad it takes a little getting used to but it’s worth the nostalgia trip.

  3. Ian D /

    I’ll go take a look at more of those later, but I did look at Pandora’s Box and it does seem handy for keeping track of the new Apps and ones you’re interested in that go on offer.

  4. Kevin M /

    Nice article. You should also try Beneath a Steel Sky, and Broken Sword, which are good point & click adventures, N.O.V.A (an enjoyable FPS), Street Fighter 4, which does a good job at imitating it’s big brother, and GTA Chinatown Wars which although it has a few control issues, is a great little game. There’s plenty on the App Store for gamers and with Game Center (Xbox Live features) getting released this summer, and talk of a gaming control ‘cradle’ for iPhone, Sony & Nintendo better watch their backs!

  5. steven g /

    I think the iphone/Itouch platform is great if used right. Tilt controls are great as are touch controls used sparingly. The problem I have with the streetfighters and FPS games are that EVEN when the controls work (and they don’t always) you end up not bring able to see and enjoy half the game – why? Because your thumbs are covering half the screen.

    Also the Itouch/Iphone platform is not one single platform. There is a huge difference in performance between all the machines, but many of the ‘almost pspesque’ games only run well on the 16/32 gig Itouch and latest Iphones. The current bottom of the range Itouch (which is £150) is a lot slower.

    I think factors like these are rarely laid out in comparisons between the platforms. Take brothers in arms on the DS. It may be prettier on the Iphone, but the DS version is fluid and the fact you have two screens, means you can see and enjoy the game.

    I think the area where the Itouch/Iphone is a threat to Sony and Nintendo more than anything is the way it will affect price expectation for software. It will be interesting to see how Nintendo in particular (as Sony are already experimenting with digital download pricing) respond with the 3DS. Will it still mainly be a cartridge based platform, or will they suddenly leap and support online in a way Nintendo have failed to so far, with cartridges still being available for those who are not quite yet there with the whole downloading thing…

    • Krazyface /

      Having the 16gig iPhone, I can’t say I was aware there were issues on the other machines. As you and Kev both know, I’ve been deciding which platform to buy Peggle on. The iPhone version cost £1.79, where as the PSP mini iteration cost an in-your-face £6.29. The reason I was unsure of which one to get was how each machine ran said game, I wouldn’t mind paying extra if it ment smooth running but I think I’ll be going for the iPhone version. On the other side of the coin, I just recently bought Dark Void Zero from the DSi ware shop which cost 500 points (£5.00 I think) instead of the iPhone’s £1.79 offering. The reason for this was control issues, I’d much rather have a D-Pad for a platformer like that than use the iPhone’s virtua-pad. Kev’s got a point though, if the controller attachment for the iPhone works well, then Sony and Ninty are gonna have to re-think their pricing strategys.

      • steven g /

        agreed! I think that ultimately there will be a range of prices on the new DS, the PSP etc. Its no coincidence that many Ipad games carry a much higher price than their iphone/touch bretheren. So perhaps they will all meet in the middle?

        The game controller attachment won’t make massive in roads unless its a default option .

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