iPhone Gems: DoubleDragon + Fight Night Champion
Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems! Today, we’re looking at only two titles, but they each have big games: one’s a remake of the classic arcade game Double Dragon, and the other’s an iOS version of Electronic Arts’ popular console boxing title Fight Night. Both titles are only for the iPhone and iPod touch, but run in upscaled mode on the iPad.
There’s no question that Fight Night Champion is the easier of these titles to recommend, but some nostalgic 1980’s gamers may enjoy Double Dragon, too. Read on for all the details.
Only a handful of developers are capable of actually writing the software to create a believable 3-D boxing title for modern game consoles. Fewer still could also do justice to the ringside audio serious boxing fans would expect, and only one has corralled virtually every recognizable fighter into a single stable. EA Sports is the only company that can bring everything together in one title, which winds up meaning two things: first, Fight Night Champion ($5, version 1.01.21) is without question the most impressive realistic boxing game for iOS devices, and second, unless a scrappy little underdog competitor starts rising up the ranks, we might not see anything decisively better until EA releases a sequel.
It’s obvious that Fight Night Champion has a lot to offer. From the roughly 50 boxers EA gathered for the same-named console title, the company has selected 20 historically noteworthy boxers to choose from here, plus two fictitious boxers. Your selections are led off by the dream heavyweight match-up of Mike Tyson versus Muhammad Ali, but you can also choose from well-known welterweight, middleweight, and light heavyweight boxers such as Roy Jones Jr., Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Manny Pacquiao from the very start. Each has a 3-D modeled head with recognizable facial features, signature trunks and a signature punch, plus statistical ratings in a number of categories, reflecting power, speed of movement, agility, and resilience to head and body shots. The ringside announcer calls each man by name, with smooth voice samples that have no stilted “insert character here” pauses; the play-by-play and commentary are the strongest parts of the game’s audio portion.
Fight Night’s default play mode is a streamlined three-round, three-minute-per-round match that ends with a knockout, decision, or forfeit, but there’s also a “legacy” mode that lets you either rebuild the career of one of the named boxers or create your own. Essentially stripped of story details, each legacy mode presumes that you’re going to start with reduced statistics, take on low-ranked opponents before moving up to bigger and better fights—and stats—and basically take control of customizing your character. There’s no way to create a Tyson who’s actually capable of ending every fight in the first 30 to 60 seconds, but you can beef up his ability to take punches in longer bouts, or train George Foreman to move faster than Muhammad Ali. You can use your “legacy” character in one-off matches, too, and there’s local multiplayer mode for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth matches—sadly, without any online support.
Our impressions of Fight Night Champion’s gameplay are mixed, but generally positive. EA has borrowed the better parts of the control system from its earlier mixed martial arts title MMA by EA Sports, using tilt controls for your character’s movement and a mix of finger taps and swipes for punches, blocks, and special attacks. The screen is divided into four zones—upper left and right, lower left and right—for different arms and punch heights. Since Fight Night doesn’t provide any sort of on-screen confirmation of your movements, it takes a little time to get used to throwing different types of punches, blocking, clutching, and weaving around the ring, but most things quickly become natural; signature punches and low blows, requiring zig-zag swipes, are a little trickier to execute as desired, and could have benefitted from a little visualization. The pace and flow of the action winds up feeling more or less like real boxing, but without the extra “fun” Achilles’ Heel elements of games based on Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! franchise.
Also noteworthy are the game’s approaches to mid-round recovery and pre-fight training. Rather than forcing you to engage in mini-games or rapid-fire screen tapping, EA gives you the option to either automate these real-world parts of the boxing experience with a single button tap, or take more specific statistical control over allocated points to enhance your stamina, power, and other characteristics. It’s nice to see the company retain some of the realism of the sport here, without overwhelming players with unwanted rote activities.
Most likely because of the limitations of the earlier iOS devices it supports, Fight Night Champion is solid but not amazing in the graphics department—sort of like the Evander Holyfield of boxing games, technically superb but without much flair. The default ringside camera angle is bland, but you can and should choose an over-shoulder view that looks comparatively exciting; two other views are available, too. In any case, each knockdown triggers the dramatic close-camera, multi-angle instant replays from the console version of Fight Night, minus the bone-rattling facial animations and realistic splashes of sweat; both are sort of there, but not especially impressively recreated, while blood is basically gone. Multiple rings include recognizable venues, but most aren’t rendered so dramatically as to be visually exciting.
Similarly, though the characters have properly chiseled body models and look somewhat like their real-life counterparts, animating quite well, their faces are a little soft on detail; Iron Mike doesn’t look anywhere near as fearsome as he could given the game’s support for high-resolution Retina Display art. The grit and darkness of boxing found in the same-named console title have essentially been cleaned up for the iOS release. Your ability to create your own character, complete with quite a few head, body, and outfit customizations, is perhaps the biggest buried highlight of the game. And it should be said at this point that despite Fight Night Champion’s omissions, it still stands head and shoulders above other boxing titles in the App Store given the scope of what it does offer.
If you’re looking for a standout boxing game by iPhone and iPod touch standards, Fight Night Champion isn’t just the best realistic such title yet in the App Store; it’s also a great value for the initial $5 asking price. In our view, it will only seriously disappoint players who were expecting to see additional boxers, broader online multiplayer support, or a more visually responsive control scheme—any of which EA could conceivably add in a post-release update. That having been said, if you’re expecting to see the sparkling special effects, story content, or full roster of the console title, you’ll have to wait for a sequel or an update, neither of which has been announced yet. We’ll be on the edge of our seats waiting for news of either one. iLounge Rating: A-.
Though we had originally planned to review Fight Night Champion in a standalone review, we decided to pair it with DoubleDragon ($4, version 1.0)—Bow Mobile’s one-word remake of the classic 1987 Taito/Technos arcade game Double Dragon—for purposes of contrast. Both games are effectively about the same thing, namely guys fighting one another, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of execution. EA takes proper advantage of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware to produce a very competent and aesthetically impressive fighting game; Bow Mobile has created a cell phone-caliber experience that looks like it’s from a bygone generation, despite a number of upgrades.
The original Double Dragon was the inspiration for an untold number of gritty street fighting games, placing one or two people in control of 1980’s-styled tough guy brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee as they went off to rescue girlfriend Marian. All of the action was presented from a side-scrolling perspective, and controlled with an eight-direction joystick plus three buttons. Billy and/or Jimmy walked through urban settings, fought off waves of nearly mindless street punks using their fists, feet, and weapons, and encountered a bigger boss character before moving on to each new level. Virtually every successful fighting game thereafter borrowed at least a little of Double Dragon’s DNA, improving on everything from the graphics and sounds to the gameplay and depth; Capcom’s Final Fight and Street Fighter series, Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons games, and even a Neo-Geo one-on-one fighter with the Double Dragon name represented major improvements over the original title.
So to see the game revert to past form—with small characters, limited animation, little depth, and so-so sound effects—is a real disappointment from our perspective, even if the title feels like a modestly upgraded version of the original. Flat intermission scenes have been added with manga-styled artwork and goofy dialogue, doing a better job of filling the screen than the rest of the graphics, which have been crunched to make room for an oversized joystick and button bar at the bottom of the display. You can choose from three or four virtual buttons, though the three-button scheme of the original arcade game has been modified to eliminate separate punches and kicks in favor of attack, jump, and “D” modifier buttons; the four-button controls restore the individual punch and kick moves. A Bluetooth two-player simultaneous mode is included for friends who want to play together.
While everything’s been given a fresh coat of paint in the sense that the artwork’s all original, DoubleDragon feels like it grew from an early 16-bit arcade game into a mid-cycle 16-bit arcade game, rather than something significantly better. Characters are still small, including the bosses, and their animations are only modestly more ambitious than in the popular 8-bit NES translation of the title. The biggest distinction is the sheer number of objects on the screen at a given time, ranging from enemies to littered weapons and occasional hints of background animation, plus more common firework-style special effects that go along with punches and kicks. Music has also been reworked, here with significantly better instrumentation than was possible two decades ago, though the sound effects haven’t received much added attention.
Action is almost strictly of the button-mashing variety, requiring you to move your character onto the same flat line as an opponent before hitting an attack button, or pick up knives, containers, baseball bats, and whips to use for limited periods. They all have slight differences in handling, but it’s rare that you’ll do much better with an object than with your unusually long-ranged punches or kicks, which have been augmented with new special attacks—and the option to play as any character or boss you encounter. If the action was deeper, more interesting, or more fluid, that might have been exciting to us; for those who use the original game as a benchmark, it’s certainly an improvement. On the other hand, there is some new bonus stage content, including an oil drum-smashing level that lacks for the intensity of similar stages in Capcom fighting games, but at least has been added to lengthen the linear adventure.
Beyond what was mentioned above, two standout issues contributed to our less than favorable impression of this title. The developer seems to have either missed Apple’s prior lessons on user interface streamlining, or deliberately sought to extend the brief experience by dragging out dialog screens, as DoubleDragon is loaded up with more interruptions, text screens, and delays than almost any action game we’ve played on an iOS device. After black-screen waits to connect with Game Center, a screen of caveats about Game Center, the absence of a simple “press start” button, and a pre-game intermission sequence, Bow Mobile starts to interrupt the in-game action to brief you on the dangers of things like falling into pits. Imagine Super Mario Brothers stopping every time you first spot a power-up and you’ll have an idea of what DoubleDragon initially feels like. Even when the game gets moving, the pacing never seems as intense as in the original arcade game, and the developer obviously had over 20 years to improve on the formula rather than drag it down.
Overall, DoubleDragon is best understood as “fan service”—a title that isn’t bad but isn’t particularly good by modern standards, seemingly designed to appeal mostly to nostalgic players of the 1987 original. While the upgrades this title have received are non-trivial, they’re not impressive enough to elevate this much beyond Double Dragon’s 16-bit origins, and leave the title feeling almost as much like a cell phone game as a raw port would have. Our advice to Bow Mobile would be to use this 1.0 release as a starting point for a 1.1 upgrade, moving the Game Center plodding to the background, the extended explanation screens to a tutorial mode, and the controls to a more translucent alternative. While these changes wouldn’t fix all of what ails Double Dragon, they’d at least make the game easier to enjoy from moment one. iLounge Rating: C+.
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