iPod Gaming: Great Idea, Good AV, Bad Controls | iLounge Article


iPod Gaming: Great Idea, Good AV, Bad Controls

Years before I became involved with iPods and iLounge - more than ten years ago, actually - I founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Internet’s first real video games publication, which was ultimately turned into a print magazine and purchased by Ziff-Davis Publishing. Games were my personal passion before iPods even existed, and to this day, our Backstage page features some game-related coverage, mostly for handheld systems. So when Apple reportedly began some time ago to seek out game developers for iPod games, I was naturally excited: could the company possibly revolutionize gaming in the same way that it transformed the music industry?

Yesterday, Apple released new fifth-generation iPod firmware that enables these iPods, and presumably future models, to play “real” games; not the black and white or simple color titles we’ve been seeing for years on earlier iPods, but rather full-color, high frame-rate, and music-accompanied games that could at least approximate the experiences had by owners of Nintendo and Sony handhelds. Several outside developers have released software alongside Apple, resulting in an initial slate of nine games: Vortex and Texas Hold ‘Em by Apple, Tetris, Mini Golf, and Mahjong by Electronic Arts (EA), Bejeweled and Zuma by PopCap Games, Cubis 2 by Fresh Games, and Pac-Man by Namco. Though the titles aren’t awesome - Apple’s generally tone-deaf when it comes to picking great software - the idea of a store for iPod games is a great idea, and one that will no doubt blossom as further titles are added to the collection.

Naturally, a couple of iLounge’s editors have spent time checking out some of the iPod games, and our initial conclusions are these: first, from an audiovisual standpoint, the iPod has great potential as a gaming platform. It’s clear that the video chip in the iPod can create better-than-cell phone quality visuals - quite a few steps below Sony’s PlayStation Portable, but at least on par with, and quite possibly better than Nintendo’s past-generation Game Boy Advance. Though there’s no way to output the iPod games to a TV screen - a shame, and one that would give the iPod an instant advantage over existing handhelds - the device’s 320x240 screen clearly shows individual pixels and thereby details in artwork, which when used by the right developers can lead to clean redesigns of older titles such as Tetris, or bland but arcade-accurate presentations of older titles such as Pac-Man. Three-dimensional text and graphic effects are also available to developers in a Macromedia Flash level of quality, while brightness settings are adjustable by the user.

The iPod also plays back music during the games that is acceptable by current-generation standards - remixes of classic Tetris songs are found in Tetris, while Vortex has its own original techno-style soundtrack. Of course, iPod library-style access to your music within each game would be great, though probably more challenging on the iPod’s battery, RAM, and hard disk. Apple’s only real audio problem here is that that everything needs to go through the iPod’s headphone port - unlike Nintendo and Sony handhelds, the iPod lacks a speaker, and can’t play back music.

However, history has demonstrated rather conclusively that audiovisual horsepower isn’t the driving force behind the success of a handheld console; fun, easy to play games and low hardware/software price points are the key. And it’s here that the iPod delivers mixed results, primarily because of its Click Wheel controls. It’s obvious that Apple has been struggling with mapping classic joystick-style controls to the Wheel, because classic titles like Tetris and Pac-Man just don’t feel right. One would think that these games would be easy to translate: press “up” on the Click Wheel to make Pac-Man go up, or use the rotating touch-surface of the Wheel to make Tetris blocks rotate, but the iPod’s controls are all backwards. You move Tetris blocks by scrolling and press the buttons to rotate the blocks. Because the touch surface moves Pac-Man, the game requires an on-screen picture of a joystick to show you which direction you’re currently positioned in.

In simple terms, this is bad control design. There’s something wrong when a one-joystick, no button, 1980-vintage game like Pac-Man becomes hard to play on a device that has up, down, left, and right buttons. And it’s rendered worse by the fact that developers could easily have added multiple control schemes for each game, just as they do on handhelds and full-sized game consoles. Could a joypad-style game accessory with integrated speakers be in the works?

On some of the iPod’s new games, such as Vortex, control isn’t as big of a problem. Apple has essentially redesigned Breakout (aka Brick) as a 3-D title, letting you break walls by shooting a ball down into a 3-D well with circular walls. Moving the block-busting paddle is just like the original arcade game Tempest, smooth and easy with the touch-sensitive pad, and you don’t technically need buttons to enjoy the game at all. Vortex’s good looks are bolstered by some subtle 3-D effects and decent audio, leading to a much better overall gaming experience - the sort we expect will be more common on the iPod going forward.

There’s one other interesting thing about these iTunes-vended games: their prices. We don’t have an issue with the across-the-board $4.99 pricing for really great classic games, and think that many casual players will be willing to spend that much for mainstay titles such as Texas Hold ‘Em no matter how good or bad they are. But looking broadly at the marketplace, it’s obvious that the iTunes Store (and thus, the iPod) has none of the superstar titles people would want, from any of the world’s best developers. Right now, the iPod looks more like the eMusic of gaming than, well, iTunes, and that’s bad news for any serious gamer looking to use the iPod as a Game Boy/Nintendo DS/Sony PSP replacement. Great developers are key to making great games, and Apple should open the floodgates to iPod game developers soon - a Software Development Kit and some specs would rapidly make the iPod a superior gaming platform.

If you like Apple’s idea but don’t like the games, you’ll obviously have other options. Nintendo plans an iTunes-like Virtual Console service for its Wii game console; titles will likely eventually be downloadable for the Nintendo DS or a successor platform, as well. And Sony is planning to make many of its original PlayStation games available as paid downloads for its PSP game platform in the near future, a very similar idea. Apple may be one of the first out of the gate with a game download store for a handheld multimedia device, but further tweaks are necessary to make the iPod the truly superb gaming platform it needs to be to compete with the big boys.

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I don’t know if I like this development. Shouldn’t the iPod be focused on being a great music and video player? Do we really need to play games on it? The fact that PSP tried to be too much devices in one was one of the most criticised aspects of the handheld. Is Apple repeating Sony’s mistakes?

Posted by beto75 in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 13, 2006 at 4:10 PM (CDT)


“Of course, iPod library-style access to your music within each game would be great, though probably more challenging on the iPod’s battery, RAM, and hard disk.”

I don’t know about the other games, but in Texas Hold ‘Em, you have the option to play the in-game music or continue playing whatever you were listening to before. The Play/Pause, Previous, and Next buttons are still used for music playback while the scroll wheel is used for the gaming controls. I love the fact that I can listen to, and control, my own music library while still hearing the game’s sound effects. I think the graphics, gameplay, and features of Texas Hold ‘Em are outstanding. At $4.99, it’s not meant to replace the PSP or Nintendo DS and their $40 games. These are just meant to be played when you have a few minutes to spare. I have only played the one iPod game so far, but I think the $4.99 price was a pretty good value.

Posted by Muero in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 13, 2006 at 5:05 PM (CDT)


Congratulations on enjoying Bejeweled. But knock off the “get over it” attitude. We’re not talking about FPS or simulation games here, we’re talking about arcade and Gameboy ports from 1980 and 1989 - titles way below the iPod’s capabilitities, and not even visually in the same league as some of the other games released this week.

The point of the article was simple: the games look and sound fine but the controls aren’t where they need to be - right now. Expecting games like Pac-Man and Tetris from 1980 and 1989 to play properly on a 2005-vintage piece of consumer electronics isn’t “high expectations.” To the contrary, that’s “very low expectations” - cell phones play them better.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 15, 2006 at 11:26 PM (CDT)


Jeremy, I think you may be asking too much of the iPod, at least with regards to the control scheme.

Like Allister said, sure, they could have made the controls based on the buttons instead of the wheel, but after using my 5G for quite some time now, I really can’t see those buttons holding up to rapid gaming presses. I completely agree that using the up, down, left, and right buttons would, indeed, seem more intuitive, but I know I’d be wary about playing Pac-Man that way for an hour.

I see all of these devices trying to be the ‘be-all’ device. Frankly, unless we get some serious battery life breakthroughs, there’s no way in heck I want my game machine, MP3 player, and cell phone all in one. What if I listen to music too long, and now I can’t make even emergency calls? Or on a smaller scale, say I play a game on my iPod for a while (I’m not sure on its gaming battery life), the battery’s gone, and now I have to drive home with no music. Having different devices, designed for different things, with seperate batteries really makes a lot more sense, at least to me, than having a single battery powering a single device, having it run out, and losing the functionality of two or more devices at one time.

I say let the iPod play music, and a cheap show or two. That brings me to another point, where I can’t understand someone paying $9.99 for a low resolution version of a movie with no extras and complete copy protection, but I don’t need to start on that. Buy a PSP or DS for gaming, buy a cell phone, and buy an iPod. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that anything on the market now can do it all better than seperate specialized devices, and don’t whine to me and claim that it’s ‘inconvenient’ to carry around more than one device, or that you can’t justify the cost. Apple’s going beyond the call of duty (rather, they want more money) adding games at all, and your response proves that people’s expectations from here out may prove more than Apple bargained for.

I don’t want to be snide, but honestly now: if you really have a hankering for 1980’s games, don’t kid yourself into thinking the iPod is the best, or even a very reasonable, option. Buy yourself a Game Boy Advance (don’t worry, they’re cheap!) and play games on a system designed to handle them.

Posted by animasaki in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 17, 2006 at 4:45 AM (CDT)


I realise the controls of some of these games seems strange at first, but after a few turns you settle in and get used to it. I don’t think there is any problem, though obviously a device would benefit from a controller designed for gaming. Even pac-man is fine once you’ve played a dozen games.

Posted by Countach in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 20, 2006 at 10:19 AM (CDT)


So, I downloaded Pac Man last night and didn’t read any instructions, but instead just started to play. I’m glad I did, because otherwise I would have gotten really irritated with the controls and given up immediately. What I found was that if you just tap (don’t click) in the desired direction, Pac Man will move in that direction—-no wheel rotation needed.

The rest of the points in this article are well taken, though I still can’t help but think of any non-music application on the ipod as kind of gimmicky (with the possible exception of music videos) in the same way that music on a PSP is gimmicky.

Posted by BAN1 in East Amherst, NY, USA on September 22, 2006 at 2:04 PM (CDT)

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