iOS: Not the Next Game Boy

Browsing the Internet is a huge part of writing this column. Although I rarely write about a game I have never played, I rely on the Internet to supply me with all the incredibly useless trivia that often makes it into this column. While browsing, it is nearly impossible to escape the infinite stream of advertisements that bombard you from every corner of the screen… but I’ve recently seen a string of ads from a campaign that has made me begin to lose what little hope I had for the future of the once-noble gaming industry. Did you know that Apple once made a next-generation game system, with advanced graphics and 3D rendering capability? Yes, in 1995, Apple produced the ill-fated “Pippin,” one of the worst game systems to ever throw its hat in the ring with competitors like the N64 and PlayStation. And did you further know that Apple now makes a next-generation game system, with advanced graphics and 3D rendering capability? I certainly didn’t, but I can tell you that it probably belongs in the same dustbin as the Pippin.

This mystery system, which Apple has been recently hyping up as the killer newcomer to a market of wastrel handhelds, is surprisingly none other than the new iPhone 4S. To a serious gamer, the claim that an iPhone could actually rival such hardened competitors as the Sony PSP and Nintendo (3)DS is almost laughable, but Apple has been going all-out, touting the iPhone’s gaming experience as “great” and “realistic,” and third parties have gone so far as to make controller-shaped attachments for the iPhone, and even miniature arcade enclosures for the iPad. Are we, as gamers, going to have to take the iOS devices seriously after all?

Honestly, I really think not… and I say that for two reasons. First, the iPhone & co. have terrible control interfaces. A user does not truly control an iOS device; rather, they guide it in the direction that they want it to go using a series of quick and elegant finger gestures. As a phone, a PDA, and a media center, that model works quite well—creating a sense of flow and balance that makes navigation a breeze. All this fluidity, of course, comes at the price of few physical buttons… and that’s the rub for gaming. Buttons are an absolutely universal necessity for gaming. Even the Nintendo Wii, which has been accused over and over of focusing on motion control-based gimmicks instead of solid gamplay, has real buttons. And, if you think about it logically, it requires physical buttons. It would be nearly impossible to have to look at the controller to determine button input while tilting the Wii remote up, down and around—instead, the gamer feels around for a second, identifies a bump that they know is the “A” button, and can press it without fear of a miss. On an iPhone, however, nonphysical “buttons” either have to be overlaid (taking up precious space on the 3.5” screen), or omitted completely, thereby making the gamer rely entirely on motion control gimmicks for their gameplay experience. It just doesn’t work.

Second, iOS devices have a library of games that simply don’t compete with their proposed rivals, the 3DS and PSP. What are the staple games of the DS, for instance? New “Super Mario Bros.,” “Mario 64 DS,” “Zelda: Phantom Hourglass,” and “Pokémon” are a good start. How about iOS devices? “Angry Birds,” “Fruit Ninja,” “Tetris,” and “Tap Tap Revenge”—that’s not just me saying that, either: those names come straight from the list of the most popular games on the iTunes store. Now, to be clear, I’m not criticizing any of these games individually. “Angry Birds” is extremely addictive, and I couldn’t put it down until I had beaten all levels in one sitting. “Tetris” is a classic—the game almost single-handedly responsible for the early popularity of Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989. None of these games, however, have any depth or story. They have limited replayability, simple mechanics, easy control, and, honestly, are about as engaging as tiddlywinks or a marble maze… games that existed long before the advent of electricity, much less the iPhone. They’re the types of games that you enjoy once, and then set aside, like a magazine or a thriller movie. They just don’t offer the depth, challenge, story, or mechanics necessary for them to compete with 3DS and PSP titles. Certain developers like Sega have tested the waters by releasing classic platformers on the iPhone, such as Sonic 2 and Sonic 4, but even then, the games don’t play properly without a D-pad to mash and an A-button to tap.

Thus, the best that can be said for the iPhone is… it’s a game system. Not necessarily a good game system, but a game system nonetheless. Apple would do well to keep on working—perhaps the minds smarter than ours at Cupertino can develop an innovative way to solve their control issues and sign some big-name developers. Until then, however, gamers might want to consider just who really has their core interest at heart before they shell out $300 for an iPhone 4S this Christmas.

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