The opening of Apple’s iPhone App store is a depressing demonstration of how much imagination the assembled developers don’t have. There are lots of re-implementations of old standards like Tetris. There are a gazillion to-do list applications, and a gazillion-plus-one Sudoku collections, which will I guess be handy if the world’s magazine stands and airport bookstores succumb to Dalek invasion. There are half-assed social networking things which will let you broadcast mindnumbing trivia about your day to everyone you know, but only if you get your fifty closest friends to use the same system. There’s even a little application to make it look as though your phone is a glass of beer, and it tilts when you tip it. Ha ha ha. I mean, I suppose if I were a developer for the iPhone I’d probably write some dumb prank applications for it too, but I’d like to think I would then have the sense not to market them. It’s a little sad how high a proportion of the offerings fall into that category.
However. There are also a small handful of items that make me think, the way the Wii did, that I’m encountering a genuinely new set of game possibilities.
The accelerometer is the big selling point here. One of the best demonstrations I’ve found so far — not of the accelerometer’s subtlest behavior, but of its ability to transform game mechanics — is the freeware module “Aurora Feint”. Aurora Feint offers some fantasy-RPG trappings around a series of quests that you can accomplish by playing a Match-3 game.
That doesn’t sound like a description of anything I want to play, ever. Blocks enter from the bottom of the screen, and you swap them to make combinations of three. Blocks fall back down when there’s nothing beneath them. If a stack reaches the top edge of the screen, you lose. So far, so uninventive. But “down” is negotiable! Turn the screen and the blocks fall in a different direction. Slam layers together. Tip blocks into one another to form combinations.
What’s amazing is how intuitive this becomes after a little while — enough that you start thinking of new ways to interact with it, and they turn out to work. On one mode of the game, you’re not just trying to match any blocks; you’re specifically trying to maximize your combinations of certain colors, and you have a limited amount of time in which to do it. The hard part here is that you don’t always get enough components on the screen in the time available. But if you shake the phone a few times, you can rattle a few extra rows onto the screen before they were due to show up — providing more building materials. This isn’t a technique that the game explains: it’s just there, a natural and discoverable piece of the game-physics at work.
“Aurora Feint” is not a perfect piece of design, especially when it comes to the RPG aspects. With enough match-3, you are supposed to level up and gain new abilities, mostly to do with controlling the clock and making more powerful combinations (at least as far as I’ve discovered so far). But the tutorial is a little opaque, and though I’ve now supposedly constructed several magical tools to help me in my quest for match-3 dominance, I don’t see how to use them.
Still, it’s a nifty object lesson. Miserably weary, overused game mechanic + new platform capabilities = interesting again.
The only game my last phone could play was Snake.