A Third Handheld Competitor, You Say? Madness!

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I am fully aware that in most hardcore gaming circles, announcing that you believe a phone can be a truly capable gaming device will get you roughly the same type of odd stare as if you announced that you thought the box containing the pizza was just as tasty as the round pepperoni-covered treat within.

Here I stand before you, however, ready to face your odd stares (yes, I can feel them through the Internet – I’m special that way) and announce that I think a phone can be a capable gaming device.

In fact, I’m going to do one better.

I think that the iPhone can provide a satisfying gaming experience on par with or better than the PSP or the DS.

There, I said it. Now let me explain.

The key to this madness lies in understanding that all of these various devices have their strengths and weaknesses.

The PSP is a powerful little bugger. It’s essentially a PS2 in a much smaller container that you can hold in your hands. Its software catalog is a bit lacking and it doesn’t provide you with many experiences you can’t get elsewhere, but it does have some nifty titles and a lot of power in a portable form.

The DS has a much larger selection of titles and an interface that provides for experiences that can’t be had elsewhere, giving you a reason to play even if you don’t travel often. On the downside, it’s lacking in power and most games available for it don’t do much to show off the true potential of its innovative interface.

I fully believe that the iPhone carves out its own little niche in the gaming world that makes it just as viable a competitor as either of these two other systems. It may not provide the depth of gameplay or keep you hooked for as long as its rivals, but that’s why it works – it does something different and it does it well.

Perhaps its greatest asset is simply the fact that, unlike the other portable consoles, you’ll likely have your iPhone with you wherever you go. This makes it maybe even the ultimate portable gaming platform, as it provides a fully capable gaming experience wherever you happen to be without you even having to remember to lug around a separate gadget.

It should be noted that this is less true of the iPod Touch, of course, which is just as capable of a gaming machine, but lacks some of the natural convenience of its phone counterpart.

Why the iPhone works so well as a gaming device is simply that the whole experience revolves around its portability and its constant connection to the Internet.

Most of the games might be more simple than what you’d find elsewhere, but they work fantastically for small, pick-up-and-play chunks, which is exactly what you want on a phone. They’re also much cheaper on the whole (you’ll almost never pay more than $10 for a game, and most are $5 or less) so the simplicity is far more acceptable. If you dig around, it’s more than possible to find a game for under $10 that gives more gameplay value than something you would have bought for $30 on the DS or $40 on the PSP.

Additionally, since the iPhone is connected to the Internet at all times, whether that be through a Wi-Fi connection or the cell phone data network, it facilitates the ultimate in impulse buying (especially when you combine its ever-present net connection with cheap game prices). Simply browse the App Store and download a new game – from just about anywhere – right onto your phone and immediately begin playing it. It’s incredible how addicting this becomes, especially when there’s so much good stuff to play.

Interestingly, both the PSP and DS are putting forth efforts in the area of instant purchase, downloadable impulse buys, but neither comes anywhere close to what’s already available on the iPhone. The PSP Go will bring the ability to download full games to the platform, but their larger file sizes, the higher price of the device, and the lack of much interesting to play all hold it back. The DSi now has a download service of its own, but let’s not mince words here – it sucks. Nintendo has a lot of work to do here.

I’m not arguing that the iPhone is a perfect platform. No gaming device is. Like any successful platform such as the DS, Wii, or PS2, the iPhone has its fair share of crap cluttering the App Store. The fact that there’s no easy way to find the best stuff in the store right now is a shortcoming indeed, as most of my gaming finds are discovered with the help of external sites. Also, like its innovative gaming peers the DS and Wii, many titles try to cram experiences or control types that just aren’t suited for its lack of buttons and the titles that truly take advantage of the platform are somewhat rare.

Still, the iPhone’s focus on control via only touch screen and motion sensors is far from a detriment. Even I was skeptical at first, but the lack of options forces developers to be creative and, when approached correctly, can make for some innovative and fun experiences literally not possible on any other platform. Sure, there’s plenty of titles that resort to a virtual D-Pad (not all of which are bad, mind you), but there are others which use multi-touch, creative touch screen controls, tilt controls, or some of these combined, to make titles that wouldn’t work anywhere else.

Of course, the most important part of any gaming platform is its library of games. No matter how much I try to convince you that the iPhone should be taken seriously, none of it is going to mean anything until I can prove that its great features and convenience are also backed up by things you’d actually want to play.

With that in mind, keep an eye out for many more iPhone game reviews here in the future. I already have a number of them written and ready to go, and many more I want to write after that. I am anxious to prove to non-believers that we have a true contender on (or rather, in) our hands.

It may be different, it may be easy to dismiss as too “casual” or too simple, and it certainly isn’t perfect, but I’ve had more fun and spent more time gaming on my iPhone recently than my PSP and DS combined. Hopefully more people will see the light as I do someday.


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2 Comments

Filed under Technology, Video Games

2 responses to “A Third Handheld Competitor, You Say? Madness!

  1. “It should be noted that this is less true of the iPod Touch, of course, which is just as capable of a gaming machine, but lacks some of the natural convenience of its phone counterpart.”

    *Ahem*

    I’ve got to disagree with you on this bit. I carry my Touch around with me all the time – that thing is more important to me than my actual phone.

    And after spending an entire semester in which the entirety of my gaming was done on the platform, I can say with utmost certainty that some sort of controller peripheral would be a good thing. It wouldn’t be very difficult for developers to program for it – a decent percentage of the games already have multiple control schemes anyway.

    If that happened, of course, the trick would then be to not forget the little bugger.

  2. I didn’t really mean to downplay the iPod Touch in any sense other than its lack of a cell phone data network which, I would imagine, is an occasional frustration depending on what you’re doing with it. Other than that i would imagine that it’s a wonderfully capable device that’s basically funtionally equivalent to the iPhone. I should have been a little clearer on that point, but that’s really all I meant. Having the Internet with you wherever you are is fantastic and the iPod Touch suffers a bit from that, but that’s all I meant.

    I agree on one hand that a controller would be nice. The iPhone/Touch is such a capable gaming platform that it would be nice to see a more standardized, traditional way to control games.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s going to happen and the more I think about it the less sure I am that I want it to.

    First of all, it would have to be standardized, meaning either Apple would have to make it or a whole bunch of developers would have to agree to support just one third party solution, both of which seem unlikely.

    Second, as much as part of me wants to see one, I don’t think a controller would play to the iPhone’s strengths. Having a bulky controller slapped on it would put it in the same category of device as my DS and PSP, more or less, and sort of work against the phone’s best elements – the pick-up-and-play nature and the fact that it’s with you wherever you are. Having to remember and play with a controller sort of defeats some of the point. I’d almost rather developers learn to work within its limitations better, rather than develop a controller.

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