Apple gets back in the gaming business

Alex Kidman
23 July, 2008
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Rather subtly, in the middle of a crowded week and a somewhat overhyped launch, Apple managed to sneak a few other products out the door. One of them marks the company’s first successful foray into the portable gaming market. Heck, I’ll go further than that. It marks the company’s first push with a computing device capable of playing cutting-edge games since the Apple II.

I’m talking, of course, about the iPhone 3G. Take a quick look at the 25 most popular Apps in the App Store, and you’ll find casual games taking the top spots more often than not. As I write this, seven of the top ten Apps are all games — and I could stretch that to eight if I tried to claim that iBeer was a game. I’d certainly argue it’s not much of a productivity application.

Now, I doubt that the extremely rich folk who run Nintendo are quaking in their boots right now, but for Apple this is largely new territory. For far too long, Mac gaming fans have had to exist on a diet that consisted largely of game ports — many of which, like Fable, were well worth waiting for — but precious little original fare that took advantage of the platform per se. Some might say that’s because the Mac market wasn’t game-centric to speak of, and while there might have been the case historically, with the widening base of Mac users, its arguably not the case now. The iPhone 3G — or, more specifically, the iPhone/iPod Touch 2.0 software update — represents this new playing field for Apple, and, by opening up iPhone development so widely, it’s a playing field that’s open for many.

In any case, I’ve been spending a happy fortnight (more or less) testing out some of the best the App Store has to offer. As yet, there’s not a lot in the free gaming arena that’s truly outstanding — I mean, porting Adventure to the iPhone 3G is a technical achievement to be sure, but I don’t think too many people were really clamouring for it. Tap Tap Revenge is somewhat cool in a Guitar Hero lite kind of way, although it’d be worth real money if you could get it to work with your iPhone’s music tracks rather than the supplied tracks.

On the paid side, Monkey Ball is exactly just as cool as the WWDC Keynote made it out to be, although it’s worth noting that if you have indulged in one too many iBeers (or you’re on a bumpy bus ride) its absolute use of the accelerometer can prove its undoing.

So what’s my pick of the current crop? I’m so very glad (and flattered) that you asked. Despite loading up an iPhone 3G with perhaps a few too many productivity destroyers, I find myself currently coming back to one game, over and over again. It’s a title that’s not currently in the top 25 applications (although it has hovered, on and off, in the lower reaches): Zen Pinball: Rollercoaster.

Now, I’ll admit here that I’m something of an aberration amongst games journalists. Many of them decry pinball as dull, tedious stuff — sometimes because they argue that the videogame equivalent can’t replicate the crack of ball on glass, or the feel of putting your 20c down for the next game while you down your next beer. They’re not entirely wrong there — although at least in Rollercoaster’s case, the inevitable fingerprint smudges on the screen do serve as a nice nostalgic callback to some of the grubbier tables of my youth. Other games reviewers see Pinball as old hat, yesterday’s news. But these are invariably the folk who just don’t get the fun of chasing a high score, keeping a ball alive for as long as possible and surviving the insanity of most multi-ball modes.

I’ve been a pinball fan for a long, long time, and I’ve played a lot of the videogame equivalents, including Zen’s previous effort, Pinball FX for the Xbox 360. The pedigree in Rollercoaster is pretty evident; like Pinball FX, the ball physics are quite fluid — you may initially find them even to be a little fast, although they’ve compensated for that with a somewhat generous kickback period, so that if you lose your ball too fast, it’ll shoot back up again for you to continue play.

One thing that developer Zen has nailed — and that’s vital for a casual, portable game such as this — is making it easy to pause; you simply tap the middle of the screen. Otherwise, controls are as simple as tapping each side of either the bottom or top half of the screen to control the flippers, as well as mild tilting from the accelerometer to affect the ball’s movement.

There’s certainly a lot of room for other tables — and given Zen’s developed another four for the 360, I’d be surprised if it stopped at only one — but for the price of a beer and a single tilt at a real table (or, in real money, $5.99), Zen Pinball: Rollercoaster comes highly recommended. Now, if I could only work out a way to line up 20c pieces along the edge of the iPhone 3G …

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