iPhone gaming: party like it’s 1983

David Braue
16 July, 2009
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So, there I was, just minding my own business and perusing the online news, when it jumped out at me: Archon, a 1983-vintage classic from Apple’s earliest days and one of Electronic Arts’ foundation success stories, has been ported to the iPhone. And, if I had had more than $2 in my iTunes account, I would have snapped it up in a second.

I have a particular affinity for Archon, since far too much of my adolescence was spent listening to scratchy computer-generated squawks and squeaks emanating from the Apple ][‘s speakers as I tried to pummel my virtual opponents into dust. Ahhhh, nostalgia.

Perhaps you had to be there, but the point is that now, you can. And the even bigger point is that, unlike the short-lived and difficult-to-find Windows port of Archon that was authored and disappeared some time ago – or newer community-built efforts such as Archon: Evolution – the introduction of Archon into the App Store is not only giving it new life, but a sort of permanence and immediacy that reflects one of the very nice things about the whole iPhone ecosystem.

If someone wants Archon, they can now buy it and start playing it, from anywhere, in seconds. And it looks good, very good (from the screenshots, at least). A favourite game, successfully modernised.

Archon isn’t the only classic game rearing its head on the iPhone; in fact, a huge number of recent releases are now making the shift to everybody’s favourite smartphone. Just in the past few weeks we’ve had expanded versions of Dig Dug, Galaga and Doom; a remake of Space Ace that’s every bit as gorgeous (and frustrating) as the 1983 original; a complete port of Myst; and even Boulderdash, that old favourite from the days when the Apple //gs and Commodore 64 were considered cutting-edge.

There’s Wolfenstein 3D Classic (a remake of the ’90s remake of the original ’80s version), Centipede, Atari Football, Missile Command, Super Breakout, and others. Heck, even Zork made it to the iPhone courtesy of text-based adventure platform Frotz. That one actually comes off as a bit awkward as it relies on the iPhone’s keyboard (you’ll see ‘that’s not a verb I recognise’ more than you want to), but hey – full marks for the effort.

Yes, if there were ever a sign that the iPhone has become a mainstream gaming platform, this is it: that studios see enough potential in it that they’re dredging up the old favourites and giving them a bit of a brush and a shave before unleashing them to an unsuspecting world of new gamers. And it’s clearly meeting their expectations: new ports continue to appear every day (many with $7.99 pricetags that seem quite a bit too high) and early tentative toe-dipping has been replaced with a full-fledged iPhone onslaught as companies including Freeverse, ’80s arcade giant Capcom and original Archon studio Electronic Arts all commit themselves to large-scale iPhone game production.

And so they should. Because Apple has already made it clear that third-party emulators, which for years have allowed the nostalgic to enjoy old games on new computers, won’t be allowed on the iPhone, as they are on Nokia and other handsets. From a gamer’s perspective, this is a shame: it’s already possible to get emulators for most of the classic computers you grew up with, and games are also widely available online. They can look jaggy and rough on a big screen, but I suspect they’d soar on the small-screen iPhone.

I have no idea what portion of the 65,000 App Store offerings now available consist of rehashed classic games, but the fact that they’ve been big hits in past lives can’t hurt their chances this time around. And, I presume, their development costs are lower since their structure and flow are already well-defined. It’s the same on every platform: even Nintendo, which we can safely presume won’t be porting Super Paper Mario or even Donkey Kong to the iPhone any time soon, sells downloadable versions of classic games to Wii users.

With Apple observing the 1.5 billion downloads milestone this week, the presence of familiar titles like these retro games will further strengthen the platform’s credentials as a gaming platform – and provide the opportunity for developers to rake through games of old and cherry-pick the winners for a new life. In so doing, they’re repopulating the pantheon of classic games, and setting the terms by which new, iPhone-only games must differentiate themselves.

The new classics? But is it all about reliving the guts and glory, about helping these long-languishing titles reassert themselves in the gaming world? Not necessarily.

These games may be successfully trafficking in nostalgia to convince people to click ‘buy’, but just because they can be ported to the iPhone doesn’t mean they’re going to replicate their earlier success. For example, I tried the new version of Dig Dug and found its onscreen virtual thumbpad to be ponderous, difficult and inaccurate. A few rounds into the game, I had had enough of nostalgia and was becoming critical of an adaptation that had been hopelessly limited by the substandard gaming controls.

Playing Dig Dug in the arcade 25 years ago, it was all about furiously whipping the joystick left and right, up and down, and slamming on the button to partially inflate all manner of baddies as the pace accelerated from frenetic to insane. Using arrow and other keys with conventional desktop ports was a good compromise since keyboards are responsive and durable – but try something similar on your iPhone, and you’re likely to throw the thing across the train.

Ditto Doom Resurrection: by all accounts, the game is, well, not bad. But putting a first-person shooter – nay, the first-person shooter – on rails is antithetical to the very 3D freedom that made Doom such an utterly groundbreaking game. I understand what iD Software was doing, but even giving Doom Resurrection the same name as its forebears is setting the game up for difficulties from the start. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and rarely lives up to expectations; when it’s limited by the capabilities of the new platform to which it has been ported, well, it’s just a shame.

So, while all this retro gaming is appealing at first, I wonder whether these tried-and-true titles are going to win out in the long term. Will the iPhone become yet another platform for rehashing classic games, or in the long-term will it be standout games that were designed for the iPhone – such as Rolando and Flight Control – that will become the next generation of classics?

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