Chaos Rings: an iPhone game review

I’m not a super hardcore gamer. I don’t spend any time in MMORPGs, I’m not on any XBOX Live leaderboards, and I’m able to balance my interest in playing video games with other things like work and family. (When something’s gotta give, that something is, invariably and rightly, playing video games.)

And yet, I guess I’m a pretty serious gamer. I’ve been into video games since I first got an Atari 2600 in 1982. I’ve been collecting both vintage and modern games since I had a resurgence of interest in 2002, and I now count among the game systems I own: Panasonic Tournament 2000 (a mid-’70s Pong-style console), Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, Intellivision, NES, GameCube, XBOX, Wii, XBOX 360, Sega Game Gear, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. And all told, across those systems I own a total of around 500 games. And, oh yeah, there’s the iPhone. But… is the iPhone a game system or not?

I’ve explored this issue before, and come to the conclusion that not only is it a game system, but it’s arguably superior to the Nintendo DS, at least in two key ways: 1) its technical capabilities, and 2) its portability. To paraphrase Chase Jarvis, the best game system is the one you have with you.

The iPhone’s technical capabilities far outshine those of the Nintendo DS (the main strength the DS has working in its favor is its physical controls), and it also has the big advantage of the fact that I’m far more likely to have it with me at any given time than my DS, even considering how much more often I carried the DS with me before I had an iPhone.

Since I got the iPhone, I’ve spent far more time playing games on the iPhone than on all other systems put together. And yet I’ve mostly played casual games like solitaire, Scrabble, or, when I’m feeling particularly… erm… risky, Strategery. But the deeper, more engaging adventure style games I really like, especially games like the ones in Nintendo’s Metroid and Zelda franchises, or Konami’s recent Metroid-esque entries in the Castlevania series, just aren’t there.

Why not?

It’s pretty clear that we’ll never see a Metroid or Zelda game on the iPhone. Frankly I’m a bit surprised Konami hasn’t released a Castlevania game for the iPhone yet — they’ve made a few other iPhone games — although one may be in development and I just don’t know about it.

For the most part the iPhone seems to have become a magnet for casual games. It’s easy to understand why, to some extent. The iPhone is owned by a lot of “non-gamers” and casual games are most appealing to them. I think the iPhone as a gaming platform shares a lot of its audience with the Wii. But the Wii does have Metroid and Zelda and other “hardcore” titles.

To be fair, the types of adventure and action RPG games I enjoy on other systems do exist on the iPhone, but in my experience so far… well… they all kinda suck. I’ve been lured in many times by the promise of “Zelda-like gameplay” and impressive-looking graphics, but although I’ve found a few to be of passable quality, almost all of them are so buggy, or so riddled with grammatical or spelling errors, or just so ill-conceived and sloppily-executed, that I play them once and then delete them off my iPhone, consoling myself in the fact that I only wasted $3 instead of $30 (the going price on new Nintendo DS titles).

As for the big question — why this particular genre of games has never delivered a satisfying experience on the iPhone, that’s the big mystery. There are plenty of casual games on the iPhone that demonstrate a tremendous amount of polish and great execution: apart from the aforementioned Strategery, there’s quite possibly the best casual game ever — Plants vs. Zombies, and of course an assortment of popular card, board and word games.

Up to now, the best 3D adventure game for the iPhone was the Halo-meets-Metroid-Prime clone N.O.V.A. It’s pretty good, but there’s still something I just can’t pinpoint about it that just makes it seem a little rough and just not totally engaging. Still, it’s been the most promising game I’ve seen yet for the platform. Until…

And now, on to the review…

Chaos Rings is a new Japanese-style RPG from Square Enix, developed specifically for the iPhone. It’s not the first Square Enix game for the iPhone — a few of the early Final Fantasy games have been ported, for instance — but it’s their first full-blown, brand new all-out effort on the platform.

It’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought for the iPhone. But at $12.99, it’s still less than half the price of a standard new Nintendo DS game. (Most Square Enix games for the DS retail for $39.99.) But there’s a reason for the extra price: the depth, quality and polish is unmatched by anything I’ve yet seen for the iPhone.

The game looks fantastic: the art is highly detailed and is consistent with the established and popular Square Enix style, and it’s technically impressive — the iPhone’s 3D graphics capabilities are stunning. The musical score and sound effects are great, too. Gameplay-wise, Chaos Rings is a traditional 3D RPG dungeon crawl: you explore a diverse variety of worlds, battling monsters with both attacks and magic, and there are also a number of puzzle rooms. The puzzle rooms feel a bit tacked on, although they’re a fun diversion from the level grinding characteristic of the game style.

Something that cannot be underestimated in terms of what makes the gameplay in Chaos Rings engaging in a way that so many other, otherwise good iPhone games (Hero of Sparta and Dungeon Hunter come to mind) lack is the control mechanism. It’s become standard practice for iPhone games that require “traditional” movement schemes to employ a “virtual” (on-screen) direction pad and buttons. Typically, mimicking the controls on traditional handhelds, the D-pad is placed in the lower left corner of the screen, and the buttons in the lower right. The big problem with this approach is that you don’t want to have to look at where you’re placing your fingers: when the D-pad and buttons are physical objects, there’s a tactile experience. You don’t have to look, because you can feel that your thumbs are in the right place. Not so with virtual controls on a glass screen.

But somewhere along the way — N.O.V.A. is the first game I encountered with it — an important advance was made: the D-pad only appears when you touch your finger to the screen, and it appears wherever you touch. So you no longer have to worry about putting your thumb in the right place — just put it down, and it’s always centered on the D-pad. Likewise, there may be “buttons” on screen, but usually just one, and a tap anywhere counts as a button press. This change makes a huge difference in playability and delivering a satisfying experience. As I said, N.O.V.A. uses this kind of control scheme, but that game had other problems that have kept me from really getting into it. But Chaos Rings offers a near-perfect execution of this evolved virtual control scheme, and it may be the single most important factor in my enjoyment of the game.

Chaos Rings is not a masterpiece — it’s not the kind of seamless, immersive world I loved so much in Metroid Prime (my favorite video game of all time), but it’s so far beyond every other iPhone game I’ve seen, in every imaginable way, that it seems to be an introduction to a new era in iPhone gaming… real iPhone gaming. It’s the first adventure/RPG game I’ve seen on the iPhone that I genuinely can’t put down. I’m sure there will be better iPhone games in the future — especially as the platform evolves with the iPad — but I truly believe this game will stand as a milestone in that evolution.

iPokédex update

Back in early 2008, I set up an iPhone-optimized Pokédex web app. I pulled information from some of the usual suspects in the online world of Pokémon compendia.

A few people have asked me why I didn’t build it as a native app I could then sell in the App Store for boatloads of cash (because, you know, there’s a huge untapped market for… this).

Well, that’s a good question. A few answers:

  1. The App Store didn’t exist at the time I created it, and I had no interest in either jailbreaking my iPhone nor in supporting the jailbreak “community.”
  2. I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) have a developer account with Apple, and I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) know how to build a native iPhone app. Web apps, though, are second nature to me.
  3. It seemed clear to me that Apple wouldn’t (or, more accurately, shouldn’t) approve such an app. The entire contents of the app would be in violation of copyright, and there’s no way (that I could see) that Nintendo would license the content under the circumstances.

As far as I was concerned, that was pretty much it. The only way a Pokédex could live on the iPhone was as a web app. I’ve since learned that, whatever criteria they do employ in approving apps, copyrighted content does not appear to be a “dealbreaker” for Apple. I think it’s safe to say that Apple wouldn’t approve an unauthorized Pokémon game for the iPhone, but there are currently four Pokédex apps in the App Store.

Anyway… my iPokédex web app lives on. I just finished some updates: mostly some minor bug fixes, but also some visual refinements. Overall the improvements are slight, but I’m still pretty pleased with how well it works and how useful it is, especially considering that I essentially created it in an evening.

If you haven’t checked it out (ever, or lately), take a look now… especially on an iPhone!

http://pokemon.room34.com

Panic’s “Atari” game art, framed and hung at Room 34 HQ

The other day I mentioned the super-cool watercolor-and-pencil game art Panic recently commissioned as part of a reimagining of their Mac software as early ’80s Atari 2600 games.

I ordered both the reproduction game boxes and the art prints, and they arrived just four days later (i.e. yesterday). They look amazing. As recommended by Panic, I headed out to IKEA this morning and picked up a couple of Ribba frames. The art prints were specifically designed to fit perfectly into these frames. I contemplated getting frames for all four of them, but at $20 a pop it seemed a bit much. So I went with two, for the two Panic programs I actually use (Coda and Transmit). It was just as well, anyway. Since they’re so big, two is all that fit on the wall above my desk!

The photo below shows Room 34 HQ, now graced with these fantastic looking prints. This wall was blank for months, and I had just been thinking I really needed to hang something up there, when these prints became available. The timing was perfect and I couldn’t be happier with the results! (Unfortunately the photo probably reveals, more than anything else, the limitations of the iPhone camera, especially indoors at night. I had every light in the place turned on but this was the best I could manage.)

panic_at_room34

Holy. Freakin’. Crap.

I love Panic, Inc. They make two of my indispensable web developer software tools: Transmit and Coda. And they have a great attitude. Their founder is a cool guy. And now, to top all of that off… they’re Atari freaks.

Oh man. I love this. I have a few quibbles with some of the details of their fake screenshots — things that aren’t actually possible (as far as I know) with the technical limitations of the Atari 2600. But it’s no matter. I absolutely love this stuff… it’s even better than the Venture Bros. Season 3 DVD art. Check it out:

Panic Atari art

Nintendo DSi vs. iPhone/iPod touch as a portable gaming platform

iPhone vs. Nintendo DSiThis is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, but only now (as of last Friday) that I own a Nintendo DSi, in addition to my iPhone 3GS, do I feel I’m in a place to write an informed piece about it. The iPhone (and, to a lesser extent, its phone-less cousin, the iPod touch) has been the focus of much techie attention for the past couple of years, but most of the time (other than on game review sites) its capabilities as a portable game system are only peripheral to the discussion.

I owned a Nintendo DS Lite for a couple of years before I got my first iPhone in March 2008, but even though I knew both were, amongst their other (limited or not) features, portable game devices, I never really thought of them as being in the same league. This was mainly due to two factors: 1) their control schemes and 2) their methods of game distribution.

The DS Lite was an “old school” gaming handheld. Sure, it had limited WiFi features, could be made to run a rudimentary web browser, and offered plenty of titles that were not typical video game fare, but essentially it was the latest descendant of the venerable Game Boy, and in many ways even reminiscent of the much earlier and technologically primitive Nintendo Game & Watch systems of the early 1980s.

The iPhone on the other hand was, at least on the most superficial marketing level, a cellphone. A smartphone, to be sure, and one that would reinvent the category and an entire industry. But it was not, foremost, a gaming system. It didn’t have a D-pad or a cluster of buttons, and it didn’t accept cartridges, discs, SD cards, or any of the other, increasingly minuscule physical media upon which games are typically delivered via retail outlets for prices usually ranging between $20 and $40. Instead, Apple brought us the radically different App Store, an entirely online (and even entirely wireless) means of selling and delivering software, at such low prices that $10 is not only the high end, but is often decried as “ridiculously expensive” by customer-reviewers in the App Store.

So, pardon the lame pun, but the DS vs. iPhone was an apples-to-oranges comparison. That is, until Nintendo recognized the potential of the iPhone and iPod touch to eat its portable lunch, and delivered the more iPhone-competitive DSi, a revamped DS Lite that loses the Game Boy cartridge slot (and, sadly, backwards compatibility with a huge and highly appealing game catalog) in favor of slightly larger (but same-resolution) screens, a pair of low-resolution digital cameras, and an enhanced OS with the ability to access an “app store” of its own, the DSi Shop. And with this salvo, Nintendo suddenly made the inclination of gamers to compare these two systems head-to-head much more apt. But are they keeping themselves relevant, or shooting themselves in the foot? That’s what I aim to determine here.

Industrial Design

I haven’t lined up the Nintendo DSi next to a DS Lite to compare their sizes (though others have), but from my tactile memory of my old DS Lite (now property of my 6-year-old son), I sense that the DSi is ever-so-slightly larger. It still manages to fit, not necessarily comfortably, in a jeans pocket — at least while standing — but it’s not really the kind of device you’d carry around loose in your pocket. The iPhone and iPod touch, on the other hand, are expressly designed to be carried in this fashion. Any cellphone that can’t fit in your pocket these days would be pretty worthless, and I find that the iPhone’s form — its dimensions, rounded corners, and smooth surfaces — slides easily into a pocket and is quickly and comfortably forgotten.

A significant market has grown up around both devices for accessories like carrying cases, although ideally both should do well in a pocket without one. I’ve found my iPhone 3GS is actually less prone to scratches without a case than with one, and both devices work better in a pocket without the extra bulk that even the slimmest of cases adds. But the DSi, at least the “metallic blue” model I own, is made of the kind of matte, metalized plastic that collects and shows every fingerprint, smudge, or slightest of scratches. Why anyone would design a device, largely targeted at pre-teens, out of this material is beyond my comprehension.

Winner: iPhone, by a wide margin.

Technical Capabilities

That both Sony’s PSP and the iPhone have far more processing and graphics horsepower than the Nintendo DS has been well covered, but as with the Wii, Nintendo has proven it’s not waging a war of raw tech specs. Nintendo’s angle in this generation of systems is to provide unique gameplay experiences via unconventional control mechanisms, be they the Wii’s motion-sensing controller or the DS’s dual screens (one of which is touch-sensitive) and innovative ways of incorporating its microphone and, now, camera(s) into gameplay. Sometimes these new schemes seem more like gimmicks than innovations, especially with the DS.

The iPhone changes the game (sorry) here, though, because not only does it have more impressive raw technical specs than the iPhone, but it incorporates technologies that allow for the innovative control schemes of both of Nintendo’s systems. So even if you take Nintendo’s side in the argument that it’s not about specs, Apple pretty much has this one covered.

Winner: iPhone, slightly.

Interface

This is the aspect of the DSi that most compelled me to write a review comparing the two systems. It’s obvious, when comparing the original DS interface to that of the DSi, that Nintendo took lessons from both the iPhone interface and its own Wii in designing this new DS user experience. The new DSi interface is pretty slick, but cheesy-looking icons and bad text anti-aliasing only serve to highlight the DS screen’s low resolution (even lower on the DSi than on the DS Lite, because the screens are larger without adding any pixels, meaning the overall perceived resolution is worse than before). The DSi’s interface looks not just second-rate, but last-century compared to the iPhone.

Winner: iPhone, by a mile. Make that a light-year.

Gameplay Experience

Here’s where Nintendo shows its strength. For all of the “innovative” control schemes possible with the DSi, the thing I like most about it is its adherence to the old school D-pad-and-buttons controls. Take a look at the number of iPhone games with on-screen “virtual D-pads” and buttons as control mechanisms, and you realize just how important this is. And unfortunately, no matter how well iPhone developers implement these virtual controls — and they’ve gotten much better at it over time — there is simply no way that the iPhone will ever be able to replicate one critical aspect of the DSi’s controls: the tactile sensation of the buttons under your fingers. You never have to look at the controls to know your fingers are in the right places on a DSi. Not only is this lack of tactile feedback an inherent problem with the iPhone’s controls, but the ergonomics of holding the smaller iPhone’s form and pressing these on-screen “buttons” are a recipe for wrist strain.

The thing is, there’s no reason you’d have to use a D-pad for controls on the iPhone, and I’ve found that most of the D-pad based iPhone games I’ve tried, assuming I’d love them because they’re like the DS games I enjoy, have just left me frustrated and disappointed. Some of my favorite DS games include venerable franchises like Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda. Translating these kinds of games to a virtual D-pad just doesn’t work. But there’s no real reason why these types of exploration/action games need you to move your player around with a D-pad. Dungeon Hunter is a great example of an iPhone game that takes a new approach — you can simply tap on the screen where you want your character to move. It works much better than the D-pad, but it affirms the one aspect of touch-based controls on the iPhone that Apple will never be able to work around — you have to obscure your view of part of the screen in order to control the game.

Winner: DSi, for keeping it real, old school.

Software

Nintendo’s DS platform had a three-year lead on the iPhone, and in that time a lot of fun, engaging games have appeared, making the DS the world’s top handheld game system in the latter half of this decade. But the iPhone App Store has exploded like nothing before it. The fact that most iPhone games sell for 99 cents, and $9.99 is considered an absolute top end for premier titles like Madden 10, has made the prices of DS games — where even closeouts on shovelware typically run at least $14.99 — seem absurd. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find iPhone games with the depth and polish of the best DS games, such as the aforementioned Castlevania and Zelda series, to say nothing of Mario and Pokémon.

But those top-tier franchises are just a small part of the DS picture. The most successful games on the DS platform, “casual,” puzzle-type games, are equally, if not better, represented on the iPhone platform as well, usually at a small fraction of the price. The good is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the bad on both systems, but the best of the iPhone is catching up fast to the quality of the best of the DS, and price is not a factor to be overlooked. (In fact, the somewhat higher price of the iPhone/iPod touch hardware is quickly offset by the relative costs of building up game libraries for both systems.)

Winner: toss up, but leaning more towards the iPhone every day.

Online Stores

No comparison. Apple’s iPhone App Store is revolutionary, and huge, and despite its increasing notoriety for the abusive way Apple treats developers, a rousing success. It’s well-established that there are over 100,000 apps for the iPhone, and even though most of those are buried beneath a poorly-conceived interface, they’re still there. Granted, games are only a part of that 100,000, but my anecdotal observations suggest that games are possibly as much as 40% of the total. But let’s be conservative and cut that in half. 20,000 games available on the App Store.

How many games are available for download to the DSi, via the DSi Shop? I decided to check for myself, and the number I came up with is 75. Not 75,000. 75. And that includes some non-games, like a web browser and quasi-productivity apps.

Winner: Are you kidding me?

Conclusion

When I first got my iPhone, I was a somewhat avid DS player. I own a few dozen DS games, and have logged hundreds of hours playing them. Initially, the weak selection of slapdash, shallow, awkward games on the iPhone kept me committed to the DS platform. But over time, as was to be expected, iPhone developers have learned how to take best advantage of the unique properties of the platform, not to mention the fact that additional time and the promise of serious profits have brought tremendous commitment on the part of some “big guns” mobile developers (such as EA and Gameloft). As the iPhone has become a lot more competitive as a gaming platform, Nintendo has responded with the somewhat ill-conceived and tepidly-received revamps of the DSi.

The DS Lite is still on the market, for $40 less than the DSi. After a few days putting it through its paces, not only do I think the additions to the DSi are not worth the extra money, but the loss of backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance games makes the system a lateral move if not an outright downgrade. Meanwhile, the iPhone/iPod touch just keeps moving on up.

Winner: iPhone.