Wednesday, November 19, 2008


So I got an iPod touch (2nd Gen. 8Gig), and after using it for about a week, I have to say that it is perhaps one of the greatest things ever created by man. I may be somewhat biased towards Apple, what with their products not constantly crashing, but this thing is an absolute joy to use.

The main thing is the touchscreen interface. When I think touchscreen, I think irritating bank machines that hassle me and beep a lot, but the touchscreen on the iPod and iPhone are a whole different animal. The thing always seems to know what I want it to do, and the touch keyboard is in a totally different universe than the awkward graffiti feature of oldschool PDAs. My personal favorite feature of the interface is that when you scroll past the bottom of a list, rather than just stopping, the thing carries on and then bounces back, as if to say "oop, that's the end of the list, but I cheerfully acknowledge your request to scroll farther and can fully understand why you might want to do so. Please have a pleasant day." Apple understands that controlling something directly feels inherently different than controlling it with a mouse wheel, which is something Wii developers need to learn one of these days.

When I do something like press a button or move a joystick or a scroll wheel, I know that I've done so and if I get no other feedback, I just assume that nothing is supposed to happen. But when I do something more vague like move my finger or swing a Wiimote, I need some sort of aknowledgement that I entered the command and that it didn't do anything. There is almost nothing more frustrating in videogames (and realize that I grew up in the days of Battletoads) than continually waving your arm to no effect and then finally realizing that either you're not doing it right, or that you can't do that action there. (But I'll have plenty to say about bad (and good) Wii controls in another post.)

Anyway, iPods and iPhones are all the rage right now, despite the questionable phone plan Rogers has for us in Canada, which led me to opt of the iPod. New games and apps are constantly flooding onto the device, and I am actually working on a game myself with some fellas in my dorm. I'll keep you posted when we get further along in development.

As with anything, 90% of all of these apps are presumably completely terrible, but luckily some of them are quite interesting, and a surprising number are completely free. There's also a handy ratings system to help sift through the muck and find the gems, and personally I think ratings systems should become a mandatory feature on every product. Like if you go to a restaurant, and look at the menu, and think 'maybe I'll get the clam risoto,' but then you look at some of the ratings, and one guy says 'was like eeting poo :p' and another says, 'CLAMB BIT ME!!!1!!' Maybe you want to consider something else, I mean sure, people who post comments on the internet are clearly morons who can't talk, but if you've got enough of them, they've got to add up to at least one functioning brain. That's right, I said it: the internet is like a hive mind of idiots. "We r teh borgz... u wil be asimalated tottaly pwnd... resistins is fewtilz ftw lol :D", soz aniwayz [cough] anyway. Being the nerd that I am, my favorite app so far is the amazing lightsaber app. Using the built in accelerometer, it turns your iPod/iPhone into a Jedi weapon of death. This thing is extremely cool. It just buzzes menacingly when you wave it slowly, and then makes clashing sounds when moved quickly, and features include optional Star Wars battle music. Plus, if you are using it with earbuds in, the buzzing and crackling actually plays louder out of one earbud or the other depending on which direction the thing is tilted in. This means that if you swing the lightsaber to the left, you actually hear the sounds coming from your left. I quality feature to be sure, but honestly I don't think I'll be using this thing with earbuds in very much. Some guy with earbuds swinging his phone around just looks like an idiot, whereas if everyone can hear why I'm swinging it around and grimacing fiercely, I come across as the suave gentleman that I am.

There's also a character creation option which I fully abused by creating the famous Jedi "Harry Potter." You see, when I was younger, I used to look frighteningly like Harry Potter, to the point where everyone would call me Harry and small children would ask me to lift up my hair in hopes of seeing a scar (oh, the state of today's youth). I actually won a copy of the fifth book for free in a look-alike contest. So I cut the face from an old Halloween picture (okay, first year), and voila! I also gave my Jedi a nice pumpkin-juice colored lightsaber, as well as a character bio:

"Working as an Auror for the Ministry of Magic, he rides across the galaxy on his Mellenium Firebolt, seeking out Sitherins wherever they may be and battling them with the lightsaber that once belonged to Godric Gryffindor himself." (that's "Sitherin," by the way. I realize that not all Slytherins are evil and need to be hunted down, but all Sitherins do.)

I would have made it longer, but I was worried that I was stretching the joke to the point of hemorrhaging. I also didn’t want to inadvertently spoil anything for the people who still haven’t read the last book as I’m sure they’d both be very upset with me. Of course, Star Wars is explicitly stated to take place “a long time ago” so none of the adventures of Jedi Potter necessarily have to take place after the end of book seven. He’d just have to use a time turner at some point. I’m not sure whether the wizarding world has any magic/technology capable of sending him to a galaxy “far, far away” though. By the way, I may have given this waaay too much thought.

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Okay, so how are the actual games on the iPhod, seeing as that is what this blog is allegedly about? Actually, they seem to be quite good. The accelerometer and the touchscreen open up a lot of new control options, and the complete lack of physical buttons force some much-needed innovation on the part of game developers. If you're one of those inconsistent people like me who is both cheap and also bought an iPhod, the best free game so far is probably Tap Tap Revenge, a rhythm game in the vein of Guitar Hero where you physically poke the notes as the reach the bottom of the screen.

The first minor gripe I have with this game is that you are supposed to touch the notes when they are too close to the bottom of the screen, so it is a bit awkward to hold the Phod and you are in danger of poking somewhere below the touchscreen (which, as you might guess, doesn't do a lot). You can poke farther up the string/fret, but then you end up obscuring the notes with your own fingers. I've found this is one thing developers are still learning with the iPhod, that you shouldn't have players doing things with the touchscreen that force them to hide the game from themselves with their own fingers. Sounds obvious but is more of an issue than one might think.

The other minor gripe I have with TTR is that some of the 'notes' require you to shake the Phod in one direction or another. You're gonna want to disable this as soon as possibly with the merciful options menu, because this feature just doesn't work very well, at least form me. It's not so bad on the easier settings, but if you want an actual challenge, you'll quickly lose that combo when the game asks you to shake the Phod left and then decides 'meh, that wasn't really left enough for me, not enough tilting. I'll just reset your combo there and -oh, was that supposed to be left again. That... I'm sorry, that was just dreadful.' If there was the option of just one 'shake' command, it would be fine, but the diections just make it far too picky. Luckily, you can turn it off and go back to being the pokeyman. Aside from these very minor complaints, the game is really a lot of fun. I'm not even sure why, but I just can't help grinning and bopping my head while I play it, and I don't even like most of the music. If it could somehow auto-generate notes for any song in your library, or had a built in level creator so you could make them yourself, this game would be frickin' epic.

I think racing and piloting games also have a good home on the iPhod. They use the accelerometer the way they are meant to be used, namely as a sophisticated detector of subtle movements rather than as an extra button (I'm still looking at you, third-party Wii developers). I bought Moto Chaser (upgrade to Moto Racer) at 99 cents, and it was worth every penny. Not really much to say about this game except that you ride a motorcycle really fast and hilariously punch people off of theirs, and that you are apparently trying to rescue a cat. Um, why not?

The third game I've been playing a lot is the fabulous Enigmo (I got it for 1.99 and I've just completed level 40). When I first started playing this game, the experience was absolutely sublime, somewhat vaguely akin to my first playthrough of Portal. I've really played nothing quite like Enigmo, and that's rare these days. Sadly, the novelty wears off after a while, but what you're left with is still a very solid game. I don't really want to say puzzler, because though there is certainly a puzzle element, there is also a large element of simply trying to rig up everything so that it works the way you've envisioned. I like this, because rather than in most puzzle game where there is only one correct solution, this game offers you a fair bit of creativity. It lets you use whatever crude or harebrained solution you want to so long you can actually get it to work.

This brings me to my only major complaint, which is that the touch controls are awkward. I don't care what anyone says, they could have been vastly improved if the rotation area for the objects was a bit larger. What often ends up happening is that you are trying to rotate a carefully placed object and end up dragging it across the screen instead. I've managed to cut down on this by zooming in on objects when I need to fiddle with them, but you shouldn't have to do that. Oddly, you can make the circles bigger, but this requires putting your finger on the circle (which is the hard part) and dragging it outwards, and after you let go, the circle returns to normal size. What's the point of that? The rotation circle pops up only when you select an object, so the game knows you are trying to manipulate that particular object, so why couldn't the circles be larger? For that matter, why do they need to get smaller when you zoom out? It's like if I zoom out on a page of text and the elevator bar shrinks too.

On the topic of object rotation, one place where this game really wins is by having real-time feedback as to whether you have the object rotated correctly. You see, the object of the game is to guide a stream of water to a destination, except that the water behaves like a bunch of little ping pong balls. Because there is a constant stream of these little guys, rather than having to estimate angles, you can simply place an object and then watch as the path of the 'water' dynamically changes with its movement or rotation.

The game is very good, but after a while the levels don't feel like they're throwing anything new at you. I think they could be using the temporal element a lot more, such as requiring more elaborate multi-step solution, rather than mostly just having puzzles that can be solved by plunking each object in a particular place. The somewhat awkward controls also hold the game back from being as relaxing and sublime experience as it should, though in all honesty they are quite good, and I am being fairly picky. It's just that when a game is this good and original, I really want it to go that extra ten percent and reach legendary status. As it stands, I don't think this game holds the meaning of life anymore, but then I haven't quite gotten to level 42 yet.

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