Planet of the Apps: Instant Classics
It's easy to get swept along by the seemingly never-ending torrent of iPhone games. Every week -- hell, every day -- dozens of offerings land in the App Store, waiting to be discovered. But what makes one of these games a classic? The iPhone is a platform that rotates around immediacy, and the best iPhone games hit you like a lightning bolt. Keep reading for games that I think do exactly that.
You're always running in this tap-to-jump platformer, which we featured in a Casual Fridays column a few weeks back. It may not look like it, but there's story in Canabalt. The crumbling buildings, air-dropped kill-droids and rampaging giant robots in the game's background all create a micro-narrative. Are you the last hope of humanity? Or are there others like you running from experimentation, from slavery, from being machine food? Are the screaming airships that streak by part of your salvation or your doom? The rub is that if you lift your eyes up to consider any of these thoughts, you die. The subtext may be unintended, but it's genius nonetheless.
The classic touch: Every window you fail to crash through, and every flubbed jump, fuels the simple but irresistible urge to try again. It's the exceedingly simple controls that hook you. Tapping with your finger? Of course you'll master it, even though you know it's going to be different next time, and may be even harder.
Designed by Jason Rohrer, the creator of Passage, this tile-clearing game feels like a digital version of the Japanese board game Go, but one where you play against yourself. You score points by surrounding tiles of one color with tiles of another, which makes the former disappear.
The classic touch: If you're faced with a do-or-die situation in Primrose, it's because you created it yourself. And at the same time, you can solve it. In my many long sessions with the game, the screen would get congested with places where I couldn't make plays. I'd tap aimlessly, searching for a way to just keep the game going. But then a random move would cascade into a series of clears, giving a near-dead board new life.
Rolling characters that you had to safeguard through a hazardous environment? "Like LocoRoco, but so much better." That consensus got repeated over and over again, and it signified much more than similarity in concept. The success of this ngmoco game was probably the first major sign that games on the iPhone could outstrip titles on the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP.
The classic touch: Rolando is a textbook example of how removing a layer of interface -- buttons and joysticks -- creates more intimacy and immediacy. The round blobs in LocoRoco are arguably cuter. But I care more about their distant cousins in Rolando, because I can touch and manipulate them directly. I feel more responsible for their safety, and I'm more empowered to do something about it.
It's my favorite iPhone game ever, just barely beating out Drop7. The action -- shifting blobs of colored star matter around the screen, never letting them touch, moving them to black holes so they go nova, and tapping the resulting triangles of energy to restore health -- happens against a sublime visual and sonic backdrop.
The classic touch: Eliss is fast, by virtue of the iPhone's multi-touch capability. You want to create balance in a universe that at first seems to be governed by bizarre rules. You have to learn the reflexes (when to move a blob, how to split it, when to slow down time) to be successful. Eliss would be a lot to ask of any other interface. But the multi-touch controls of the iPhone make it easy to achieve symbiosis in a confusing game environment.
Another twist on Tetris, Drop7 has you dropping numbered and blank discs on a 7x7 grid. Matching the number on a disc to the number of discs in a row or column makes them explode, and explosions reveal the numbers on the blank discs. A new row of discs pops up with each level, and the ultimate goal is to keep the grid a clear as possible for as long as you can.
The classic touch: The Sequence Mode proved to be the killer hook. You get the same exact pieces as everyone else who plays, and your scores get ranked against those of other players. This made Drop7 one of the first iPhone games to implement an online leaderboard feature. Most games on the iPhone happen in solitude, but Drop7 paved the way to creating a sense of community amongst players.
6. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Solving mysteries isn't ever easy. Doing it from a insect's-eye view just makes it harder. You'll inhabit the role of a spider who happens upon an abandoned house. As you spin webs and eat insects, you'll get the chance to find out what became of the humans who lived there.
The classic touch: Flicking a spider across the room in real life would probably kill the poor bastard, but in Spider, the same action draws web strands across the level like scrawling a crayon outside the lines on a coloring-book page. Spider sums the possibilities of these iPhone games: small gestures open big worlds.
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