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iPhone Games: What's Out There? Are They Good?

The social phenomenon known as the Apple iPhone has transformed how wireless users view their cell phone. Is it a phone? An MP3 player? A video player? A WiFi-enabled Web browser? Phones have included all of these aspects before, but never quite as gracefully as the iPhone. Yet one question remains unanswered: what all is available on the iPhone game front? With that big, pretty screen and accelerometer, do any videogames actually maximize the platform and make it viable for gaming on the go?

Having spent some time with an iTouch — basically an iPhone minus the “phone” part — and playing some of the available games, it’s safe to say we won’t be leaving our Sony PSP or Nintendo DS systems anytime soon and dedicating our mobile game time to the iPhone. But, if you’ve got an iPhone and have been wondering what all is out there, we’ve got you covered.

The biggest problem with the iPhone or iTouch as a gaming system is its battery. Regardless of the combination of five games we tested for this feature, we could only ever play about 90 minutes before the phone needed to be plugged into an outlet or be charged. With that vibrant iPhone display, these games universally had clear and bright graphics, not to mention lots of movement, both of which we attribute to their battery-sucking tendency. But, if you’re near a plug or need a quick 10 minutes of game time, the games below provide a nice diversion that won’t kill your iPhone or iTouch battery completely.

Pinball RC

I’ve been a pinball fan for decades, so Pinball RC scratches my pinball itch wonderfully, considering it’s played on a two-inch screen. The paddles on either side of the pinball table are activated by tapping the left or right side of the screen, respectively, which is a completely logical use of the platform’s touch sensitivity. Unfortunately, the paddles themselves respond and retract slowly, which can interfere with the “natural” physics you’d expect. Also, each of the game’s tables are tied into the system’s internal accelerometer, so moving the iPhone or iTouch can actually interfere with your viewpoint. Well, if you’re at all like me and move your wrists a lot when you play pinball. Still, the tables are fun and the graphics are great, with little to no framerate slowdown, so this is a decent substitute for being on the road rather than in an old arcade.

Cro-Mag Rally

Whether you’re on the New York subway system or Metro in LA, it’s safe to say you’re going to see lots of people playing games and/or listening to music on their cell phones, iPhone or not. However, just because those folks are on the subway, that doesn’t mean they don’t like to drive, making them just the audience for whom Cro-Mag Rally is designed. The racing game includes two modes, Race and Gather Mode, and a whole host of maps and cars. The maps range from generic desert, jungle and glacial settings to more-specific locales like the Great Wall of China, a Medieval map and two inspired by the Vikings and Atlantis. Amazingly, the maps each play a bit differently based upon their environment (slippery ice vs. chugging sand), and they of course look distinct as well. In fact, Cro-Mag Rally feels like an odd hybrid of Mad Dash, with its colorful themed environments and characters, and Mario Kart, with its weapon system and power-up inventory that lets players lay traps and fire projectiles.

The cars are also distinct, both in design and capabilities. From the Mammoth Mobile and Bone Buggy to the Trojan Horse and Chariot, each car has unique capabilities in Speed, Acceleration, Traction and Suspension, making Cro-Mag Rally feel a lot like a pint-sized console game in which car choice actually does have an effect on race results. Yet while the handling and capabilities of each car are different, steering with the accelerometer is insanely challenging on some of the speedier vehicles. The result can often be quite frustrating, making Cro-Mag Rally a nice diversion for racing-game fans, but nothing that will ever seriously challenge Burnout on PSP or Mario Kart on the DS for racing supremacy.


The most interested game we played, Enigmo, feels like a re-imagination of Lemmings. At one end of the multi-tiered levels is a water-dripping urn, while an empty bucket sits at the other end. Gaps, walls and other obstacles are positioned between the urns, with players given several specific tools with which to direct the water (a trampoline, a funnel, a land-extending platform, etc.). Unlike Lemmings, in which a worker unit could not have its work undone, each of the tools in Enigmo can have its angle manipulated as often as the player wishes, which makes it much easier to experiment. By placing these objects in the correct locations and angles, players direct the water droplets into the end-level bucket and move on to the next mission.

In later stages, Enigmo throws different water colors into the mix, making players not only determine the correct path for multiple water spigots, but also solve occasional sub-puzzles about how to get the subsequent colors to flow. Playing through Enigmo, I couldn’t help but think this would make a fun Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network game, mostly because those systems would provide a bit more screen space on which to play. Enigmo is fun on the iTouch or iPhone, but you definitely feel crippled at times by the smaller screen real estate and thus the need to scroll to different areas of the level while avoiding accidentally adjusting the angle of your carefully placed tools.

Billy Frontier

Normally I get all up in arms over Old West games, because I absolutely love the genre. Such was my initial reaction to Billy Frontier, with the meat of its gameplay being a Shootout Mode a la Time Crisis in which the camera moves through the environment while you tap the screen to shoot. Couple that mode with three more (Duel, Stampede and Training) that take place in two different environments (Town and Swamp), and it sounds like a winner. Not exactly. In Shootout Mode, the aiming is off-kilter by default, making the touch screen about a quarter-inch too “low,” so it’s an absolute necessity to go into the settings before playing and change “Offset Reticle” to “off.” Also, unlike most lightgun games, Billy Frontier makes players account for the slow speed of bullets in these old guns, which makes it hard to play at times as you try to to anticipate when enemies will pop out from cover. The Stampede modes, meanwhile, use the iPhone or iTouch accelerometer to let you move your cowboy around the screen while dodging a stampede of bulls (tapping the screen makes Billy jump over obstacles). Get hit once, however, and you have to start the mission over. Get hit twice, and it’s game over completely.

Duel, on the other hand, is an entirely unique mode — almost rhythm-based — in which players have to press the triangle key or circle key (both via the touch screen) in an eight-button sequence that’s randomly generated on the screen. The game is divided into timed rounds, with players needing to complete 16 successful button-pressing sequences before advancing. Botch one sequence, and you have to face a new combo. The more enemies on screen, the more button presses you have to do, so messing up more than a couple sequences can mean certain doom on these timed rounds. It’s really kind of a weird mode, and not really one I recommend, but kudos to the developers for thinking outside of the box.

Beer Bounce

Still, the weirdest “game” of the bunch is by far Beer Bounce, in which players must use the touch screen to flick quarters into a pint of beer. This game has fantastic background visuals. Too bad the game requires players to be drunk to actually enjoy it. The gameplay couldn’t be any easier: flick your finger up on the screen like you’re tossing a quarter into the pint. With each successful toss, the screen moves around more to mimic getting more and more drunk. As the screen moves more, it becomes harder to accurately throw the quarter into the beer. But — and maybe it’s just me — why do I want to even toss a virtual quarter into a virtual beer, again? Seems pretty stupid, to be honest, and even when we did down a couple, the game didn’t get any more enjoyable. Seriously, any game that mimics the flick of a booger falls pretty low on my fun scale.

Clearly the iPhone has some compelling games, if Enigmo is any indication of what developers can achieve on the platform. However, it’s also got some stinkers, indicating that the ratio of good to bad games on any platform is pretty low, whether you’re talking home console, handheld or iPhone/iTouch. So, will we be switching from our PSP or DS to play games exclusively on the iPhone or iTouch? Not a chance. If you really want to enjoy compelling games, your money is much better spent on a DS or PSP. However, if you’ve already got an iPhone and are looking for a non-music diversion, there are a few diamonds in there. Just be careful of the rough; it’s very, very rough indeed.

— Jonas Allen

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