By now, everyone knows that all those old iPhone games can be played on the shiny new iPad. While this may only seem worthy of a collective shrug, backwards compatibility’s become a big issue for video game players. Hardware that lets users run old games makes business sense in letting publishers and console manufacturers leverage their deep back-catalogs. However, the feature also signifies a gesture that rewards players for their loyalty: “Thanks for getting us here! There’s something new we’d like you to buy but, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to play old favorites on it.” When the Xbox 360 hit store shelves, players howled at the supposedly beloved old Xbox 1 games that wouldn’t run on the new machine. Sony had been implementing a variety of fixes to keep the life support going for PS2 discs on Playstation 3, but the newest PS3 Slim model pulls the plug altogether.
Business considerations aside, there’s an important issue here about how to archive experiences that happen digitally. Fans and/or researchers have to jump through arcane and sometimes illegal hoops if they want to play a dusty ColecoVision cartridge from 20 some-odd years ago. Of course, the iPad doesn’t have this problem. All the content on Apple’s iDevices has been delivered digitally, and getting content to perform across multiple platform iterations has been a matter of code, not of expensive-to-build hardware. The compatibility of experiences — across iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad — is especially important because so many of the games on the App Store come from independent developers. As the iPad becomes more popular, they have a chance to reach a larger audience than ever. But every creator needs to re-evaulate what that bigger screen gives them.
Still, all the hype about new games on the iPad smacked of launch-day opportunism and turned me off. Instead, I’ve spent most of my gaming time with the new handheld revisiting old favorites. Apple’s “magical and revolutionary” device can upscale games originally built for iPhone so that they fill up the whole screen. I wanted to see if this iPad feature significantly alters the play experience. Surprisingly, the iPad’s allowed my second favorite iPhone game to leap-frog into first and revived interest in another game that I’d long stopped playing.
I’ve played “Drop7” every day since I downloaded it more than a year ago, so I can safely say that it’s my favorite iGame. “Drop7” has you dropping numbered and blank discs on a 7×7 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 as clear as possible for as long as you can. It’s one of those games where instructions don’t help; you can only learn it by playing it. But that moment when you finally get how you’re supposed to play will have you addicted. You’ll be hooked not only to see if you’re understanding it correctly, but also to see how far you can push this mastery.
The spare visual presentation of “Drop7” does no fancy tricks while you’re playing it. So it follows that iPad upscaling added nothing to the appeal of the game. It’s the iPhone’s portability (the fact that I’ve always got my iPhone on me) that allowed “Drop7” to sink its hooks into me. However, the iPad isn’t really pocketable, and because of that, the impulse reflex of reaching in and pulling out the game for a few levels doesn’t really work here. So, “Drop7” loses some of its mojo on the iPad.
Next up was “Canabalt,” a lo-fi free running platformer in which you tap to jump. It starts with a man running down a hallway and jumping out onto the rooftops of an apocalyptic cityscape. Your speed picks up the more successful you are and the levels are randomly generated each time you play. There’s an emergent, fill-in-the-blanks narrative in “Canabalt” — the collapsing buildings, kill-bot bombardment and marauding oversized mechs in the backdrop all create a split-second story. Are you mankind’s last savior? Could there be others like you running from testing or from servitude? Those screaming flying machines that streak by… are they part of your deliverance or your ruin? It may be unintended brilliance but you fall to your doom if you shift your awareness to think about any of these things.
You’re supposed to spend the tense second-to-second playtime in “Canabalt” running from something. But me, I spend it chasing something. That something is not distance, although that metric’s the one that delivers high-score bragging rights. No, I spend “Canabalt” chasing height. If you time that first desperate jump just right, then your character scrapes the top of the screen, going higher than he ever will in the rest of the game. The iPad screen makes the playfield bigger for “Canabalt,” and that creates a greater sensation of disorientation with each leap you make. For this game, the jump to iPad results in a more cinematic feel, as if it’s finally found a screen-size worthy of its epic qualities.
But the biggest revelation to me from the pre-iPad games I played was with “Eliss.” In this lovably bizarre indie title, players must shift spontaneously spawning blobs of color away from each other in a cosmic setting with treacherous black holes, slo-mo asteroids and life-giving supernovas. “Eliss” demands constant movement, awareness and attention, and while the game charmed me instantly with its cute graphics and catchy music, all that hyperactivity stymied me on iPhone. I felt increasingly fumbly as I played, only getting as far as the fifth of its 17 levels. Rather than beat my head against the wall, I’d resolved to love “Eliss” from afar. But booting it up in upscaled fashion on the iPad was an incredible eye-opener, because it felt like this tiny universe had room to breathe. I had enough real estate to not feel panicky as things happened on screen, and this in turn renewed my desire to experience the game in full.
In time, games will come that make innovative use of the iPad’s native features, making it feel different from the iPhone. But, so far, the biggest achievement of this new hardware is to reaffirm the great possibilities of touchscreen gaming and digital distribution when compared to the PCs, discs and consoles that currently rule the market.
[Additional images: “Drop7,” Area/Code Entertainment, 2009; “Eliss,” Steph Thirion, 2009]