A portable gaming primer.
We’ve been gaming on our phones since Snake, but phone gaming has always been, for the most part, perceived to be the poor cousin of actual real handheld gaming. After a few misfired attempts at establishing your phone as a ‘valid’ gaming alternative (anyone remember the disastrous N-Gage?), we’re finally at a place where today’s smartphones can compete. The rise of app availability and competitive pricing has driven this, and while the various app stores undoubtedly have a lot of dross to sift through, there’s excellent gaming to be had on your iPhone or Android device, with some of the choice cuts unavailable on any other platform. This will hopefully be a regular column with opinions of what’s worth your time on the small screen, but let’s kick off with some of my all-time faves you might have missed.Beat Sneak Bandit (iOS)A supremely confident and genuinely innovative rhythm-based puzzle-platformer with stylish pastel visuals and off-the-wall humour, this is game is a triumph of game design and aesthetics. You play as the titular bandit, a dapper gentleman tasked with stealing back all the timepieces of his hometown of Pulsebury from the mansion of the nefarious Duke Clockface, who totally isn’t trying to build a time freeze device for world domination, honest! With all those clocks in the vicinity, a constant groove permeates the Duke’s abode, which is good news for the bandit – tapping the screen to the beat will let him inch forward with security none the wiser. All the various protective measures – guards, flashlights, doors and platforms – are hooked into the rhythm, so you can observe and plan your sneaky strategy accordingly. The sound design is masterful; each component of the room, from the creaking doors and flashlights fizzling to life to the guard’s plodding grunts form part of the beat you need to maintain.Sneakers optional.Each level has a main big clock and four smaller clocks – you only need the big clock to unlock the next level, but the real challenge is to clean the Duke’s clock by, well, taking all of them. As you progress through your stately surroundings, more obstacles are gradually introduced, like vacuums and teleporters, and the rhythmical complexity mounts until you reach the final confrontation with the Duke. Even then the fun isn’t over as there are bonus ‘shadow’ levels, cast in silhouette and with the soundtrack replaced with smooth jazz piano.This is only quirky Swedish developer Simogo’s third game, and it’s a corker. Check it out for a fresh’n dope take on rhythm gaming.SimogoCoin Drop (iOS / Android)We all know that most ubiquitous pachinko-pinball hybrid cute-fest, Popcap’s almighty casual games leviathan Peggle, but I really have to give Full Fat Games the credit they deserve for Coin Drop for managing to approach the former’s dizzying heights while sticking to the same basic formula. Happy-faced currency is dropped vertically downwards through themed levels to rack up points, awarded by hitting pins, collecting renegade ‘bad pennies’, and getting your coin into the correct landing chute. Like Peggle there exist elements of both luck and skill, but balanced enough to be rewarding rather than frustrating. Houston we have a problem.The screen can be jiggled, tilt-style if any coins get tucked away in an awkward nook, and all levels have their own little extra methods of racking up the points, like breakable bricks and pink girl coins to be rescued. Presentation and sound design are consistently high, and there are fun collectables like different themed coins to unlock. Once you’ve beaten all the levels there probably isn’t much replay value, but this is a must play for any Peggle fans looking for more of the same.Full FatHelsing’s Fire (iOS)Another wonderful game that wouldn’t really have an audience on a console but is perfectly suited to mobile gaming. A viciously witty Victorian themed puzzler based on the illumination of the undead? Indubitably sir! You must guide Dr. Helsing and his put-upon assistant Raffton as they battle vampires, werewolves and the rest of the usual B-movie canon with nothing more than a well-placed torch and a few explosive chemicals. Chems and creeps are coloured accordingly, so be sure to use the right hue for your horror or you’ll make them even stronger. As you progress through the crypt you are beset by a range of ruffians with their own quirks – werewolves turn into maidens who mustn’t be attacked (that wouldn’t be gentlemanly), ghosts disappear in the light, gargoyles shoot arrows at you, and so on.Bring light to the darkness.With a rapier-sharp script and over one hundred levels to get through, not to mention survival and bounty modes, you won’t be short of a chuckle or a challenge with this gothic adventure. A suitably haunting organ score is the icing on the Dracula. RatloopOsmos (iOS / Android, PC)Playing Osmos (noise-cancelling headphones highly recommended) is like taking a mental bath, or like being back in the womb, for those of you who claim to remember such a thing. You are a little cell or ‘mote’, a speck of life suspended in the inky blackness. Your goal, in a very Darwinian fashion, is to grow, to expand, to become. You achieve this by absorbing other cells around you, most benign, a few mirroring your own primal quest for dominance. Easier said than done, for even in this tiniest of realms, Newton’s laws hold sway. There is no taking without a little give; to move you must expel a fraction of your mass in the opposite direction. Too much leads to disaster, for you can only absorb cells smaller than you; one wrong move and you literally lose yourself.Big blob on campus.An exquisite award-winning soundtrack of lush plangent pads envelops you as you guide your greedy globule to swallow all in its path. Cell colours change from danger red to tranquil blue when you reach the required size to absorb them; all the elements combine to provide a calming but intellectually stimulating experience. Once you’ve got the hang on the basics, there are several more advanced modes of play available, including antimatter motes which annihilate regular ones, and motes in various and complex orbits. My favourite mode completely packs the screen with a kaleidoscope of static cells and sticks you in the centre – your very first move begins a chain reaction of collisions which you must navigate and take advantage of to succeed. Now with added multiplayer, this is absorbing gameplay in more ways than one.Hemisphere GamesQuarrel (iOS, XBLA)You may recall Dundee developers Denki from their innovative puzzler Denki Blocks released back in 2001, or the endearingly whimsical GBA release, Go! Go! Beckham!: Adventure on Soccer Island. After a decade in the mainstream gaming wilderness developing casual titles for DirectTV services like Sky Gamestar, they burst back with the magnificent Quarrel, a fun, colourful, hybrid video board game which they adequately describe as ‘Scrabble meets Countdown meets Risk’. After choosing a stereotypical faction (GIs, robots, ninjas etc) and a map to play on, the map squares are evenly divided between the players. Your overall goal is to capture the whole game board, but the weapons of choice are the words you can muster. Letters are assigned Scrabble-style values, and each battle sees you trying to form a higher-scoring word than your opponent. The catch is that you are limited in the number of letters you can use by the number of defending troops, up to a maximum of eight. In the event of a tie, the player that formed their word quickest wins the round. It’s a great system that can see a player with superior numbers being trounced if their inner lexicon is not up to scratch.Words are a battlefield.Up to four can play (sadly multiplayer is only available on the XBLA version, with amusingly archetypal computer characters filling in if you’re playing solo or on your iPhone). That said there is a substantial campaign and a daily challenge game included. The visuals are cartoonish and jovial, with your little troops milling around, cheering and mouthing off when you win or lose. You may even boost your wordpower (and nerd power!) after a few games, as the game helpfully points out the definition of the word you chose, along with the best possible word for that round. Denki
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