First Look: First Look: iPod games

Games have long been included on the iPod, but they’ve been pretty basic: Solitaire, Brick, Parachute and Music Quiz. Now that premium games are here— available for all fifth-generation iPods from the iTunes Store —the big question is, are they worth the $4.99 Apple is asking you to pay? The answer may surprise you.

Apple’s new games for the iPod are sold from the iTunes Store the same way you can buy music and—if you live in the United States—television shows and movies. But unlike those last two genres, iPod games have been released around the world—everywhere there’s an iTunes Store, there’s a way to purchase games. Evidently Apple was able to strike a more favorable licensing arrangement with game companies than it’s been able to reach with studio executives.

The starting lineup

Of the nine games that debuted with Tuesday’s release of iTunes 7, two of them are Apple originals—a Texas Hold’em poker game, and a brickbashing title called Vortex. The others include three games made by gaming giant Electronic Arts, two games made by casual game maker PopCap Games, one classic arcade game from Namco, and one from an independent game maker called Fresh Games. Interestingly, there’s no representation from “traditional” Macintosh game developers, many of whom have petitioned Apple in the past to open the iPod to third-party game development.

The starting lineup of iPod games is bound to deflate the expectations of “hardcore” gamers, but it’s a robust collection of casual games, puzzle titles, and tried-and-true classics that should appeal to a wide swath of iPod users:

  • Tetris: The ubiquitous falling-blocks puzzle game that put Nintendo’s original Game Boy on the map when it first debuted;
  • Pac-Man: A faithful recreation of Namco’s legendary coin-op arcade game;
  • Bejeweled: The often-imitated “match three” puzzle game;
  • Zuma: Another color-matching game from the same developer that served as the inspiration for Mac casual game hits like Luxor and Atlantis;
  • Mini Golf: An overhead mini golf game;
  • Mahjong: A variation on the classic tile matching game;
  • Cubis 2: An isometrically-displayed action puzzle title where you match cubes of different colors;
  • Texas Hold’em: A version of the popular poker game; and
  • Vortex: A brickbashing game that uses the “looking down the well” perspective of Tempest with the powerup challenge of Arkanoid.
  • Downloading and installing

    Individual music tracks purchased from the iTunes Store only measure a few megabytes; typically a full album may be 50MB or 60MB in size, depending on length. If you’re familiar with how long it takes to grab a music file from the iTunes store on your computer, you’ll have a good gauge for game downloads too.

    iPod games range in size pretty dramatically—at the low end, Pac-Man is about 8.6MB, while Texas Hold’em, which uses digitized images of real people and a fair degree of animation, tops the charts at 47.5MB. The size doesn’t affect the price—all games cost $4.99 at the U.S. iTunes Store.

    The iTunes Store’s Preview button is put to good use here—it yields a video showing you the game in progress, complete with audio. Users can review games the same way they do with music and TV shows, too.

    Bear in mind that any fifth-generation iPod (also called the video iPod) is capable of playing games—you don't need one of the new ones Steve Jobs introduced at Tuesday’s “It’s Showtime” event. Original fifth-generation iPods will need a firmware update, however, which is available from within iTunes 7—connecting the iPod will launch iTunes, and you’ll be able to update from there (I needed to “Restore” my iPod, which wiped out the contents of its hard drive, in order to apply the firmware update, for some reason). iPod nanos, older iPod photos and other systems can’t run games.

    Apple has boosted battery charge capacity in the new 30GB and 80GB iPods, and it’s a good thing—in my brief testing on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, I was able to run the iPod’s battery dangerously low, which suggests that the screen and click wheel action combined with the processing and disk access needed to keep up with the games is probably pretty taxing on the iPod’s battery. I heartily anticipate that brand new iPods have better results.

    Once local on your machine, the game appears listed in iTunes in a new library called “iPod Games;” clicking on the games listed there will yield descriptions, detailed instructions, and even screenshots. The games aren’t playable within iTunes, though—they need to be transferred to the iPod.

    Games downloaded from the iTunes Store are copy-protected using the same DRM technology that protects music and videos, with the same limitations. You can have the games on multiple authorized computers—in fact, the new iPod sync technology in iTunes 7 works with games, as well—they’re copied and installed along with any other iTunes Store purchases.

    Gameplay

    The iPod screen is smaller than what I’m accustomed to, playing games on a Sony PlayStation Portable or Nintendo DS, but the iPod’s screen is extremely bright and sharp, perfectly suitable for games. Some of the games strain my eyes a bit—Pac-Man, for example, renders the entire maze on the iPod screen with some other superfluous graphics, and the maze is really tiny. Others, like Vortex and Mini Golf, make good use of the available screen space.

    Playing with the click wheel takes some getting used to, and it’s different for each game. Each game is simple enough in its control scheme that the limited input the click wheel allows works well enough, and some, like Vortex and Bejeweled, have done a good job of figuring out ways to use the click wheel’s rotation capability. While some games require lots of tapping, others, like Pac-Man, simply require you to apply a bit of thumb pressure to the spot on the click wheel you want Pac-Man to move. Some games take longer than others to figure out; others get frustrating when you accidentally hit the click wheel in the wrong spot. (I’ve already folded a few winning hands at Texas Hold’em that way.)

    Sound quality in each of the games is excellent, with full stereo sound and rich sound effects. Each of the games has a basic structure that you’ll get to know pretty quickly—showing you time and battery level in upper corners of the screen, asking for your name (to record high scores) and asking you to save when you exit (presuming you’d like to continue a game in progress later).

    But other than that, each game has a pretty unique look and feel, and the developers have done a fine job getting their titles working on the iPod. I very much doubt that most people did what I did—plunking down a wad of cash to buy every game available for the iPod immediately—but I do know a few that have bought several, and many more that bought one or two. So it’s clear that Apple has really interested iPod users with this new feature.

    Time will tell whether iPod games are enough of a success to merit further expansion and development of the platform for gaming—I’m willing to bet that other games are on the way, for sure. But it’s a bit disheartening to see such little original development for the iPod—does anyone really need another platform to play Bejeweled or Tetris on? Those games are already available on everything from Macs to PDAs to cell phones.

    I hope Apple will ultimately let the developers that have supported the Mac for so long in on the game, because they have some great ideas on how to make iPod gaming fun. And more importantly, I hope Apple will actively foster the development of original gaming titles that help the iPod shine in its own right as a game system. At this point, it’s Apple’s game to lose.

    [ Senior News Editor Peter Cohen writes about games for Macworld ’s Game Room. ]

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