Screen Mashing: Sports titles show iPhone OS's gaming limitations

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| August 25, 2009


Last week I got a review copy of Gameloft's NFL 2010. This week EA Mobile released some screenshots previewing their forthcoming Madden 2010 for iPhone. Must be football season, even though it's still August.

Gameloft did a really nice job, I think, of developing a casual football title for iPhone. Madden iPhone's screenshots look great, and people are all in a tizzy about the uber-popular franchise coming to iPhones and iPod Touches. But after running through a half dozen or so games on NFL 2010, not to mention countless matches on Touch Sports Tennis '09 and Real Soccer 2009, I've more or less decided that sports gaming on an all-touch system won't ever be all that great. There are exceptions - golf comes immediately to mind - and I consider racing and "sports novelty" games (like free throw shooting) to have their own genres. But the long and short of it is that fun sports games require button mashing, and virtual buttons just don't cut it.

Actually, I've found the virtual joysticks on NFL 2010 and Real Soccer 2009 to be more frustrating than the virtual buttons. Thumbstick or D-Pad, the lack of tactile feedback in iPhone OS' control scheme just really kills it for me when I'm trying to scramble my QB out of the pocket or send my outside middie on a far post run. Mashing virtual A and B buttons isn't great, but it's doable - I have fun playing Galaga on iPhone even if it's not as fun as Galaga on an Android device, where there's an actual fire button to wear my thumb out on. But controlling on-screen athletes is just really frustrating with a virtual stick/pad, at least for me.

Innovative iPhone platformers have incorporated or even been built around the OS' unique controls, assigning gameplay movements/actions to swiping, pinching, and gesturing on the screen and even tilting the device. Touch Sports Tennis tried to incorporate tilting into its game play by offering "tilt to aim" shot control, but I found the novelty quickly wore off. Instead of deflty aiming my shots, I found myself annoyed that I had to crane my neck to see the constantly-titling screen.

Maybe I'm just too used to "conventional" game controls like physical joysticks and buttons. Maybe I prefer Android hardware for gaming because the three Android devices I've tried (G1, myTouch 3G, and Hero) all have trackballs just like the Atari arcade games I grew up with (Centipede, Football, and Missile Command, amongst ohers). Or maybe all-touch controls just kinda bite it when it comes to fast action sports games that seem to thrive on consoles equipped with dual-stick, multi-button controllers.

Sports games on Wii work because you don't have to look at the controller like you do with iPhone OS. If I could tilt and swing my iPhone around like a tennis racquet while viewing the game on a stationary monitor in front of me, that'd be one thing. But trying to control a game by gesturing with the actual display I'm watching the action on? Too tough for me, sorry.

Beyond that, there's the matter of screen real estate eaten up by those virtual controls. iPhone and iPod Touch have nice big displays for cell phones, but they're not super huge. Since touchable D-pads and buttons wind up on the screen - and not flanking the screen as with the hardware controls on a system like Sony's PSP - you wind up with a bit less screen space for the actual game play. 

Game developers are trying all sorts of thngs to get around the problem, and it's worth re-stating the obvious: iPhone OS is a multipurpose communications/entertainment platform, and not a dedicated gaming system. I'm not apologizing for Apple with that, but instead bringing up the fact that comparing Madden on a jack-of-all-trades like iPhone/iPod Touch to Madden on a dedicated portable gaming system like PSP is inevitably going to be a bit unfair. Especially when iPhone OS games tend to sell for $10 or less, and not the $30-35 that top-tier PSP titles command on launch day.

NFL 2010 is fun - I'll get more into that in a dedicated review - and I've yet to play the forthcoming Madden title for iPhone. But returning to my PSP for a quick quarter's worth of Madden '09 reminded me how much more fun it is to have a D-Pad, analog stick, and a mess of buttons at my command when launching my virtual aerial assault on the AFC West. iPhone OS is great for casual gaming but when it comes to sports games, there's nothing like mashing a ton of buttons in vain as your perfect spiral floats just over the outstretched arms of your wide-open receiver on fourth-and-goal.

Which makes me wonder, yet again: Will anyone ever release a snap-on gaming pad for iPhone/iPod Touch? If so, would it be a success, or would it fail like the innovative but clunky LG Versa? Thoughts? Comments?

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