History Proves the iPhone Will Never Win the Handheld Gaming Wars

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Super Monkey Ball is arguably the current zenith of iPhone tilt gaming. The gameplay involves navigating your bebubbled monkey through a series of elevated, edgeless mazes without letting him fall—it's fun, if repetitive. Nintendo's Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble is similar: The player guides Kirby through mazes using tilt-sensitive control, collecting stars along the way. Both games are entertaining, and both won positive reviews for nearly identical control schemes. So why is Monkey Ball getting all the attention? Well, for one, Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble is only available for the the Game Boy Color. Oh, and it was released in 2001.

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Click to viewTo be fair, Monkey Ball has improved a lot on its spiritual forebear, with lush, fully 3D graphics and over 100 well-designed levels. It superficially reflects a few generational steps forward in handheld gaming. One thing that hasn't changed is the control mechanism. Consider this IGN review of Kirby from April of 2001:

This tilting feature is an integral part of the gameplay, and it really makes Kirby original and a lot of fun. The designers built the game around this sensor instead of putting a sensor into the game, and it really shows... Since you cannot zoom Kirby around the mazes without screwing up, patience is needed. Of course, you can't take your sweet time—the clock is ticking.

This could just as easily describe the experience of rolling AiAi around on your iPhone. The tilt sensor technology, built into the GBC cartridge, was functionally flawless, even by iPhone standards. The tilt-sensing scheme surfaced in a few more (equally impressive and well received) games, but none ventured too far from the navigation paradigm of Tilt 'n' Tumble. Over the next few years, position-sensitive handheld gaming faded into relative obscurity. At least, until now. Tilt gaming is now lauded by some as the future of portables, with developers and engineers making inconsistent claims about how powerful and exciting the iPhone is as a platform, even throwing out very favorable comparisons to the PSP and the DS. But does the iPhone really bring anything new to the table? The answer, as you've probably guessed by now, is no. Absolutely not.

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Think of it this way: The best implementation of iPhone tilt control is conceptually identical to a seven-year-old Game Boy title, which itself was based on the old wooden marble-in-a-labyrinth puzzles that have been around since, well, who knows? The iPhone doesn't have the buttons of the Game Boy (or DS or PSP), and touchscreen control overlays don't provide the feedback they need to be adequate substitutes. (Anyone who has played any of NES/SNES/Genesis jailbreak emulators can attest to this.) Perhaps most significantly, the iPhone doesn't address the shortcomings of tilt gaming that were helpfully pointed out to them in nearly every review of Kirby. Consider again the 2001 IGN review:

You're limited to where and how you can play the game, really... I've played the game outside and in a hotel room with no problems, but on the plane it was a little difficult because of the position you have to hold the system — it's not exactly a game you can sit in your most comfortable position and play.


And another, from the New York Times:

Children who play Kirby in the back seat of the car will learn to loathe potholes and quick turns, which can make Kirby spin out of control.


In respect to the limited locations in which you can play tilt games, the GBC cartridge system is actually superior to the iPhone, as it automatically recalibrates at the start of every game, a feature that Monkey Ball could stand to include. A portable gaming device that necessitates a certain type of location and position to play isn't truly portable. Anyone who has tried to play any of the iPhone's tilt games in a moving car, bus or even train will tell you that slight acceleration in any direction can make sensitive games like Crash Bandicoot Racing and Monkey Ball almost unplayable—and what good are handheld games if you can't play them in transit? Since the launch of the app store, nobody has come forward with a truly exciting and original implementation of tilt control. The iPhone has demonstrated that is it capable of retreading tilt gaming territory quite well, but that's about it. It sounds harsh to deem iPhone gaming a mere novelty, but until a developer steps forward with something profoundly revolutionary it may be just that. For the most accurate summation of the iPhone's tilt gaming, don't listen to John Carmack's breathless speculation, or Scott Forstall's eery, glossy-eyed presentations. Look back again, this time to Gamespot:

Yes, Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble is a gimmicky game, but it's a gimmicky game done well.


For Nintendo, handheld tilt gaming was a fanciful tangent; when the genre was exhausted, they were able to retreat to traditional controls. This option is unfortunately—and maybe fatally—absent from the iPhone, potentially relegating it to the unfortunate status of a impressive, elaborate gimmick.



@Shub-Niggurath: Wow, that's awesome.

I was just gonna say, what apple needs to do is either create their own external controller, or officially support a third party device. If they do, this could really open up the iphone as an amazing gaming device.

I would definitely pay, say... up to $50 for an official peripheral designed for gaming. With such a device, app developers could create more traditional games for the iPhone, thus taking more of my money!

Even if Apple doesn't get behind this thing, I imagine that installer and cydia developers will keep such a thing useful :) But yeah, i'd definitely prefer Apple to get behind it.