There are some really, really great iPhone games. And there are more coming. The unsung hero of the iPhone 3GS (and upcoming iPod Touch) is the new graphics chip, which is going to rock the socks off what we’ve been seeing so far.
That said, I’m really worried. Let me tell you why.
Phoenix Wright is a ridiculous game. You play a crazy, how-did-he-pass-the-bar-exam defense attorney who ends up with hopeless cases where clients are consistently and inexplicably being framed by huge criminal organizations, the government, and/or the prosecution. Which, by the way, is allowed to bring weapons in to the courtroom and assault and batter both you and officers of the court. In a court system in which clients are guilty until proven innocent, and the prosecution has all of the evidence. Also, you have psychic powers and summon people back from the dead to hear them testify.
Suppose you are a gaming exec and somebody pitches this idea to you. WTF? Dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. What genre would this even be? What’s the demographic for bizarro-world law and order? How is this universe even remotely self-consistent, let alone sane enough for a rational player?
The thing about the Phoenix Wright franchise, though, is that it’s quite possibly the best mobile gaming franchise ever made. For one, its episodic format fits perfectly into the mobile space; its gripping plot and stunning characterization stand out like an extremely good book. I feel like I know Detective Gumshoe, something so hard to pull off in this format I don’t even know where to begin. Somehow, the writing is so good that this insane world actually feels believable. The plot is so complex that the detail you missed back in game one should have tipped you off that so-and-so was the criminal mastermind in game four, and people endlessly speculate online about things like this like they did back when maybe Dumbledore wasn’t dead. The localization team has quite possibly performed a miracle: the text effortlessly weaves together nerd humor, insightful aphorisms (thanks Godot!), witty puns, and the whole thing feels so polished you’ll swear it was originally a DS title (it wasn’t) and it was originally in English (nope).
You won’t find Phoenix Wright on an iPhone. Sure, you’ll find innovative indie houses that find new and clever things to do with accelerometers and location, that make beautiful, well-designed titles. This is new and exciting, and is bringing a lot of new players into the game space that weren’t there before.
But look at Nintendo’s stable. No, really, look at it. You’ve got The World Ends With You, and its sibling, Devil Survivor. Here are two breathtakingly-gorgeous games that are innovative and refreshing and all that cool “indie” stuff. And they have epic story arcs that make you feel something. FF: Echoes of Time. Solid franchise (arguably the solid franchise), solid gameplay, very competitive graphics (when you ponder this is done without real 3D acceleration, it really becomes a WTF moment), and an excellent story. Covenant of the Plume, a dark, serious story-driven title. Suikoden Tierkreis (possibly best-looking mobile game ever). DQIV. Fire Emblem. FFIV. Tactics A2, arguably the greatest strategy game ever. I dunno, just work your way down the Editor’s Choice list: these are 100+ hour titles that look great, play great, and tell a great story.
Now go down the iPhone game list. You’ve got some good titles. Alternate Endings is cool. CSI: Miami worked a lot better than it sounded on paper. You’ve got your prettied-up Nethacks, which are playable, I guess, but no feeling. You’ve got Monkey Island, which is a great idea but too buggy to be playable. You’ve got Myst, which I’m sure was a checkbox for the rights holders (seriously, what platform does Myst NOT run on). You’ve got some good “casual gaming” or whatever titles where you tap some colored circles to music or play something that looks an awful lot like Tetris except has some “innovative” feature like blocks moving sideways or something. And then you’ve got the artsy titles which are really decent–I mean somebody really loved this game–but it just doesn’t hook me without a killer plot.
Now here’s what I can’t figure out: we’re told that gatekeepers (like Nintendo) keep innovation out of the marketplace, because they’re motivated to not take risks and such. But the fact of the matter is, Nintendo is consistently turning out excellent, high-quality titles, while, conversely, the king of the app store is mass market fluff. I mean if you asked me “Which will be backed by a video game conglomerate: crazy innovative lawyer game or Tetris clone,” my money is on Nintendo passing on an innovative game and settling for something with wide appeal, the developer instead sets up shop with Apple and makes a million bucks. And yet.
So I draw two conclusions from all of this. First of all, I’m not throwing away my DS. Nintendo’s hardware may be woefully behind, but they’ve nailed mobile gaming, at least for me. You can pry their titles from my cold, dead hands.
And the other is, in spite of my aversion to taking on new work, I’m dying to put a decent story arc on an iPhone. I’m dying to take old-school adventure RPGs, bring them into the 21st century with some GPS or multiplayer or something, and get them on the App Store. I’m dying to feel something again. So if that’s your cup of tea, feel free to hit me up and we can work on it.