[Continuing Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, sister site FingerGaming's EIC Danny Cowan rounds up the top 5 iPhone games of the year, sifting through the highly competitive market to recognize Rolando, Eliss and more. Previously: Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games.]
Since opening last year, the iTunes App Store -- the mobile storefront for iPhone and iPod Touch games and applications -- has grown exponentially in size. The App Store boasted more than 10,000 available apps at the end of 2008. One year later, as of this writing, that number has risen to more than 112,000.
Developers rushed to the platform after witnessing its potential as a gaming device. Some indies became overnight success stories, generating thousands of dollars in daily revenue. Soon, even big-name industry publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision turned their attention to the platform, eager to capitalize on its growing market.
App Store developers now face tougher competition than ever before. In addition to competing against high-quality offerings from established publishers, many independent developers now wage a race to the bottom among themselves, pricing their offerings at cutthroat rates in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on Apple's daily sales charts.
In this highly competitive market, it takes a truly exceptional game to stand out from the crowd and earn the recognition it deserves. These are the five best titles released for the iPhone and iPod Touch this year.
Throw a wooden ball up a ramp. With skill, you'll land it in one of the cups at the end of the lane, earning points. After throwing nine balls up the ramp, the game ends. Get a high score and you'll earn tickets, which you can redeem for pointless prizes.
So what's the big deal, here? Why was such a simple game charting as one of the App Store's top sellers for months on end? Skee-Ball isn't innovative by any means, but it manages to so effectively translate an arcade mainstay to the iPhone's touch screen that you'll find yourself hopelessly addicted, very quickly.
Everything here is rich with authenticity. The physics are spot-on. The sound effects are unmistakable. The touch-and-drag controls are satisfying, and redeeming tickets to add to your collection of cheesy prizes never gets old, even after months of playtime. You'll boot it up with the intent of only playing a round or two, only to find yourself playing it several minutes later with no intent of stopping -- a hallmark of any great mobile game.
The original Rolando debuted at the tail end of 2008, introducing iPhone owners to a new take on the puzzle-platforming genre. Rolando 2 improves upon the first game in every way, adding a smooth 3D graphics engine, more levels of play, and several new gameplay mechanics.
Rolando 2 makes heavy use of the iPhone's hardware features for control input, yet it does so in a way that seems neither gimmicky nor half-baked. The little Rolandos roll and slide in precise response to tilting the iPhone, and all touch screen input is simple and satisfying.
Perhaps moreso than any other game on the platform, Rolando 2 aptly demonstrates the iPhone's unique properties as a gaming platform. There's also a great amount of gameplay variety to be found here, so even after the initial novelty wears off, players will want to see the lengthy quest through to the end.
Edge is one of the best games you can buy for the iPhone...if you can find it. A drawn-out legal battle between Edge developer Mobigame and the supposed trademark owner of the word "edge" ensures that Edge's availability in the App Store -- either under its original name or as the recently retitled "Edgy" -- is sporadic at best, thanks to a seemingly unending cycle of complaint, removal, and reapproval. As of this writing, Edge is not available for purchase in the App Store.
Assuming that you are able to grab a copy while it's available, though, you'll find that Edge is an engaging puzzler requiring fast reflexes. Players guide a multicolored cube through a series of isometric environments, flipping it in one of four directions to progress. Obstacles, traps, and shifting environments fill every level, and the more difficult challenges require the player to delicately balance the cube on its edge in order to progress.
For all its critical acclaim, it's a shame that many iPhone owners are unable to experience Edge for themselves, due to its continuing legal troubles. Here's hoping that a solution arrives soon, so that developer Mobigame can get its due, and so that every App Store user can play one of the best iPhone games of 2009.
There's nothing else like Eliss on the iPhone, or on any other platform. In Eliss, players must group together circular planets and drag them to safety in a harsh interstellar environment. Dropping one planet on another results in a single bigger orb, while placing two fingers on a large planet and dragging them apart results in two smaller dwarf planets. It's a very tactile experience -- you'll often find yourself placing multiple fingers from both hands on the screen at once.
Eliss was a very challenging game when it launched in the App Store earlier this year. The difficulty level ramped up very quickly, and it proved to be quite a challenge for new players. Since then, however, developer Steph Thirion has studied player feedback and has bridged the challenge gap by adding new levels that range from easy to moderate difficulty, making the experience much more pleasant and better-paced.
This change -- one that turned a game that was merely good into something truly special -- was made possible thanks to the ease in which App Store developers are able to update their applications after release. By listening to feedback and implementing customer suggestions, iPhone developers are free to polish their applications until they shine.
Space Invaders Infinity Gene takes the basic gameplay of its 1978 arcade progenitor and evolves it rapidly throughout the course of gameplay. Players start out facing a single wave of invaders marching slowly in predetermined paths. Soon, Infinity Gene transforms into an intense vertically scrolling shooter in which every level adds a new set of challenges.
Infinity Gene's biggest success, however, is its control scheme. While many iPhone shooters released this year suffer from awkward virtual d-pads or imprecise tilt-based controls, Infinity Gene takes a different approach. Your ship autofires. You control it by touching any part of the screen and dragging your finger in the direction you want to go. It's simple. It works.
Infinity Gene is both a fantastic retro revival and a exceptional vertical shooter in its own right. This is high praise on any platform, but to achieve such heights on the iPhone is nothing short of remarkable.
Honorable Mentions: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style), Soosiz (Touch Foo), Tap Tap Revenge 3 (Tapulous), Zen Bound (Secret Exit), and Metal Gear Solid Touch (Konami).