It’s been only two years since iTunes introduced the App Store. In that short time, third-party developers have released over a quarter of a million applications for Apple’s touch screen devices, including an inexhaustible library of cheap games.
Besides being affordable and accessible, many of these games have realized the versatility of the hardware. For instance, certain games utilize an on-screen joystick or “controller” to offset the iPhone’s lack of buttons.
If you look in the right places, there is a vast array of ingenious ideas coming from these small developers.
“Plants vs. Zombies” ($3), for instance, fits within the crowded genre of tower defense games but stands out for its charm and accessibility.
You play the role of a homeowner, protecting yourself from flesh-eating zombies by growing seed-spitting plants around your property. Your enemies and allies, rendered in an attractively zany art style, are diverse and hilarious: you’ll see corn-cob torpedoes, a pole-vault zombie, and another undead who is based directly off of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
The touch screen works surprisingly well for placing your allies; you have just as much control as you would with the PC iteration of the game. Furthermore, the iPhone version is loaded with all content found in the original PC version, losing only its $20 price tag.
In the meditative puzzler “Zen Bound” ($3), your task is to maneuver a short rope around intricate “wooden” figurines. You will need to be precise so that the whole surface area is covered. The objects become increasingly difficult to bind as they have more crannies than nooks or fewer sharp angles for the rope to grip on to.
But there’s no need to rush: unlike other games in the “puzzle” genre, “Zen Bound” is free of a time limit, and actually rewards contemplation. The ambient soundtrack and detailed, Oriental-themed art secure a quieter, subtler game experience.
“Osmos” ($3) drifts at the same pace in some ways, though the premise of the game isn’t as easy to absorb. You control a circular orb—one of many, all varying in size, set against a black backdrop that looks like outer space.
These galactic-looking orbs behave in a cellular sort of way: the big orbs “suck up” the smaller ones as they come into contact. Your object, then, is to work your orb to “the top of the food chain” by preying on the lesser and evading the larger.
However, they only way to propel yourself is by releasing small portions of mass as “fuel,” which are eaten up by surrounding orbs. Movements, then, must be very methodical. This is especially true of later levels, which contain gravitational orbits and intelligent “enemies.” Even so, the basic scheme of the game comes pretty instinctually.
Another title, “Spider: The Secret of Bryce Mayor” ($3), casts you as a web-spinning arachnid. Yes, the game plays exactly how you think it would. You will catch other insects in your silk and crawl up mansion-themed objects—both of which are very satisfying. There is also an intriguing story lurking about the abandoned manor. But what is most gratifying is that somebody finally caught on to a new web of simple, fresh ideas.
Finally, “Squareball” ($1) is the perfect fusion of retro gaming’s most important: “Pong” and “Super Mario Bros.” Other iPhone games have tried to imitate the left-to-right, jump heavy gameplay of “Mario,” but have had a difficult time offering precise controls.
Departing from the unreliable d-Pad and button control scheme, this game makes the “jumping” automatic: your character bounces vertically from wall to wall, a la “Pong.” Your only motion is quick swipes to the left and right, which move you further into this Atari-esque maze.
This is far from easy, as many mazes have more gaps than wall space. Thus, the game retains something else from retro gaming: the demand for twitchy, muscle-memory reflexes. If you like a challenge, take this one up.