" With smartphone games, downtime becomes pastime; Entertaining apps make …

" With smartphone games, downtime becomes pastime; Entertaining apps make …
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Robo Defense, an Android game, is displayed on the Nexus S phone. The game is a variation of the tower defense category where the players must arrange their forces to ward off waves of attacks.
Photos by New York Times News Service

Entertaining apps make gamers of us all

By Seth Schiesel
/ New York Times News Service

Published: June 09. 2011 4:00AM PST

All right, fess up, people. Have you never played a game on your cellphone? Really? I’m here to let you know you can come out of the closet now.

It’s OK if you’re, say, a middle-aged woman who harbors a secret obsession with mastering “Angry Birds.” I know there are a lot of you out there. It’s perfectly acceptable now if your co-workers or children find out. Or maybe you’re an office worker whose commute or lunch break simply isn’t complete without a few (dozen) rounds of “BrickBreaker.” Oh yes, your numbers are legion.

We’re pretty much all gamers now, and with all respect to Facebook and the Wii, the prime driver of gaming’s new ubiquity is the proliferation of smartphones. Almost everyone takes a phone everywhere now, and almost all of those phones can run some decent games.

Of course, any phone can talk and text, so when people are choosing a phone they are generally considering two things: the network and the available applications. The best network for you depends mainly on where you live and where you travel, and now that the iPhone is available for both ATT and Verizon, you can make those choices more independently.

But when most people think about applications, what they’re really thinking about are games. As of early June, the top 14-selling applications on Apple’s iPhone App Store are all games. (The Android and BlackBerry markets are different, as we will explain.)

But which phones are best for games? And what are some of the best games available? To find out, I asked Apple, Google (which makes Android) and Research in Motion (the company behind BlackBerry), to send me their latest and greatest phones. Sorry, Microsoft, Windows didn’t make the cut this time. The three companies also sent their latest tablets.

For phones, Apple sent the iPhone 4 on Verizon (list price up to $699 without a contract commitment, also available for ATT), Google provided the Samsung Nexus S on T-Mobile (about $530, also available for Sprint and in a low-speed mode on ATT) and RIM provided the BlackBerry Torch 9800 on ATT ($549.99, no other carriers).

All of the devices were new to me. As a full-time video game writer I actually have not been steeped in mobile gadgetry over the last few years. I work at home and spend so many hours playing video games in my house that I don’t usually want to bury my head in a screen when I go out. My main phone is an extremely dumb old flip-top that I like because it is durable and the battery lasts for days. (The big problem with any of the fanciest smartphones is that if you use them at all intensively the battery is usually dead within 24 hours.)

After a few weeks of use at home and on the road, I came away with a fresh appreciation for all three systems. They are much more different from one another than I expected, and their distinct appeal is clear. Games are a part of that, but not the whole story.

It comes as no surprise, however, that if access to the largest and most diverse range of high-quality games is your main priority, you simply must have an iPhone 4, at least at the moment.

The App Store has become the forum for an entire generation of game designers who do not have the resources, depth of talent and perhaps even the inclination to make big-budget retail games for consoles or PCs. And so Apple’s App Store is bursting with enjoyable casual games that are consumed as people use their phones: on the train, in a restaurant (I know, I know), waiting outside in the car for the children after school and so on.

Unlike the best big games, iPhone games aren’t driven by narrative and character. And that’s just fine. The iPhone is a superior mass consumer device that does not allow the user to tinker under the hood in any meaningful way.

What I discovered in the Android, however, surprised me — the core Web browsing and e-mail experiences on Android were clearly superior to those on the iPhone. Android is also far more open in terms of what you can actually do with the device. You can download files and run programs on Android in ways the iPhone simply prohibits.

The catch is that while the Android Nexus S phone I used certainly feels at least as technically powerful as the iPhone 4, there are nowhere near as many good games available on the Android Market as there are in the App Store. Right now, the best-selling applications on Android are tech apps like file managers. There are some good games on Android, but they tend to be versions of games originally available on the iPhone.

The most interesting wrinkle to Android gaming is that the open nature of the system means that people are writing programs to run emulations of classic arcade and console games of decades past. The memory codes for thousands of old-school games have been available online for years. But it must be pointed out that installing them requires some technical know-how and is of dubious legality (so I won’t be explaining that in detail).

As for the BlackBerry, I was more impressed with the basic gaming systems of the new PlayBook tablet than I was with the Torch 9800 phone. BlackBerry is beginning to embrace the concept of downloadable third-party applications, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of the range and quality of games available and the ease of actually finding, paying for, downloading and installing them (which are a cinch on both Android and iPhone).

If you have to be on BlackBerry, there are a handful of simple diversions and a handful of surprisingly deep strategy games to take your mind off work until the next e-mail salvo arrives.

Here are some of the smartphone games I have found most enjoyable.

“Super Stickman Golf”: In the realm of physics-based two-dimensional puzzle games for the iPhone and iPad, I vastly prefer “Super Stickman” from “Noodlecake” to “Angry Birds.” I know that “Stickman” will never be anywhere near as popular as “Angry Birds.” It has none of the birds’ visual and auditory humor. The overall design is stripped down and bare with little of “Angry Birds’” impressive production quality. But I find the basic idea of trying to hit a ball into a hole across increasingly wild landscapes more engaging and less arbitrary than sling-shotting the avians.

“Uniwar”: “Uniwar” games available on the iPhone and Android tend to play similarly on the two devices. The two phones really do operate comparably (I prefer the navigation buttons on the Android and the screen on the iPhone). I like turn-based strategy games quite a lot, and “Uniwar” is the best of the breed I’ve found on a smartphone. The basic science fiction combat dynamics are both intuitive and well balanced. I discovered “Uniwar” on the iPhone but ended up playing mostly on Android.

“Orbital”: “Orbital” is one of those games that sneak up on you and gradually insinuate themselves into your psyche. As with most players, I’m sure, my first reaction to “Orbital,” for the iPhone and iPad, was confusion. You have to fire these little multicolored balls into a field and they expand into orbs until they touch something (a wall or another orb). Once you hit an orb three times it pops and disappears. Like most inventive puzzle games it sounds daft until you get the hang of it. Next thing you know an hour has gone by.

“The Oregon Trail: Gold Rush”: In the oldie-but-goodie category, the “Oregon Trail” games for BlackBerry stand tall. In fact the franchise, created in 1971 (predating “Pong” by a year), may be the oldest commercial video game series. Millions of people, including me, first developed an appreciation for the difficulty of the great 19th-century American migration through this game. It’s not a fancy application on BlackBerry, but the basic formula is as captivating as ever.

“The Heist”: This fabulous new brainteaser puzzle game for iPhone and iPad deserves its spot (as of this writing) as the top-selling program on the App Store. “The Heist” is built around four fairly simple sorts of puzzles like moving blocks but is executed with addictive flair. The puzzle play in “Heist” is reminiscent of the hit “Professor Layton” games on the Nintendo DS, though without “Layton’s” narrative charm. “The Heist” does, however, include the single most brilliant opening I’ve seen in a mobile game. I’ll let it be a surprise.

“Robo Defense”: The whole tower defense genre is a little worn by now, but that doesn’t mean that a good, solid game of this type can’t still keep you coming back. There is nothing especially innovative in “Robo Defense,” but it is a well-executed take on the tower defense concept and the best I found on the Android. Arranging your forces to fend off never-ending waves of foes still has its appeal.

“Supersonic”: If you like groovy electronica beats and hypnotic, somewhat psychedelic gameplay, “Supersonic” for the iPhone and iPad is your game. You basically go flying down these twisty tubes holding the phone like a steering wheel. As you pick up goodies and avoid obstacles, you go faster and faster and the music starts to pulsate more and more vividly. Not for those with vertigo problems.

“Chess With Friends”: “Words With Friends” is a lot more popular, but I’m partial to “Chess With Friends.” It does what it says and it works. This game, for iPhone and iPad, is the only game on this list that is best when played against other real people. The social relationships that people build and maintain with other players on games like this is really the “secret sauce” to the iPhone’s success. People want to be on the same phone as their friends, and these days that usually seems to mean the iPhone.

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