iPhone and Game

iPhone and Game
An Arcade in Your Pocket

Les Chappell | 15 Sep 2009 12:13
iPhone and Game - RSS 2.0

Professional game developers aren't the only ones flocking to Apple's handheld; the platform offers plenty of opportunities for independent developers as well. Among them is Christian Whitehead, a programmer who developed the iPhone Retro Engine and Retro Software Development Kit for the purpose of more easily converting older games to run natively on the iPhone. Using the engine - and years of experience playing Sonic the Hedgehog titles - Whitehead was able to program a full port of Sonic CD using the iPhone's software to clean up the graphics and display the game in widescreen format.

Whitehead says he has been in talks with Sega regarding making the port available on the App Store, adding the experience has driven his interest for future retro games. "This is the style of game development I love, where small, even one-man teams work hard to produce stuff ranging from old school to outright experimental," Whitehead says.

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Other independent developers have gone a bit further, replicating not just retro games but entire systems. After creating a successful port of the Amiga game Flashback, developer Manomio programmed an iPhone emulator for the Commodore 64 that simulates the original Commodore experience by using the original graphics and sound and incorporating the options to switch between "red ball" joystick and keyboard. The program is currently in App Store limbo after Apple learned of a hack that allowed users to access the emulator's BASIC programming language, but Manomio has submitted a new version that it expects Apple to approve shortly.

"Many of these games are still incredibly playable today," says Stuart Carnie, Chief Technology Officer of Manomio. "They are easy to pick up, with relatively simple controls and provide the user with instant gratification."

From Stick to Screen

For all developers' success at porting retro titles to the iPhone, there are intrinsic limitations to the platform. While services like XBLA or Steam can usually employ a game's original input device, the iPhone must rely on its touchscreen and accelerometer. As a result, developers have to tackle issues like providing the player adequate input feedback and ensuring touchscreen commands don't obstruct players' view of the action.

"It's difficult to please everybody with standard touchscreen D-pad controls, so it's important to have several control schemes on offer," Whitehead says.

In some cases, the simplicity of older titles works in the iPhone's favor. For example, in its original form, Space Ace's gameplay was a string of quick-time events that required the player to move the joystick or press buttons at the exact moment when items lit up. The iPhone port includes a D-pad in the right corner and joystick button on the left; tapping them at the right time moves the gameplay forward. The 1993 adventure game Myst's iPhone port is similarly seamless, with the game's original point-and-click interface replaced by touching the screen instead of a mouse.

Others, like Manomio's C64 emulator, attempt to mimic more complicated control schemes. The emulator displays a traditional Commodore 64 controller when the player holds the iPhone vertically, but when the player tilts the phone horizontally, the joystick moves in response to where the player's fingers are. Carnie said incorporating this functionality was one of the more difficult parts of creating the port, particularly with the lack of tactile feedback. "You must constantly be aware of your fingers and the location of the buttons, taking your concentration away from the gameplay," Carnie said. "I'm sure muscle memory will eventually help, but it's different for every game."

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