Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cave + iPhone: Pocket-Sized Anxiety (The Good Kind)

It was only a matter of time until one of the current leaders of the arcade and console shmup world would delve into the untapped pockets of iOS device aficionados. Of course there have been many shmups on the iPhone ever since the App store opened up, but many of them were either homebrew experiments or ports of golden oldies from yesteryear. While those both have their place in the market, it wasn't until Cave decided to step into the game with ESPGaluda II that we would really see what the devices are capable of.

I would imagine the hardest part of porting this mammoth to a handheld device was to maintain the same level of intensity, challenge, and skillset we all know, love, and dream about from the arcade and console versions. While there have been several cutbacks in the art department (explosions appear to have half of their animation frames removed), the game for the most part looks just as I remember it, albeit at a lower resolution.

Most importantly of all, the framerate maintains a beautiful consistency of smoothness and the bullets are just as easily recognizable as I've come to expect from Cave games. These two factors very rapidly kill my enjoyment of a good shmup when poorly executed, but to be honest, the most important factor is of course controls.

So Much Touch!
Without a proper / well-implemented way to control a game, it's just not going to do well because people can't become amazing at it. Luckily for Cave, they've allowed other shmups to come and go (figuratively, since the App store is everlasting), finding out what input methods work the best for a device that has no buttons. The three major players have been:
  • On-Screen Buttons - These are cool if you are allowed to take your eyes off the gameplay every time you want to change direction. A shmup is usually not one of these games.
  • Accelerometer Control - This would be useful if you both lived in a glareless world and didn't have such precise movements to make in order to weave through your pending bullet grave. For more simplistic shmups, this is tolerable.
  • Touch-And-Drag - This breaks down into two categories for how the touch is registered:
    • Absolute - No matter where your finger is on the screen, your character will be right under it, or at least at a predetermined distance away from it. Some people like to call this cheating. It also doesn't let you see the hit zone of your ship since your own body part would be in the way all the time.
    • Relative - The character is moved the same distance and direction that your finger moves, no matter where you begin touching and dragging. This allows you to touch where there is nothing of importance, giving you a clear view of your character at all times. Cave went with this one.
The Difficulty Lump
Going with this control method immediately alters the feel of the game. Originally, the three playable characters had varying move speeds which correlated to their shot types (e.g. slow and powerful, quick and weak). It was a balance that made sense and didn't immediately cater to any one character. It fit play styles of the different kinds of players in the world.

Now, on the iPhone, all characters move as fast as your finger can. Technically, there is a maximum speed, sometimes causing a delay before the character arrives at its destination, but the point is that they all move the same speed. Now, the only differing factor is their shot types, which immediately makes the more powerful ones the obvious choices, unless you like a challenge or something (or want to dominate with a lesser-used character on the leaderboards).

And then they went and messed with the difficulty of the game itself. I have absolutely no problem with making tweaks to things with which people were already generally in love. After all, it's a drastically different device with different needs and circumstances. From what I understand, the hardest difficulty setting on the iPhone version is identical to the easiest version on XBox360. This can mean either the iPhone version gets way too easy, or that the XBox360 version gets way too hard. The answer is both.

Is the hardest mode on the iPhone still challenging though? Of course. However, I managed to beat it on a single credit within a few tries. For those that know me well, I usually don't do that. Ever. Especially with a Cave game no less. Did I still have fun? Definitely. I still come back and play it during downtime or unnecessarily long load times on another nearby device.

Despite these interesting choices and changes made for the portable version of one crazy shmup, the game still holds up. It still feels like a Cave game. The soundtrack certainly hasn't taken a hit one bit, which is a significant reason why I still play (with pink headphones, naturally).

Here's a crazy promotional video of the iPhone version. It's a bit pricey compared to most Apps, but if you're an importer, you know this is a steal. And it's in English this time ;]

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]