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Published on October 24th, 2009 | by AppTrawler


Feature: Game Control – What Works?

When the iPhone and iPod Touch were first discussed as gaming platforms, many people thought they would fail due to their lack of buttons. Of course, the gigabytes of awesome games on the App Store have proven such claims wrong. We thought we’d take a closer look at iDevice controls by chomping on a cigar Clint Eastwood-style, and looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly (in no particular order).

The Good:

Modern Combat: Sandstorm

Leave it to Gameloft, a developer that’s put oodles of high-profile games on the App Store, to get first-person shooter controls exactly right. Sure, Wolfenstein 3D was lauded as proof that an FPS could even work on the platform, but the feel of Modern Combat leaves Wolfenstein, and most other FPS titles, in the Middle Eastern dust. You have one onscreen analog stick for movement, and the rest of the screen for swiping to look around. All other FPS developers, take note.

Meteor Blitz

There’s Meteor Blitz, and then there are all other dual-stick shooters on the App Store. With the whirlwind pace this game builds up to, it needs tight controls, and Meteor Blitz does not disappoint in the least. In fact, you’ll forget that your thumbs are touching nothing but glass when wave after wave of enemies surround your ship and thrust full-throttle directly at you. You practically mind-meld with your iDevice, this game feels so natural to control. Oh, and if your thumbs come off the controls for even a nanosecond, the game pauses automatically. We think more games should do that.


Onscreen touch buttons get a bad rap from people who haven’t used them, and for good reason: they don’t seem like they would work. Any Super Mario Brothers fan could tell you how important it is to have your thumbs on physical buttons when playing a twitch-reaction side-scrolling platformer. And to be honest, it’s not like we haven’t struggled: We can’t tell you how many times we accidentally butt-stomped in Castle of Magic because our thumb slid to the down arrow mid-jump. But Soosiz pares down the controls to the bare necessities, and they feel just as good as an NES controller. Every time we died in this game, it was because we miscalculated. We have no other excuse. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

The controls in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor might make you think the system was made for the game rather than the other way around. There’s no onscreen D-pad, no touch buttons, no user interface at all. There’s only touch. Touch the screen, and the spider moves to exactly where you want him to go. Swipe, and he launches into the air, following the exact arc of your finger. Throw in character animation that looks eerily like the locomotion of a real spider, and you’ve got a game that feels as good as it looks.

Harbor Master

We all know that Flight Control is the original line-drawing game, and a perfect fit for the platform. But Harbor Master’s take on the genre offers many additions and improvements, including better controls. When you draw a line from a ship to a dock, the route clicks into place every time. Flight Control takes a little more finesse, a more exact path to the runway. This makes Harbor Master much more accessible than its predecessor, and even harder to put down.

The Bad:

Duke Nukem 3D

This game is a nightmare to control. The analog control option was completely useless when the game launched, and even after the update it’s still hardly up to snuff. We had to fiddle with the digital controls for the better part of an hour before we finally pieced together something we could play the game with.

And while we’re at it, let us lodge a complaint about infinitely customizable controls in general. In Duke Nukem (and Wolfenstein 3D) you can literally drag every button anywhere on the screen you want. This is great in theory but overwhelming in practice. Developers should give us a workable control scheme right out of the gate. We’re not programmers, and we don’t want to have to customize every little piece of the user interface in order to play the game. All we want to do is dive in as quickly as possible. Let us.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

At first glance, the point-and-click adventure genre would seem like an ideal match for the iDevice, as you can tap anywhere on the screen without needing to drag a cursor around. In the Secret of Monkey Island, however, the developers decided to keep the cursor. This made gameplay feel awkward and unintuitive, creating a barrier between players and an otherwise brilliant game. The developers of the recent port of Beneath a Steel Sky learned from this mistake and employed a system in which clickable objects are highlighted as you drag your finger near them. It works great, and we wish Monkey Island would be updated to follow suit.


While the immersive audio may be the intended star of the show, the controls steal the experience and drive it into the ground. You’re supposed to tip and tilt your iDevice to aim your bow and arrow at a mythical bird that flies around your character. The problem is that the inept use of the accelerometer controls make this feat nearly impossible to accomplish. So impossible, in fact, that the developers have offered ,500 to anyone who records a video of themselves beating level 25. We’d rather pass on the money and save our valuable time.

Lumines – Touch Fusion

Puzzle games are a dime a dozen on the App Store, and for good reason: they’re perfect for short-burst gaming, and touch controls work magnificently for most of them. Enter Lumines to screw it all up. This is a Tetris-like game in which precision is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, precision is the last thing you get when dragging the blocks around. This goes to show that porting a game to the iDevice takes time, care, and an acknowledgement of the strengths and limitations of the hardware. The developer of Lumines has ignored all of these points, and the result is a nearly unplayable game.

The Ugly:

Enviro-Bear 2010

Nothing about the controls of Enviro-Bear feels right. Many have posited that that’s the point. Either way, nobody should pay money for this madman’s fever dream of a game. Sorry, Enviro Bear. You’re still awful.

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About the Author

Ian loves to write about everything he does. Whether he is playing video games, trying out new apps, running a successful business, or jumping out of a plane... he documents it!

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