Why the iPhone/iPad can't be the future of videogames.

The iPhone and iPad are not the future of gaming. Ironically, it took a rather spectacular game, Castlevania: Encore of the Night, to help me fully conclude this.

You’d think Castlevania: Encore of the Night would be as convincing a title as any as to the promise of iPhone/iPad gaming. Its got great 2d visuals, awesome music, and familiar RPG elements all wrapped in a thoughtful Puzzle Fighter-esque sort of puzzle game. It’s a card-carrying member of one of traditional videogaming’s longest running and most well-regarded franchises, Castlevania by Konami.

What’s the problem, then? It’s a puzzle game, albeit a fine one, which really begs the question, why aren’t we playing a traditional Castlevania game on the iPhone/iPad? It’s because we can’t. With the lack of tactile controls, use of a traditional directional pad and buttons aren’t available and movement would either be reduced to a tiresome tap and drag affair or to a pathetic on-screen representation of a directional pad and buttons.

Even Castlevania: Encore of the Night, despite its good design, is rather a chore to play. (You have to click on each block to rotate it and ‘swipe’ to move it left or right). What does it say about the iPhone/iPad that it can’t even play Commodore 64 games properly (via the admittedly cool Commodore 64 emulator now available in the iTunes store). The player has to use an onscreen representation of a joystick and button, thus impairing control and reducing screen real-estate dramatically. Think about that. A 30-year old gaming machine with 64k of memory can outperform this machine at certain gaming-related tasks.

You might argue that I can’t expect ‘traditional’ games to work in the iPhone/iPad, and that these platforms require both developers and gamers to think of new types of games and new ways to play them. You might insinuate that the days of directional pads and buttons have gone the way of the Atari 2600 joystick before it, deep into oblivion or into nostalgic fantasies, whichever comes first.

You’d be both right and wrong. Yes, the iPhone/iPad enables new types of games, many of which have not been done before, and that’s great. It’s bringing new people into gaming, which is also great. Does this mean the old games are inferior or past their prime? Not a chance.

The “traditional” videogame (with tactile controls) has been around for over 30 years producing countless genres, variations, experiments, and experiences. Can a touch screen provide the same diversity of experiences? Color me unconvinced. The gestures just seem too imprecise on such a small screen and with such fat fingers.

I think the time is ripe for a mobile phone with simple gaming controls included to help bring a more complete gaming experience to the masses. A directional pad, two buttons, and perhaps two shoulder buttons would certainly suffice.

One wonders why Nintendo didn’t every attempt such a hybrid device. At the time of the Wii launch with the Nintendo DS riding high, Nintendo’s reputation was sparkling and it seemed that they could do no wrong. Even the simple, glossy white look of their peripherals, consoles, and interfaces was downright Apple-esque. A Nintendo DS with even a marginal phone built in, courtesy of a partner in the mobile phone industry, seems like it could have been a success, or at least an interesting failure.

Nintendo was probably wise not to make such a gambit, as navigating Nintendo’s online store via the Wii leaves a lot to be desired from a user interface standpoint. Designing a full-fledged phone would certainly have been biting off more than they could have chewed.

The iPhone/iPad might be great for simple games on the bus, but they’re not the future of videogaming. Not until they can play Castlevania. The Castlevania from 1986, that is.

Castlevania in 1986. Inexplicably better than today?