For a good two decades, the PC was the go-to platform for adventure games, with our monitors and screen resolutions growing year after year. When the Nintendo DS burst onto the scene, at first it seemed like its two miniature screens couldn’t possibly provide as robust a gaming experience as a PC’s hulking display. But it turns out adventures can be just as fun on the small screen, and these days they’re going smaller still, with a bunch of old favorites and brand new offerings popping up for Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch. Can an adventure game truly be enjoyable on such a tiny device? The answer is yes—provided you can actually find the game you’re looking for in order to purchase it.
With thousands of apps to sort through and more added every day, browsing the App Store is a daunting task. The good news is it has an adventure section. Not as good: most of the world doesn’t define “adventure” the way an adventure gamer does. Even so, you’d expect it wouldn’t be too difficult to find the handful of high profile iPhone adventures we’ve been hearing so much about—updated versions of old classics like Monkey Island and the remastered Beneath a Steel Sky; new titles like Hector: Badge of Carnage and Puzzle Agent. Instead, the Top 25 list is usually bloated with non-adventures ranging from arcade games to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto. With every tap of the “Twenty Five More” button at the end of the list, one’s hopes for handheld adventure gaming sink lower and lower.
Rest assured, there are a slew of adventure (and adventure-like) games available for iPhone / iPod Touch—you just have to skip the Top 25 list completely and instead search for games by name. Better yet, read on! Here are a handful to get you started, in the first of an ongoing series of articles devoted to spreading the word about iPhone adventures you may not even know exist.
The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
Surely you’ve heard of Monkey Island—Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™ and all that? LucasArts’ recent Special Editions are hiding out in the App Store, and while the overall playing experience may not be as good as on PC, they’re still worth a look from any iPhone / iPod Touch gamer hungry for a good adventure. If you’re not already familiar with the upgraded versions of these classic games, check out Adventure Gamers’ reviews of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge for an overview of story, gameplay, and what’s new since the originals.
If you’re choosing only one of them, I recommend the second game due to interface improvements that make it much easier to control. LeChuck’s Revenge gives you a choice between direct input or trackpad controls. Direct input is pretty straightforward: you tap an icon at the bottom of the screen to pick your verb (walk, talk, use, etc.), then tap the area of the screen where you want to interact. The trackpad controls add an extra step, requiring you to drag a cursor across the screen to position the verb icon before you tap to interact. If you accidentally tap before the cursor is in exactly the right place, the verb defaults to Walk and you have to start over. This may be similar to how point-and-click works with a mouse, but it’s surprisingly cumbersome on the touch screen. In The Secret of Monkey Island, only this trackpad option is present, making it far less intuitive to control than its sequel.
The Monkey Island Special Editions on iPhone / iPod Touch include voice acting, background music, and the option to toggle between classic and updated graphics. There’s also a hint feature that’s supposed to kick in when you jiggle the device. This doesn’t always work as intended; sometimes hints popped up when I didn’t mean to ask for them and other times I couldn’t get a hint even after treating my iPod Touch like a martini shaker. The updated graphics are sharp on the small screen, and even the classic graphics look decent at this small resolution. Both Monkey Island games have free demos (referred to as “lite” versions in the App Store), so you can test out your tolerance with the interface before you shell out your pieces of eight.
Simon the Sorcerer
Another throwback to adventure gaming’s golden age, Simon the Sorcerer is one of several games ported to iPhone / iPod Touch by developer iPhSoft. In this comic British adventure, teenaged wizard-in-training Simon is whisked to a magical dimension with his dog, Chippy, where he’s tasked with rescuing the wizard Calypso from the evil Sordid. For more details about the game itself, read Adventure Gamers’ review of the PC version.
With a bank of twelve text verbs to choose from, its interface is similar to the original Monkey Island games, and the two control methods here, touch mode and classic mode, are similar to the options in the port of LeChuck’s Revenge. Touch mode requires selecting a verb, then tapping the screen where you want to interact. It’s somewhat finicky because there are so many verbs to choose from, and their close proximity to one another makes selecting the right one difficult. But it’s the lesser of two evils, since classic mode—which involves dragging a cursor across the screen as if your finger were the mouse—is so difficult to use it’s essentially useless.
Unfortunately, unlike Guybrush, Simon hasn’t been blessed with a Special Edition update, which makes the game less than ideal for the small touch screen. Simon’s hotspots are small and hard to identify, making the controls even harder to deal with. However, you can press your finger over an area to magnify it, which helps a little. I also had trouble selecting the line I wanted from a list of dialogue—like the verbs, the options are too close together to easily nab the right one with your finger—but I learned to drag my finger over the different options and wait until the one I wanted was highlighted before releasing.
Interface issues aside, the story is engaging and the thoroughly British script (complete with voice acting) is entertaining. Plus the small screen resolution is good for Simon the Sorcerer’s graphics, which look sharp and colorful in spite of their early ’90s vintage. And if you find yourself itching for more of the teen wizard’s adventures when you’re done, the similarly-styled Simon the Sorcerer 2 has been ported as well.
The only modern game of this lineup, Puzzle Agent is also the first iPhone / iPod Touch offering from developer Telltale Games. Unapologetically reminiscent of Professor Layton in its setup, Puzzle Agent follows agent Nelson Tethers on assignment in Scoggins, Minnesota, where the puzzle-obsessed inhabitants are hiding a baffling secret. Read Adventure Gamers’ review of the PC version for full details.
With Puzzle Agent’s streamlined interface, all interactions (such as talking to characters, exiting a room, looking at an item, initiating a puzzle, or picking up the chewing gum pieces that enable hints during puzzles) are performed with a single tap to the appropriate spot on the screen. When you tap an area where no interaction can be done, icons appear showing you where to try instead. There’s no walking around, so Puzzle Agent is spared the control issues of the ports described above. The touch interface works well, with a few exceptions. It is sometimes difficult to tap in precisely the right spot, especially when attempting to pick up the tiny pieces of chewing gum. Also, some of the puzzles require dragging your finger across the screen—for example, to draw a line from one point to another—and a few times I had problems getting the line to follow my finger.
The simple stick-like figure artwork and animation, based on the work of cartoonist Graham Annable, translate well to the small screen. The game also offers full voice acting and atmospheric background music. Best of all, the gameplay is well suited to a handheld device, since the emphasis on standalone puzzles makes Puzzle Agent good for a few minutes of play here and there. You can even sample some free of charge in the newly-released "lite" version demo of the game.
Recently ported to iPhone by developer Digital Leisure, this is another game from the ’90s, but it’s nothing like the others. An interactive cartoon in the style of Dragon’s Lair, BrainDead 13 takes place in a big, creepy castle where a nefarious plot is afoot. The hero, Lance, is a quintessential ’90s cartoon character with big hair and a surfer-dude demeanor. He’s repairing a broken supercomputer at the castle when he picks up on the evil intentions of Dr. Neurosis, a disembodied brain with his sights set on world domination. This kicks off a frantic chase through the castle’s winding hallways and passages, as Lance attempts (rather unsuccessfully) to escape the evil scientist’s minions with his life and limbs intact.
With its total absence of puzzles and exploration, I wouldn’t call BrainDead 13 an adventure game. The gameplay is entirely made up of split-second decisions to escape the castle’s maniacal traps. In each new room, you have a very brief window of time to choose to escape up, down, left, or right by tapping the appropriate on-screen arrow. Each wrong choice prompts a grisly death scene followed by a ten-second regeneration animation that’s about eight seconds too long. Then Lance is dropped right back into the same split-second decision (which is followed, more often than not, by the same grisly result). With all of these deaths, BrainDead 13 is like a Sierra oldie on steroids. The goal is to find your way to Dr. Neurosis’ Brain Chamber for a face-off with the über-villain, but I didn’t make it that far before giving up in frustration.
If you can put up with the frenetic gameplay, BrainDead 13 has some interesting elements. The graphics and animation are reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, some of the deaths are amusing (the first time you see them, at least!), and there does seem to be a story tucked in among all the comedic violence provided you have the patience to tease it out. Digital Leisure has also ported the better-known Dragon’s Lair and Space Age, which are similar in visual style and gameplay, so if it turns out BrainDead 13 is your idea of a good time, you might want to check those out as well.
That’s all for now—so off to the App Store with you, and happy hunting! Since the gremlins that staff Apple’s approval department seem to work around the clock and the game selection grows by the nanosecond, we’ll be back soon with another batch of iPhone / iPod Touch games adventure fans should be sure to watch for, including ports from Kheops Studio’s extensive point-and-click library, a series that will have you waxing nostalgic for those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, and a surprisingly adventure-like gem tucked into the Puzzle category.