Digitizing My Analogs: The Joys and Perils of iPad Gaming

There haven’t been a lot of console games in the past month that I’ve wanted to play or PC games really. But, hey, I bought a new iPad on release day, and it’s a gaming platform too! So, drawn by both the comfort of my couch and the shiny excitement of a new toy, I’ve been doing most of my gaming on the iPad.

I’ve had an iPod Touch for a year or so, but I never gamed on it much. The screen’s too small, and I generally preferred my DS for mobile and couch gaming. However, the big screen iPad promised better graphics and a more expansive experience all around, and it delivers. I don’t think that I’ve turned on my DS since I stood in line at Best Buy all those weeks ago. As with the DS, I play mostly strategy and puzzle games on the slate. Indeed, addict that I am, I’ve bought Civilization: Revolution for both devices now. Well, all three if you include the Xbox 360 version. I do love that game on any platform.

Speaking of games that I’ve bought three different times, there’s Plants vs Zombies. I have this on PC, iPod Touch (where I don’t much care for it), and now on the iPad. This is a game that I really do prefer to play on the fancy new slate. The touch-based interface is even better than point and click with a mouse. I feel directly engaged with my plant army, and it makes the whole experience more visceral. It was too cramped on the iPod, but blown out on a big screen, I give it a thousand yays.

The touch and control model for tower defense and strategy games works like magic on the iPad. Playing a game liked Spacestation Frontier HD, I feel just a tiny bit like I’m in a sci-fi novel myself, commanding the Enterprise from my tricorder or something. It’s both natural and cool. Even on simple, no frills games like Strategery, the tapping and touching seems like the most natural thing in the world.

The whole system starts to break down with action games. Many iPad games follow in the footsteps of iPhone entertainments that use a portion of the touchscreen to create a kind of virtualized analog stick or D-pad. I hated these on the smaller screen, but with all those extra inches of display real estate on the bigger screens, I was willing to give it a try. I’ve played a couple of dual joystick style shooters, like Minigore HD, and while the analog stick analogs work OK, they never quite feel precise enough.

The fact that the analog sticks don’t actually exist lets the designers put them anywhere on the screen that you want them. Wherever you touch the screen, that’s where the sticks appear beneath your fingers. That’s pretty neat and useful since my fingers tend to slide around the screen’s smooth surface as the game action heats up. However, the lack of a fixed location also means that I can end up with my hand in the middle of the screen, blocking my view. Picking it up and moving it isn’t a big deal unless hungry hordes of monsters have me surrounded and split second timing is required. The end result is that it all just feels very sloppy to me.

The worst experience that I’ve had with a lack of precision so far comes in the Ipad port of the otherwise excellent Sam & Max game. I was really looking forward to this title, and on a story and appearance level, it mostly delivers the laughs and puzzles that fans have come to expect (although the frame rate sometimes stutters under the effort). However, here again, we have that virtual analog stick that appears anywhere that you touch on screen. It’s weirdly sensitive, and it takes more getting used to than is reasonable before you’re comfortable maneuvering around the game’s level.

But the real problem is that Sam & Max also uses the touch screen to directly interface with the environment. So sometimes you’re “clicking” on things to interact with them and sometimes you’re trying to move around, which led to more than one moment where I clicked on a doorway without realizing it and left the screen (once without the ability to go back, skipping content!). I’d have greatly preferred a set place on screen for the control stick to live. Better yet, a point and move to location interface would’ve been awesome.

All of which leads to my conclusion: some things are best left analog. I’m not asking for a control pad for the iPad or anything crazy like that. I’m just saying that I’m not going to buy any more games for my sleek slate that weren’t designed to take advantage of the touch screen, instead of trying to force alien control schemes where they don’t belong or work, which is another way of saying I’m going to go play some more Plants vs Zombies right now.