Even this year I've seen games pop up from seemingly nowhere, gather tons of players, and prove that gaming on a three-inch screen is completely possible. If you figure the iPad and cheaper (yet more powerful) netbooks into the equation, you find that MMOs work just fine on smaller screens. The recent announcement of the Nintendo 3DS didn't get my blood boiling at all. After all, 3-D didn't make a good movie out of Avatar -- what makes anyone think that is can save pixely single-player games?
The price is right, as well. Most of the mobile MMOs I have found lately (I looked at around 11) were totally free or very cheap. Compare that to the price of your average 3DS game, and I think you'll have a winner.
Click past the cut to see my short list of cool smartphone MMOs.
I really enjoy the controls in this one. The developers seem to be very aware of what an iPhone experience is like. Instead of holding the phone horizontally, you hold it like you normally would. Movement is achieved by tapping where you want to go, and combat triggers just by walking into baddies. Turn-based combat makes gaming on the iPhone feel natural, especially when you consider some of the styles of combat that have come out in other games. You simply select your spell, item, or attack and choose which monster takes the hit. Also, the game is almost always crowded. Supposedly it's been pretty successful, something I completely believe. It is a little annoying to accidentally run into creatures as you are walking around the would, but that could be seen as aggro. This is really well-made.
For just $0.99 you get one of the more original members of this group: Yslandia. While customization is limited at first, the combat feels pretty nice. I've played this on the iPad, so I can say that it really only looks good on its smaller cousin. Some iPhone games don't look half-bad while in zoomed iPad-mode, but keep this one where it belongs. One of the coolest things about this game is that it allows you to attach your hotbar buttons or virtual dpad to anywhere on the screen. This is a nice touch, especially considering how crowded these screens can become. The game features territory control and PvP as well as guilds and standard chat. I'm excited to see what happens with this one.
Seven Swords is probably the best-looking of all of my choices. The landscapes and lighting effects in the game feel a lot like Final Fantasy XI, but the combat is pure hack-and-slash. And shoot. You choose from four classes and go through a short tutorial about combat, then you start finding missions inside your local town. It really is an instanced-battle hub-game but with a heavy emphasis on PvP. Unfortunately, the good looks of this one make it run a little slow on the iPhone 3GS, but the iPad runs it just fine (albeit while zoomed in, since iPhone games must be played at 2X zoom to fit the iPad). I've yet to test it on our iPhone 4.
I love it when a game seems to embrace its limits. Graal Classic is very primitive; it looks more like a Zelda-inspired mobile world. Movement is a breeze, thanks to smooth controls and the built-in dpad. Combat is a lot of fun and it's simple as well. You can lay down a bomb and blow away enemies, sling a sword at them, shoot them with a bow, or smash them with your fist. I've read about the housing in the game but have yet to experience it. If it's anything like the rest of the game, it will be cute and pretty engaging. Graal also comes on the iPad and looks great on it. There is a tiny bit of hitching on the iPhone when approaching large crowds, but otherwise performance is great.
This is just a small selection, but I promise many hours of gaming while in the tub (careful not to drop the phone), while in bed (make sure to say goodnight to the wife first), or while walking the dogs (mind the crosswalks). Yes, one day we will look back on these games and remember how primitive they were, but for now they provide a great, portable escape. If you have a capable phone, you can even multitask to make a phone call or to launch a voice app and have your friends game with you. I imagine it's only a matter of time before native voice clients come with the games.
Now, go download and enjoy! Just watch the signposts.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to email@example.com!