My first review on YouTube to ever include footage of the game in question (instead of just my talking head) was Gamevil’s action-RPG Zenonia on the iPhone. Without a decent handheld camera, I accomplished this by wrapping my arms around my MacBook, pointing my first gen iPhone at the iSight and praying it was in frame. It was uncomfortable and I could barely see what I was doing as I played. I did it though because I was entranced by Zenonia.
Zenonia was the first game I played on my iPhone that delivered on the promise of a “traditional” game for a few bucks on the slab of glass in my pocket, and I was amazed. Over time though, the novelty wore off and I soon grew tired of these “traditional” style games with fake d-pads and fake buttons overlayed on the touch screen. My thumbs obscured the display and I stopped believing saving a little money was worth playing a platformer or an action game without tactile buttons. After a few years, I was no longer interested in a “traditional” experience on my phone. I wanted a phone experience on my phone. For the record, my favorite iPhone game is Super Hexagon.
In the years following Zenonia, a lot of studios and publishers big and small have chased the traditional style phone game. Some have worked to refine fake buttons and adapt interaction with some handicap in mind, while others have opted to simplify their games, relegating control to a few taps or swipes that approximate standard controls. In my experience, both methods have met varying levels of success, though I’ve thought for some time that it’s silly to try to mimic most console games at all.
And then I played Heroki from Sega. It’s not quite right, but I think it’s on to something.
Heroki is the first game developed by Dutch studio Picomy, running on the proprietary Picon engine. The company’s website states the engine took five years to create, and visually, it looks quite nice. Heroki is lively and colorful with playful animations and a pleasing attention to detail. By this point in the iPhone’s life, though, Heroki looks great but not necessarily exemplary. What really makes Heroki and the Picon engine stand out is how Heroki plays.
The title character is of a race of propeller-headed sprites, which is not just a cute character design decision, but a smart gameplay design decision as well. Heroki zips around levels with the drag of a finger, faithfully following with a slight, predictable drift. There are few obstacles that require a twitchy finger, and no bottomless pits to plummet down. Heroki can pick up objects with a tap, and dangles them obviously from his arms. Pulling back on the object will allow Heroki to toss it Angry Birds style. Finally, Heroki can drop like a rock and bounce on objects if the player touches the empty air below him.
In practice, it’s a series of smart controls that account for playing on a phone, but never feel like the player has to concede any agency. The level design, while sometimes a little too sprawling or confusing, accounts for the slower pace these controls require and the result is a game that plays a lot like a console platformer. But on a phone. And remarkably well. Unfortunately, the rest of Heroki’s design borrows a little too heavily from platformers in 1998. The serpentine levels are littered with crates, powerups, hundreds of tiny orbs, the letters of Heroki’s name and a handful of triangular doodads. Maybe more, I don’t know. I didn’t play the whole game, largely due to disappointment.
At first, the set up seems natural and I don’t entirely blame Picomy or Sega or whoever the responsible party is. At the heart of most platformers over the last 30 years has been collecting junk. Jumping and running, sure sure, but picking up sparkly things strewn about too. Even on a 21st century platform with an inventive control scheme, it doesn’t feel out of place for Heroki, but it does feel a lot less clever than the rest of the game.
Picomy has done something praise-worthy. The controls and mechanics the studio have crafted are terrific, but using them to do the same old bauble scavenger hunt feels antiquated, more so than if Heroki were a game on a console. Maybe this is my problem, maybe I have unfair expectations. But it’s still an awful waste to use such imaginative mechanics to drive an adherence to tradition.