Xbox Live for Windows Phone is great. Unless you like playing compelling games
“Batman has the Lumia 900” said Shauna the sales assistant “its Batman’s phone”. “What will he do if I buy it then?” I asked churlishly “surely I’d get in the way of, nay hinder, his important work?” “It has the logo on the back, that’s all”. “Then I definitely don’t want it” I said “I imagined Batman would have a more exciting phone, I’ll just take the regular one please.” This was how my adventure with a Windows Phone began. How I embarked down a road I, and seemingly very few people, had travelled before. A journey that was set to be thrilling and fascinating in equal parts; one that would almost certainly be as full of games as it was excitement and the unknown. It had Xbox Live on it after all.
The thought of seeing my avatar on my phone whenever I wanted set my heart a flutter. Being able to pour over all of my achievements and show them to my friends in real life also appealed to me tremendously. There had been countless social occasions where I had been just dying to show off my gaming prowess to new acquaintances, though without the evidence I had declined lest I be labelled a fraud. With my Live profile in hand I would no longer be that guy in the corner at parties, no, I would be centre stage, basking in the adoration I would inevitably receive, chest bursting with pride being flanked by beautiful and envious people. The Windows Phone had already completed me and I had yet to play a single game.
Minesweeper. That perennial of any true gamer’s collection was my first foray into post-millennial mobile entertainment. Not only had it seen a stunningly minimalist graphical update, think the beautiful offspring of Lumines and Picross, but it had also been gifted with achievements. Modern games are, after all, less about playing the game in hand and more about playing the game of playing the game; the meta game as it is often called. Achievements are awarded for completing challenges in Minesweeper, such as playing a single game of it, and the player is then awarded points for being a diligent participant. The more Minesweeper one plays the more points can be earned and so the actual act of playing became secondary to my quest for more points. Being able to earn achievements while away from my Xbox was a revelation, it didn’t matter that what I was playing was as old as time or that the game clock was hugely obtrusive; I was levelling up and the progress was comforting.
Knowing that I didn’t actually have to actually like the games that I played was tremendously liberating. I commute almost every day but having to worry about quality could easily have eaten into my playing time. Instead, all I had to do was look for Live certified games to know that my enjoyment was guaranteed, however tangential that enjoyment proved to be. The breadth of titles and mechanics was astounding. There was a game where you had to roll things across platforms into holes. Great. Another where platforms had to be moved to get something into a hole, this one looked a bit like Limbo to boot. Even better. I found another where you have to direct oil with platforms to get it from one hole to the next. Shrieks of “Holy diversity, Batman”, or something along those lines, have been heard echoing around the Batcave recently, I’m sure.
Cavities aren’t the only preoccupation of Windows Phone games though, oh no. Not every title was comfortable exploring the dark recesses of the human psyche, some aimed for levity, reminding me of the unbridled joy to be found in unpretentious entertainment. Tiki Towers tasked me with building platforms out of bamboo and coconuts (how delightfully quaint), so cheeky monkeys could reach deliciously ripe bananas floating in the air. It mattered not that the game featured little to no bona fide Tiki sculpture; its charm was down right infectious. Besides, Monkey Mechanics or Banana and Bamboo Building don’t really convey the same breezy personality.
Similarly, while I cannot fault the noble intentions of the developer, growing monkey malnutrition is a real issue that needs more exposure, the limitations of a small touch screen interface cannot be ignored, however minor their impact upon my enjoyment. The titular towers are constructed by dragging bamboo trusses with a finger. This functions admirably when building simple structures but becomes imprecise when the monkeys demand more complex assistance. Adding to a tower can often end in precarious results as unsafe appendages are constructed accidentally, rather than the sturdy Babel-esque monument of intention. I found myself spending vital time deconstructing and rebuilding unforeseen errors while my monkeys withered and died. One particularly fateful level saw five generations of the same family expire, 37 monkeys in total, and led me to cease playing forever. While Tiki Towers was outwardly frivolous it carried with it an important message; mobile games are often unsuited to their platform, though if players are bribed with achievement points they will often persevere for longer than they otherwise would have.
As a side note; my final and most meaningful gripe is that the game features imagery resembling the Statue of Liberty from Planet of the Apes. Tiki Towers clearly features monkeys, simians that are not featured in the film or any of its sequels. As such, this anachronism is an unforgivable and lazy way of repurposing a well known cultural image.
After putting up with less than stellar titles for the sake of vapid showboating I decided to run an experiment. My hypothesis was thus; Microsoft happily grants Live status to, in my opinion, sub par games therefore independent efforts must be even less worthy of my attention. Most of my findings vindicated my initial thoughts, especially one game where I had to burrow a tractor underground in search of watches and rocks. The premise and goals were arbitrary and silly but it was the unresponsive controls that killed the experience. Movement was floaty and imprecise and led me to ditch my tractor underground and dig myself out by hand. As it happens I came across a couple of old Timex jobbies and sold them for a tidy profit, so the endeavour was not a complete loss.
I reinvested these precious pennies into what emerged as my overall, and possibly only, winner in this quest to uncover a Legitimately Compelling Windows Phone Game. CastleMine is not thematically ambitions, nor is it mechanically diverse. It is, however, singular in its game play intentions, focused and incredibly well suited to a small screen. It is a tower defence game with hints of Dungeon Keeper and a surprisingly robust skill progression system. Instead of playing out on either a set path or blank canvas, players must dig a single tunnel into a play area measuring only five squares across. As the tunnel extends downwards it unleashes waves of enemies that must be dispatched with the player’s fortifications. These weapons can be upgraded and assisted by buff towers that grant bonuses and improve chances of survival. At the end of each level the player gains experience based on their success, allowing them to invest in permanent upgrades to towers, resource collection, survivability and a number of other ancillary abilities.
While nothing CastleMine offers sounds particularly inspired on paper, its solid execution and well managed difficulty curve made it my go to title whenever I was out. The upgrade system provides a tangible reason to continue playing what is a relatively repetitive style of game, without resorting to introducing new features every couple of levels as so many mobile games do. Unlike the Live achievements which value perseverance over any real skill, CastleMine rewards players for their successes with a means to further improve their game, not simple trinkets. The game also embraces the touch screen fully and works to both its strengths and weaknesses, eliminating the need for precise or speedy inputs and allowing the player to feel in control at all times. It is for these reasons that I appreciate it and have spent countless hours on the train enjoying its simple yet refined mechanics.
There still aren’t many truly good mobile games available. There are even less on Windows Phone. Microsoft appears to have missed the point in putting Xbox Live into a mobile phone. Yes, I can access my profile, achievements, messages and all that other stuff I never use when I’m sat at home, what I can’t do is play many good games, the one thing I most closely associate with the Xbox brand. Developing for a touch screen needs arguably more thought than developing for a controller. Input needs to be simple and responsive and this should be reflected within the mechanics of a title. Building a tower so a monkey can reach a banana is a great (?) pitch for a game until the finished product mechanically prevents me from easily accomplishing the simple goal. Giving me five achievement points won’t divert my attention away from bad controls, but it might in time spoil my confidence in Microsoft’s attempts at quality control. Windows Phone gaming is largely a ghetto at the moment. Good curation and promotion on merit, rather than publisher ties, is the best way to improve the social standing of the service, not sugar-coating the creative poverty like a bad politician.