The games section on Apple’s App Store is like an open democracy on the brink of anarchy. The glut of games that try to grab your attention can be a little jarring for those whose only wanted to kill 10 minutes of their day. Luckily, Apple has provided various lists to separate the standout titles in its helter-skelter ecosystem. Yet even here, from one week to the next, games that are at the top of the bestseller list are quite regularly dethroned by copycats undercutting prices and dooming the original inspirations into obscurity. However in the past couple of weeks, two games have shown to be an exception.
Plants vs. Zombies and Final Fantasy have been on top of the best-selling games list for a few weeks now. It was recently reported from Pop Cap (Plants vs. Zombies’s developer/publisher) that the iPhone version had grossed more then $1 million. Also, considering Final Fantasy is not that far back in sales, it is not that much of a stretch to believe that it too has acquired similar numbers. To say games like Plants vs. Zombies or Final Fantasy are not your usual iPhone games would be a bit of an understatement. So what makes these games so special? The answer lies in the philosophy behind their design.
Unlike most iPhone games, Plants vs. Zombies as well as Final Fantasy were originally developed for entirely different systems (Plants vs. Zombies in 2009 for the PC and Final Fantasy in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System). Because of this, the design concepts for both games are very different than what you might expect. Usually, the design of the best iPhone games consists of bite-size, segmented experiences of no more then ten minute play sessions. Most games are meant to kill time in a waiting room or in the back seat of a car pool. Yet Plants vs. Zombies and Final Fantasy build on that formula of the ten minute play session and evolve it. With both games you are still able to have those ten minute sessions, but each adds its own unique layer of complexity.
In Plants vs. Zombies, the object of the game is to place a wide variety of plants that will try to impede an onslaught of zombies. Since each plant comes with a unique power-up, the strategy is based on using what you have in the allotted space that is given to you. Many games of this type have appeared on various platforms (including the iPhone) before. Yet what makes Plants vs. Zombies so special is that fact that each play through builds upon the last. Unlike most iPhone games, Plants vs. Zombies intertwines the ten minute scenarios, building upon lessons and strategies that were learned from your last playthrough. This creates a cohesive experience that gives the player the feeling of progression, in turn giving them a more meaningful involvement in the game. Final Fantasy also follows that same formula of progression in small bursts, but this is where the similarities between the two titles end.
Final Fantasy is a traditional Japanese RPG (role-playing game) that first debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System more then twenty years ago. It revolves around the quest of four heroes (each having various skills) trying to restore peace across an ancient land. Along the way, you get into many random encounters with a multitude of foes that must be fought with a battle system that harkens back to many classic RPGs. For those who have only been following the advancement of video games in the past ten years or so, Final Fantasy might be a bit “hardcore” for you. Unlike Plants vs. Zombies, where each scenario slowly teaches you the mechanics of the game, Final Fantasy drops you into a world where you are essentially left to fend for yourself without any guidance on what to do next. For some this could be a huge deterrent to whether they will enjoy the game. For others it will act as a good bit of nostalgia for a time where games were a challenge to be conquered through careful thought and multiple playthroughs. With that said, Final Fantasy follows the same philosophy as Plants vs. Zombies. With the ability to save anywhere in the overworld map, the player can have that same feeling of progression through multiple playthroughs.
In the end, both Plants vs. Zombies as well as Final Fantasy show that iPhone games can be more then just segmented ten minute play sessions. Even though both games are ports from other systems, they are still important in proving that a much deeper and fulfilling game experiences can be achieved on a portable device like the iPhone. The games section on the App Store might be a chaotic open democracy, but Plants vs. Zombies and Final Fantasy prove that all those games are equal—though some are, of course, more equal then others.