iPhone games that successfully toy with the running game formula

by Phil Hornshaw

One of the most ubiquitous and probably well-loved game genres on Apple’s iOS platform is the side-scrolling “running” game. There are a number of games that mess with the formula, but basically, they usually amount to players controlling characters that run from left to right, with the players using quick reflexes to dodge objects in the characters’ path.

These games work exceedingly well on iOS because they are usually simple to control and quick to pick up and master. Occasionally, new running titles come along that adjust the formula ever so slightly and become even cooler than their many counterparts. One such running title that tweaks things is Polara, a futuristic running title in which characters can’t dodge most obstacles – they have to go through them.In order to avoid certain death, most of the traps in Polara have to be braved. These usually consist of laser beams and bullets that are either red or blue. The main character of Polara possess a suit that can also be switched from red to blue, and the corresponding color suit renders the incoming fire inert. Basically, red lasers don’t kill you if you switch to red. Polara only includes two-tap controls, one to jump and the other to change colors, but it’s a lot more complex than most of the other running games.

Polara is filled with a lot of cool ideas that riff on the color-change aspect. For example, certain areas of different levels include trampoline-like spring pads, which are only active if your suit is the corresponding color. Switch to blue on a red spring, for example, and you’ll run along it like normal. Polara likes to throw these at you with spikes above, so you’ll need to turn to the opposite color to cross, and then often change back at the last second to get bounced to the next area.

There are some intriguing puzzles at work in the game, all of which require quick reflexes and a sharp mind. Switching colors means sometimes avoiding attacks, and other times about interacting with the environment. Polara gets fast and furious, and though you might find yourself dying tens of times at a certain point in some levels, but frequent checkpoints combat any annoyance and your skills will improve.Polara is one of those titles that takes a well-worn formula and introduces new elements and ideas from other kinds of games to create something new, and it works really well. But there are a few other titles that do a great job of expanding the side-scrolling runner genre, too.

Speed-swiping instead of button-mashing

One such title is a mobile title based on a game made for video game consoles: Mirror’s Edge. The parkour-based side-scroller, like its more in-depth counterpart, is mostly about speed and avoiding conflict. The cool thing about Mirror’s Edge is that it messes slightly with its controls to make them feel a little different. Rather than hit buttons to jump and slide, you  simply swipe.

It’s not a profound change, but somehow, the swipes make the action of Mirror’s Edge feel faster and more immediate. It also helps that there are a number of different controls: If you run into enemies, you can bowl them over or slide under them. If you hit a wall, you’ll have to wall-jump to reach different heights. And you’re not forced to continue forward – you can stop, change direction, and move through levels in different ways.

The basic gameplay also is at the core of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty, with similar level design that throws vertical movement in with horizontal and adds enemies in as obstacles as well as things to jump over or slide under. But overall, both games are good at feeling fast and responsive. You feel the need to haul ass, and the controls feel good when you do it.

And now, for something different

There really are a huge number of similar running titles in the App Store, and highlighting all the great ones would take a lot more than this column. The games that take a different approach to similar material often stand out from the crowd. Take Tentacle: Enter the Dolphin, for example.

Tentacle isn’t really a running game, although it is a side-scroller. Your speed through each level is dictated by tapping, as you play an octopus monster that maneuvers by shooting out tentacles and grabbing hold of objects to pull itself along. As such, getting through each level is about carefully planning where you’ll grab hold of the walls of each corridor (they’re actually the passages through a creature’s internal organs) and taking note of how each position will move the creature through the level.

Tapping is really all you do in Tentacle, but the game uses a similar formula – avoiding obstacles as you move through a level – and changes it up by making you think about how you move, rather than how quickly you move. It’s not a game about reflexes, but about planning. It’s similar to games like Polara, and yet feels really different and fresh.

The side-scrolling runner’s versatility and shallow learning curve helps keep it a popular mobile genre, but even within it, there are some titles that push the envelope and the experience. Some of the coolest games often provide us something we’re used to mixed with something we’re not.