Angry Birds dethroned; all hail Tiny Wings (for a bit, anyway)

by Phil Hornshaw

Angry Birds has lost its seat of power as the No. 1 paid app in the iTunes App Store, after nearly a year of holding the spot against all comers. Mostly.

It’s another bird that has the title today -- Tiny Wings, an easygoing game about physics, inertia, and trying to help a little bird fly. Tiny Wings has been catapulting up the App Store charts since its release this week with zero marketing, but lots of attention from iOS gaming websites and the people who read them. We featured it as one of the best games of the week, and it really is that good.

Simplicity is Tiny Wings’ greatest achievement. As a bird with really tiny wings, you’re unable to fly; you can only sort of glide with enough momentum to get high enough. Fortunately, on the 2D side-scrolling islands which you call home, there are plenty of hills to build up speed. The player has only one control: touch and hold the screen to make the bird stop flapping and dive toward the ground. The idea is to hit the downward slopes of hills while diving to build speed, then shoot up the next upward slope and start flapping, launching into the air and picking up speed until gravity pulls you back down. It’s all about accurate timing and planning ahead while racing the clock, and Tiny Wings does a great job of being a challenging and addictive title. I’ve been playing it all week.

But to dislodge Angry Birds? That’s something special indeed. Tiny Wings includes no in-app purchases and only runs at $0.99, yet it’s also the No. 2 highest grossing app in the App Store right now, second only to MLB.com At Bat 11, which runs at $14.99. Angry Birds is slotted at No. 4.

Okay, so I’m over-blowing this a bit (personally, I’ve had enough Angry Birds for a bit): this isn’t the first time another game has taken Angry Birds’ crown. It’s Angry Birds’ consistency that is remarkable. When another game takes the top of the charts, it’s neither an unprecedented, nor a long-running change. Angry Birds always comes back after the novelty of a new game wears off.

So what’s the magic bullet? How do you recreate Angry Birds?

After a week playing it, Tiny Wings might have the answer. It’s a perfect storm of an iPhone game, balancing an easy pick-up-and-play control mechanic with plenty of variety and challenge. Score is determined not just by distance traveled, but by performance and objects on the ground your bird can pick up. It’s important to get good at deciding when and where you’re going to hit the ground, rather than letting momentum running out be the deciding factor. There’s a lot of nuance for a game with one control.

Angry Birds hits a lot of those same marks. It works on physics, which is a kind of game mechanic that everyone knows and understands intuitively; so does Tiny Wings. It features some nuanced gameplay and adjusts its own formula as time goes on; so does Tiny Wings, working in challenges that allow you to access higher score multipliers, and some of them are very challenging and ingenious. It’s easy to pick up, easy to put down and easy to look at; and Tiny Wings is all those things, as well.

Most of all, though -- and here’s the kicker -- Tiny Wings is just a quality, well-made game. It keeps things simple, controls the way you’d expect, and looks like it received lots of attention and care before it was released. Its a level of quality matched by Angry Birds.

Quality is often rewarded in the App Store. Much of Angry Birds’ success, I’m convinced, is that anytime a new player is introduced to the game by its hype, he or she is rewarded with a game that’s well-made and fun. No-one ever downloads Angry Birds and feels ripped off, even if the game isn’t for them.

Tiny Wings is the same way, and if its success brings nothing else, hopefully it will continue the kind of quality and innovation in developers to try to build an Angry Birds killer of their own.