Friday, June 6, 2008

Gaming on the Nokia E90

Attila Katona has been determined to find some decent games that make good use of the extra wide screen on the Nokia E90. Here's his detailed report!

Once you have seen high definition, you will never want to go back to the old standard! Or something similar - is the catch phrase for unsuspecting couch potatoes in today’s pixel happy time. And in the Symbian world the Nokia E90 is definitely the highest definition of them all. One would think that it is the easiest thing to find games that showcase the phone’s best feature, its 800x352 pixels resolution internal screen. Well, think again.

E90 as a gaming phone?

Well, it isn’t. At least it doesn’t feel like one. No matter how gorgeous some games look on that screen, the longer I play, the more frustrated I get. Yes, it’s because of the controls. While the external directional buttons are just the right size for grown male hands, after opening up the phone it is a completely different story. Because you have to hold the phone at a different angle, a different part of your thumb touches the buttons when you want to press them. With the smaller set of buttons, you already have a higher chance of missing the one you aim for, but the d-pad OK in the centre makes the whole thing a lot more “challenging”. I surprisingly often find myself using my nail in a desperate attempt to pretend that I do have a little control over games on the E90 and that’s definitely not the way it should be used. This annoying design flaw (of the phone, not my hand) aside, the rest of the experience is as good as one can dream and sometimes better. You just need to find the right games.

Which is where this feature comes in!

E90 and Games in General

To my huge disappointment, the number of Symbian games I have found that really make use of the E90's screen can be counted on one hand. The first thing I did when I finally upgraded to this beast was test my old favourites from my (t)rusty E70 – which also happened to have a non-standard (meaning: better than 240x320) display. It was disappointing to see the shrinking support for 352x416, but when I realised that not one of those games would run on 800x352, I was devastated. None of my long time favourite (and well respected) developers seem to care about the E90. To put it into perspective: the flagship game of the one developer offering “E90 specific versions” of their games shows the soft keys at the bottom of the screen. Luckily, there are also a few “happened to be compatible” games, but the only one I found interesting enough to mention (Lament Island) is close to unplayable because of its speed. As in lack of speed.

Luckily, Java game developers are a lot more flexible. Many of them managed to recognise that using the middle of a screen as an anchor instead of the top left corner they can build up their menu system and the game itself (almost) regardless of the screen resolution. The best examples would be pretty much any sprite-based games, let them be puzzle, RPG or strategy games, since they all require scrolling around anyway, so on a big screen it means just less scrolling and a larger visible area.

The other type that works are the iffy-looking 3D Java games, resembling the 15 years old Star Fox on the Super Nintendo. It must be my fault that I can’t get the least bit excited about these sort of visuals, but there are quite a few racing, flying and waterskiing games around using the same method to mimic the third dimension, so there must be a market for those games too.

When you decide to go shopping for Java games, you have to make sure you pick the right version of the game. Generally the 352x416 version of the games looks best on the E90 simply because of the prettier sprites, but in some cases (for example the new Playman Summer Games 3 from Mr Goodliving) you have to go for the N95 version, because that’s the one programmed for both landscape and portrait modes. It is a bit of a gamble, because officially there are no Java games supporting a resolution this high, despite the fact that there are dozens of them working perfectly well on my device.

E90 and Emulators

These are the best choice for serious E90 gamers, not only because of the large number of games you get by buying only one piece of software but also because these are using the full available screen regardless of resolution or orientation. You must have read the recently updated emulation article from Krisse in which she listed almost all the available emulators for S60 3rd Edition. Fortunately, you have the option (in most of them) to switch between original and full screen modes, but the best offer you scaled mode too, which is just perfect for the super wide E90 screen. It is especially welcome in cases like Gameboy or Gameboy Color emulation, where the original (square) screen stretched to 2.27:1 is everything but pretty. Another nice advantage is that control keys can be re-mapped for those who prefer playing on the keyboard rather than the directional pad. The games also feel faster than (for example) Lament Island or some of the Java games.


As a warning, I have to state that the games I’m going to talk about are a selection based on my personal preferences. At first, I was trying to be impartial, looking for the best shooter, the best puzzle, the best jump’n’run or racing game, and find one winner for each kind of games but as it turns out most of those categories are not even represented so I decided to set out only two rules for myself: it has to be full screen and it has to be fun. Symbian or Java, specifically aimed at the E90 or just accidentally compatible, genre or age – none of those mattered when I picked the list of my favourites, so please feel free to add your own selection in the comments, come forth with your own guilty pleasures, as long as they match those two simple rules.

As a devoted puzzle fan, I have been following the adventures of Bobby Carrot since the beginning and I was most happy to find out that FDGSoft is one those Java developers who creates their games with the previously described method of “centering” the screen content. (I’m sure there is a more technical word for it, please let me know if you know it... :) ) Their most famous and longest running series about the carrot-collecting, egg-deploying rabbit has grown into something really impressive: the fifth episode has downloadable content with new monthly level packs, online code collection, PC tie-in and numerous other goodies which is quite different from the usual Java game. They don’t officially support the E90 but all their games (the whole of the Bobby Carrot series and several other puzzle games I tried) work very well on full screen. Make sure you get the N90 or E70 version for the best result because they put the extra effort of creating higher resolution tilesets for the 352x416 models.

Another one of those developers is Digital Chocolate. Their flagship game is the wildly popular Tower Bloxx series. With its simple idea and addictive nature, comes one-button control and sharp graphics, so no wonder there are several different (X-Mas, Deluxe, 3D etc) versions of the original on several different platforms. The 3D version is the best looking inside the E90 and, although it suffers from slowdown, it is not as bad as the other 3D Java games I tried and, because of the nature of the game, it is playable enough.

A little known and fairly simplistic game has silently grown a cult following thanks to the genius of its gameplay. The 4 year old Gravity Defied from Swedish developers Codebrew Software now has a (fan-made) level editor for the PC, which resulted in hundreds of new levels for this motorbike game. It couldn't look simpler if it tried, yet the game comes through as one of the best time wasters ever.

Strategy fans will know Ancient Empires from glu Mobile as the benchmark in turn-based games of the tactical kind. Crisp graphics and a surprisingly deep experience brings it up to the level of golden classics like Fire Emblem. You can buy the game if you click on Download! on your phone.

Playman Summer Games 3 is the latest in this long running sports series from Mr.Goodliving. Playman returns to compete against 12 unique AI players or up to 5 of your friends in multiplayer mode (playing in turns on one handset) in any or all of the 5 summer sports. The game looks beautiful, plays fast and simple - one warning: the softkey labels are swapped so be sure to press always the one you don't want.

Once a Mega-game on AAS (review here) Lament Island from SimLife Science was an obvious choice, despite its serious speed issues. Luckily it wasn't made for adrenaline junkies so those who like these sort of games do have the extra patience required anyway. Feel free to try the demo before committing yourself to this pricey game.

This is the extent of my list, all the other favourites are coming from the emulator section. Hopefully you have come accross other titles to enjoy on the big screen. If so please do share your top 5 for the benefit of other oh-so-neglected E90 gamers.

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