Version tested: Mobile
I was an early Android phone adopter, which means I've spent even longer than most people boring my friends with reasons why Google-OS-powered devices are better than the iPhone. Unfortunately, it also means that I'm stuck with Android 1.6 until Eurogamer quadruples my pay to enable me to buy a lovely, shiny new HTC Desire; I had to delete everything off my phone so that I could do this review roundup because I can't save apps to my SD card. It's still better than the iPhone, though.
For all the things that Android is brilliant at, however (open-source development! Squillions of weird, wonderful and free apps! Customisation! Barcode scanning! Widgets! Google integration!), games aren't one of its strengths. The Android Market isn't anywhere near as slick or well-organised as Apple's shop, which is perhaps the price to pay for how unrestricted it is, and finding the good stuff is dismayingly difficult. Once you do find something, the sheer range of Android-powered devices means that it won't always run perfectly on your phone.
But the good times are coming - with Android OS 2.2, which allows data card storage and more than doubles the operating system's speed, Android games are sure to get better, more ambitious and ever more prolific. We've collected the current stars of the Android Market in this roundup, highlighting the differences between paid and free versions where applicable.
Gem Miner: Dig Deeper
- £1.35 / Free version: Gem Miner
Part adventure game, part Mr Driller, Gem Miner is an addictive little sort. Playing as a chibi miner chap, the idea is to explore a giant mine, going deeper and deeper to find more precious gems to bring back to the surface and sell for cash to buy upgrades. You place supports and ladders as you explore to ensure that you can make it out again in a pinch.
You're limited by stamina and your carry limit. Mini-miner can carry as may items as he likes, but only a limited number of ores. Returning to the camp relieves him of his load and replenishes stamina, readying him to explore even further next time. Finding more expensive ores means you can afford equipment to see further, carry more or punch through rocks more quickly with the pickaxe. As your equipment steadily improves, you can last for longer and longer down in the dark.
It reminds me of the tens of hours I've spent in Harvest Moon mines over the last decade, except it's more forgiving. Run out of stamina or get crushed by a giant rock, and you just lose your ore and end up back at camp, where you can save the game. Its hold on me diminished, though, when it dawned on me that all I was ever going to find down that mine was more and more ore. Add a little adventure-story element to this, and it would be brilliant.
- £1.50 / Free version: Radiant Lite
It's not quite Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, but Radiant does very well for itself. The aliens that tried to end the human race back in the eighties are back, and you must guide your little ship through asteroid fields and level after level of neatly-lined-up, cascading enemies to defeat them.
It's entirely touch-controlled. The ship fires on its own, and you touch the left and right of the screen to dodge bullets and manoeuvre into position. Selecting weapons is a simple matter of touching the ship and dragging to the desired icon in a little radial menu. There are loads of different ones, from homing missiles to sludge cannons, each with its own visual effects. Every couple of levels, you can buy new weapons or upgrade your existing ones with the credits you've earned by exploding space-fiends and rocks into dust.
Radiant is one of only a few Android games with decent music and sound effects, which are retro-inspired but don't grate on the ears. It looks gorgeous, too, and witty narration between levels gives it the structure to make ploughing through wave after wave of Space Invaders-esque enemies feel worthwhile.
When a game's being offered for free, it's hard to be too critical of it, even if it's a bit rough - but Replica Island is surprisingly polished. It's an adorable platformer starring the Google Android, and one of the most popular games on the Market at the moment.
You play through a smashed little robot's memories, which don't necessarily unlock in chronological order; you piece the basic but entertaining storyline together as you go. Use the trackball (or d-pad if you have a Motorola Droid) to nudge the android left and right and two on-screen buttons to jump, hover and attack. Controls are intentionally skittish. You only need small flicks of the trackball to guide the android, especially when airborne.
There are pearls scattered around to collect, which give the little android an impenetrable shield for a few seconds once you have enough of them. Levels are usually pretty switch-based 2D mazes. Replica Island's cleverest idea is the Possession Orb; holding down the attack button unleashes a ball of energy, controlled by tilting the phone, which can possess enemy robots. You can then control them with the trackball, guiding them to switches, smashing rocks or just blowing them up.
There's no music at all, which is a shame, but Replica Island has a cute sense of humour and it's very well-presented. It runs well even on OS 1.5. It gets repetitive - its 40 levels don't introduce many new ideas beyond the first five or six - but it's challenging, and the storyline holds the attention.
Abduction! World Attack
- £1.35 / Free version: Abduction!
Abduction is loosely based on PapiJump, except when I say "loosely based" I really mean "mechanically identical to". But it's beautifully presented, bursting with colour and imagination and occasional new ideas that make it a much more lasting attraction than its inspiration.
You're a cow, and your fellow cows and a menagerie of other animals have been abducted by aliens. The aliens live in space, so the only way to get to them is by jumping vertically up the screen, landing on platforms. You tilt to control the cow's direction, and other cows come floating down from the sky. They can be collected for bonus points. Nabbing a present-shaped collectible might give you something good, like an extra life or a high-jump, or something bad, like crumbling platforms that disappear when you set hoof upon them.
There are about 25 Adventure levels, which you work your way through collecting backgrounds and characters - sheep, kangaroos, penguins and beyond, all of them playable - and another 50-odd time, score or collectible-based challenges. Defeat all of that, and you unlock the right to make your own custom levels and play against the AI. The free version has a small sample of these, about 15 levels in total.
Abduction is incredibly addictive, as anyone who's ever tried a game of its sort before can attest, but with a big world map, unlockables and plenty of characters, it's also got incentives to keep you playing beyond just higher scores. It's wonderfully presented, with bright suns and stars that shine behind the platforms the further up you get, adorable little characters and varied environments. It's superb value for money, too.
- £1.50 / Free version: Buka Lite
In Buka, the idea is to protect a grinning blue blob from hordes of evil-faced red, yellow and other brightly-coloured blobs as it travels up the screen in search of its Happy Place. The blue blob spouts endearingly broken English, encouraging your efforts as you go. It's very sweet and simple, and as the levels up the opposition it gets ever more frantic.
You tap the screen to make shockwaves that keep enemies away, and tap and hold to charge up an explosion to get rid of them altogether. They tend to explode into difficult-to-manage pieces, but you can dodge Buka out of the way by tilting the phone (or touching and dragging, if your phone's accelerometer is dodgy - you can turn the tilt-sensing off.)
Getting Buka back to the homeland is a question of judging when to deflect enemies for no points or explode them for points and subject the blob to a barrage of asteroid pieces. The flaring explosions look fantastic, and in terms of blob warfare it puts the Android's selection of terribly basic Galcon clones to shame. But it does go on for a bit too long.
- £1.50 / Free version: Totemo Lite
Another from Hexage, one of the most reliable mobile developers working with the Android Market. We can forgive them for making their games available to iPhone users too. Totemo is a simplistic and indescribably infuriating logic puzzler. It describes itself as "mind-soothing", but actually it'll make you want to break your phone in half. In a good way.
It's got an ancient Native American theme. A screen of lost spirits blinks balefully at you as you try to connect them in the right sequence and send them on their way to the afterlife. A totem on the left of the screen dictates how many spirits must be joined together to make them disappear. They can only be joined in vertical and horizontal lines, and when you've tapped a spirit, its potential partners stare disconcertingly out of the screen to alert you to their presence.
It's certainly novel, and it takes a while to click, but once it does you begin to see the patterns rather than opting for simple trial and error. Shaking the phone resets the level if you've left a stray spirit with no hope of rescue. You'll need to go through the tutorial to make sense of it at first.
Armored Strike Online
- $3.99 / Free version: Armored Strike Online (Lite)
Armored Strike's case isn't helped by the fact that it kept crashing my phone - if you're running 1.6, give it a miss or risk completely borking your handset. It's a classic tank game, and an impressively full-featured one, which explains the relatively high price. It has online play, complete with chat and leaderboard rankings, as well as 25 weapons, but only three maps, which is mildly disappointing.
Terrain is destructible, and you can pick either a tank, a slow-moving heavy tank or a quick, vulnerable mech to trundle about in. Players take it in turns to select a target, figure out the trajectory and fire away. Zooming in and out is a bit of a faff, and the sheer proliferation of numbers on the screen is off-putting, but otherwise it works better than any other tank game on the Android.
The Lite version gives you just one tank and only five out of the 25-odd available weapons, which can be bought and exchanged for cash between rounds. It makes up for an unintuitive interface with a clean, bright visual style and beguilingly nostalgic midi-music.
- £0.99 / No free version
Speedx 3D is a cool-looking tunnel accelerometer. It sends you hurtling down an angular tunnel at ever-increasing speed, twitching the phone left and right to avoid solid blocks that pop up in your path. Trails of colour warn of approaching obstacles, but it's still very hard to see what's coming up next - games of Speedx rarely last longer than thirty seconds.
It's expensive for thirty seconds of fun, then, even if it's technically quite impressive. The tilt sensing is a wee bit dodgy, too, but as long as you hold it absolutely still whilst it calibrates, it's at least functional. More than one mode or visual theme might have made it more than a cheap, quick thrill.
- $1.99 / Free version: Flight Director (LITE)
You might guess, from the title, that Flight Director is rather a lot like Flight Control. It is. You guide planes to runways, drawing paths for them with your finger on the touchscreen. The difference? Flight Director uses maps of real airports taken from Google Earth - including that most illustrious of global transport hubs, Edinburgh Airport!
As opposed to a cute and cartoony flight game with chubby little planes, then, we have a more sombre experience, with several types of real plane doodling around the screen until you direct them to safety. A little audio cue lets you know when your finger has found its target runway. The rest of the soundtrack is comprised of calming beeps and chimes, the peace broken by screeching alarms if two planes come too close together.
It's soothing, compelling and definitely worth £1.50-ish of your money - the lite version has three maps instead of seven and locks off the harder difficulties. It also has infuriating ads that are easy to accidentally touch when you're trying to guide a plane, an irritation absent from the full game.
- $2.99 / Free version: Robo Defense Free
Robo Defense is the best tower-defence game on 'Droid, and how much you like it will depend entirely on how much you like tower defence. I'm not wild about it. You get a lot of levels for your two quid (or one level with plenty of difficulty settings in the free version), as well as achievements, and it plays smoothly. But with extremely basic sound effects and fuzzy sci-fi-styled graphics, Robo Defense doesn't look or feel significantly different from something you might get on a Nokia. Not quite what I bought an Android for, then, but amusing nonetheless.