Flip Ship is 30% a tilt game, 30% a shooter, and 40% a horribly insidious risk/reward challenge designed to make you hate yourself. When things go wrong — and they will often — you have only yourself to blame. And, really, that’s what makes this deceptive simple iPhone game so good.

After the jump, high scores and self-loathing

Although the graphics have a cool colorful smooth wireframe look, Flip Ship is basically a two-toned game. At any given time there are enemy ships on screen of two different colors. You toggle your ship between those two colors by tapping the screen. So long as you don’t hit any ships of the other color, you’re golden. Tilt your iPhone to cruise around and your ship automatically blasts the same-colored ships, wreaking that familiar shooter havoc without any input from you, and racking up more and more points with each kill. The power-ups drift in and out liberally, giving you plenty of diversions beyond shooting your designated color.

But that’s just the beginning. Flip Ship is a carefully engineered exercise in forcing you to second guess yourself. The points you rack up are displayed on the left side of the screen, but they don’t apply to your actual score on the right side of the screen until you tap the screen, change your ship’s color, and reset your score multiplier. Every single moment of Flip Ship is presided over by the overwhelming question: “Do I dare?” Do you dare hold out for more points? Do you go for one more kill with the multiplier you’ve built up? Or do you cash in now and start your multiplier again? Because every time you blow up, you’re going to immediately and deeply regret that you didn’t cash in your points. When you die in most games, the reaction is “Damn this game!” When you die in Flip Ship and lose those precious points, the reaction is “I should have flipped earlier!”

This dynamic makes an action game so much more than a mere action game. Plenty of arcade shooters are driven by a score multiplier, usually based on not getting killed, which is what you were doing anyway. The multiplier is just a byproduct of playing the game. But the really smart shooters use that multiplier to add another dimension to the gameplay. Consider, for example, the ingenious Burn Zombie Burn, which is all about making decisions about how many zombies you’ll burn and how many you’ll shoot. Risks are only as exciting as the stakes involved. And the stakes are so much higher when you’ve made the decisions that raise them. That’s why Flip Ship works so well.

The advantage of tilt controls, which are normally a crutch at best or a gimmick at worst, are well realized here. My big fat fingers aren’t in the way, which is crucial, since Flip Ship demands slipping through close gaps. This wouldn’t have worked as a twin-stick shooter, since you don’t actually do the shooting. Instead, that’s all automatic. You just put your ship where it needs to be, and robots or computers or whatever do the shooting for you. It’s dynamic, explosive, and sometimes spectacular, but it’s mostly focused.

There are three different ships with different speeds and shooting dynamics. For instance, the fast ship fires only at short range, but in a wide arc. The slow ship has a long narrow range. Each ship also has a special ability that gradually charges up as you play. Unfortunately, the nature of the gameplay seems to overly favor the fast ship with the widest firing arc. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I can’t seem to make any headway with either of the other two ships. Am I awful at Flip Ship — entirely possible — or are two of the three ships only marginally useful? The real answer is probably somewhere in between.

Since it’s a mostly simple mechanic, Flip Ship could have used more modes, or even some sort of meta game. Another very good tilt-based game, Tilt to Live, comes to mind for how it unlocks new power-ups as you earn achievements. But as near as I can tell, you’ll see all that Flip Ship has to offer after your first few play-throughs. All that’s left is deciding which ship you prefer and then plugging away at a high score. There’s that sense of focus again.

Also, kudos to the developers of Flip Ship for not succumbing to the obvious trend to micropayments. When you buy Flip Ship, you get a self-contained package where high scores are strictly and entirely a matter of how good, lucky, and persistent you are. Put away your nickels, because they aren’t any help here. Flip Ship is all about the choices you make.

4 stars