Phoenix HD is, ironically, not reborn on the iPad

, | Game reviews

A lot of shmups on the iPad are ports that were good before they ever got to the iPad. For instance, the absurdly generous War Blade and the epically butt-numbing Battlesquadron One have both wended their way to the iPad from the Amiga. The Amiga, for pete’s sake! They don’t even make those anymore, and here we are, playing perfectly decent Amiga games on our iPads. Cave’s shmups — stand by for more on these, because you can’t talk about shumps without talking about Cave — all come from arcade machines. The iPad lets these games bust free from their origins.

But there’s something to be said for a game built specifically for a platform. The iPad isn’t just a place for ports. In some cases, the iPad is home. And in some cases, it shows.

After the jump, Phoenix HD is one such case

Phoenix HD is so technically proficient that it’s hard to blame it for feeling a bit sterile. If you play shumps, these spaceships are a dime a dozen. Phoenix focuses on these elaborately detailed, colorful, animeted [sic] spaceships to the exclusion of all else. In fact, this is a game without levels. Generic backgrounds scroll under the action, mostly empty enough that they won’t distract you from the bullets you’re dodging. What passes for levels is a randomized procession of big ships with turrets to fire specific bullet patterns. The challenge is targeting a ship’s turrets to disarm it, and then pounding it to death once it can’t attack you so effectively. There are no waves of fighters rushing down at you. It’s like skipping the trash mobs and going straight to the boss fights.

Despite the spaceshippy artwork, it looks grand on the iPad, far better than mere ports with an HD in the title. The screen around these big goofy ships comes alive with sharply drawn bullets, lush explosions, precious green healing clouds, and the glorious light and color of various alpha strikes. And it controls beautifully, letting you hold a single power-up that you can trigger by simply tapping a second finger anywhere on the screen. This is not a game that ever needed a d-pad or analog buttons. It’s a glass cockpit, one-touch shmup, through and through.

It’s also a health bar shmup, which means you lose a few hit points when you get hit. You have to watch your health bar closely, and you sometimes you have to manage healing. Yet Phoenix HD makes the occasionally fatal mistake of putting the stupid health bar at the top of the screen. And by “fatal mistake”, I mean fatal to me on those occasions I can’t resist glancing up at the health bar and — oops, I’m dead because I looked away.

I love the risk/reward balancing in theory. You set your difficulty from one to five stars when you start playing. The stars increase automatically as you play, all the way up to five stars, and therefore the difficulty and the scoring increase. When you get hit, you lose stars all the way down to whatever you started with. However, once you reach a certain point on the skill curve, there’s no reason to start at anything other than five stars. This means the dynamic balancing effectively goes out the window for anyone but new players. I suppose I should be grateful that I’m so good at Phoenix HD that I’ve outleveled one of its features.

While most games like this tend to play action music — or J-pop interpretations of action music — Phoenix HD plays a soothing almost Vangelis style theme. “Just relax,” it seems to electronically intone. “Breathe, take your time, have fun…” Thanks, soundtrack! I think I will!

Given that Apple can’t be arsed to police their own gaming network, I love that Phoenix HD has its own internal leaderboards. This lets them play around with data that isn’t available to Gamecenter or Openfeint. For instance, you can break down the leaderboards by geography. Since I’m at the top of my friends leaderboard — bunch of slackers, those guys — I can now work on beating the 251 other players (out of 1.6 million) in Los Angeles with a higher score than mine. I can also take the iPad with me to conquer any cities I travel to. I’m considering a drive up to Palmdale.

Finally, I don’t normally care to talk about the price of a game, since that’s between you and your wallet. But I do want to tip my hat to Phoenix HD for its friendly pricing scheme. You can play for free. And you probably should, since this will tell you all you need to know about whether this is a shmup for you. Unlike the lite versions of Cave’s games, which slam shut before you know what’s going on, Phoenix HD will let you play to your heart’s content. And when it comes time to care about high scores, you pony up 99 cents to unlock access to the leaderboards. Fair enough. A 99 cent shmup! Furthermore, the three other ships you can play, each of which changes the gameplay in important ways (I’m a Mirage man), are another 99 cents each. Phoenix HD is a game that costs between free and four dollars, based on how much you like it. I’m guessing the average shmup fan is going to gladly part with the full four dollars.

4 stars