Getting it right
The punchily-titled You Cruise by Mazda MX-5 is a great little racing game that reminds me a bit of the early Colin McRae Rally titles on the Playstation.
It's pretty limited (no other cars, just time trials on eight tracks with online leaderboards), but that's okay because it's free, and what it does it does really well. The odd thing, though, is the fact that it has better controls than any other traditional-style racing game in the App Store.
One of the weird aspects of the iPod/iPhone market is that, very broadly speaking, indie developers are far more professional than huge commercial publishers. While bedroom coders actively solicit feedback on their games and more often than not act on it, big companies like Namco and Electronic Arts surprisingly frequently release games with major bugs in them, and then never bother to fix them.
Purchasers of EA's Need For Speed Shift, for example – a game released at what in the App Store is a stratospherically high £5.99 – have been waiting over six months for an update to fix a much-reported bug that makes it impossible to play the game's final level.
Or sometimes, publishers used to working on other formats just don't bother thinking very much about the difference in control methods between the iPod and the formats they're used to working with. A case in point is the iPod version of Geometry Wars 2, which has worse controls than almost any other twin-stick shooter on the machine – frequently to the game's significant detriment, when you have to flee into enemies you can't see because your thumbs are in the way.
But why do expensively-resourced professionals get it wrong when one bloke with a dev kit and some spare time can get it right? You can only presume that it didn't occur to Bizarre Creations that they might have something to learn from people who'd been designing for the iPod from the ground up rather than trying to cram an Xbox 360 game into a much smaller device.
So what's so good about You Cruise? Well, it's a fast and challenging racer with eight nicely-designed tracks ispread across four attractive locations (setting-wise it feels a bit like a cross between Colin McRae, Ridge Racer 64 and Test Drive Unlimited).
But what really makes it enjoyable to play is the control system. Or rather, one of the three control systems. (In addition to the one I'm about to talk about, you can also choose from the two more standard iPod racing-game options, namely tilt and a little steering wheel in the bottom-left corner.)
You Cruise is, by a distance, most fun using the digital-steering option. It manifests in the form seen in the screenshots below and at the top of the page – you get two things in the centre of the screen that look like pedals but are in fact left and right buttons. Below them are two more pedals, which actually are pedals this time – so presumably they're brake and accelerate, right? Wrong.
Both of the pedals are brake pedals, with the game – in all three control modes – accelerating for you automatically. (People who complain about automatic acceleration in iPod racing games need a punch in the throat, by the way.) The genius of this approach is that it makes steering and braking at the same time much more balanced and comfortable, and compensates for the lack of physical feedback that you'd get from a real joypad.
(Because you don't have to look down to make sure your thumb isn't drifting over from the "left" hotspot to the "right" hotspot. The buttons are so large they're hard to miss, and they're at opposite sides of the screen so there's no danger of hitting something you didn't mean to. So you get to stay in the race world, instead of constantly reminding yourself that you're playing with a videogames console.)
With the exception of Ferrari GT Evolution (which messes it up by having brake pedals that are too small and not in the corners, so that you have to look down every three seconds to make sure you're hitting them), I can't think of another iPod racing game I've seen that uses this control system, yet it's vastly superior to any other one I've used.
(In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the first time an iPod 3D racer has really felt right, rather than being an impressive technical achievement but not much fun to play. With the digital control method, You Cruise is as tight as Ridge Racer or Sega Rally, and that's as good as it gets.)
Why is a car company knocking out a promo freebie better at designing videogame controls than videogame designers? And it's surprisingly uncompromising for a promotional tool too – despite only having steering and braking to worry about, you'll very likely fail to beat the tight time limits more than once before you can unlock all eight tracks and earn yourself an entry on the "all levels completed" leaderboard.
(In a nice touch, when you do beat a target time your best time becomes the new target. Rather than timing forwards, the clock actually counts down from your target time to zero and beyond – with the digits going red if you turn in a worse run – so in effect you're your own toughest coach and critic.)
So anyway. If you enjoy a good racing game, make sure you download You Cruise. That applies especially strongly if you're an iPod developer making a racing game. And doubly so if it's Project Gotham Racing.