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Editorial: I love Super Crate Box and I hate virtual buttons


Guys, I want to like Super Crate Box on iOS so, so much. I really do. Vlambeer's latest release is a port of the truly wonderful (and completely free) PC, Mac, and Winnitron 1000 game that I've devotedly recommended to friends and readers repeatedly since playing it at last year's GDC.

In short, it's a 2D action platformer in which your goal is to survive a non-stop onslaught of monsters falling from a hole in the ceiling toward you, while collecting boxes with randomized weapons (revolver, shotgun, rocket launcher, etc.). The more boxes you collect, the higher your score. Also, there are fire pits at the bottom of the screen that you can burn to death in, and enemies that fall into the pits will respawn at the top, only faster and meaner than before. It's a wonderful little loop of partially randomized risk/reward and it requires precision at very turn.

There's one major blockade standing in the way of me enjoying the portable version of SCB, unfortunately: virtual buttons. Stupid, awful virtual buttons.

The same frustrating issues that I encountered in Grand Theft Auto 3's recent mobile port are mirrored on both iPhone and iPad versions of the Super Crate Box. Unlike GTA3 though, the gameplay loop of SCB is suited perfectly to the iOS format. I thought to myself, "Maybe it'll be different this time, Ben. Maybe the virtual buttons will be workable for a game you love so much." As Charlie Murphy says, "Wrong. Wrooooong." The issue present in both SCB and GTA3 on iOS, as you've likely guessed from the headline above, is the awful, inscrutable, frustrating virtual buttons.

There are two separate issues with control on the iPhone/iPod Touch version, and thankfully only one on the iPad. While frantically controlling my character around the screen on my iPhone, I regularly cover my own character with one of my thumbs, almost always resulting in instant death. The other issue, present in both iOS iterations, is the simple -- and crucial -- problem of precision control with virtual buttons.

For a game that demands speedy reaction time paired with precision movement, virtual buttons are a massive failing. The first time I accidentally jumped when I intended to shoot -- or was it vice versa? -- was enough for me to stop playing. Forever. Yes, seriously! Why play a game that I can't really trust my hands to control? It feels futile.

Worse, this will likely be the first way many folks experience Super Crate Box, which seems a massive disservice to the game and IP. Instead of remembering it for being not only fun and frantic, but also a precisely controlled platformer, it could be be remembered as a throwaway commuter title.

In defense of the dev team, Vlambeer has taken to Twitter to promise updates that will tweak the controls to try and make it friendlier. But as IGN's Mitch Dyer points out, "the platform just isn't ideal for this particular type of game." Dyer couches his critique in a, "for me," but I believe this applies to any precision-based game using virtual buttons on iOS devices. As he also notes, "It'd be like playing Super Meat Boy or Bit.Trip with touch-buttons." And that's exactly it: virtual buttons introduced to precision-based games result in frustration for players and a misrepresentation of the game's intent.

Super Crate Box is a great game that is often great fun, but I don't think the way to play it is on iOS -- at least if you don't have an iCade to play it with (the game does actually work with the device, I'm told). It's worth investing the $1 into the iOS port for the goodwill it imparts, given that the superior PC and Mac versions are completely free (and given what Vlambeer has already been through with other recent projects), but as Dyer also posits, "Would pay 10x to play anywhere else." As in, "I would pay $10 to play Super Crate Box on my Xbox," which I can't help but agree with. It's a truly wonderful game that's certainly worth the ten spot ... just not with virtual buttons.

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