Considering how Apple’s ubiquitous iPod has dominated the music industry for the better half of the past decade, it seems only natural that the trend-setting giant would turn its resources to video gaming. After all, MP3s sell well enough, but gaming is supposedly where the bigger bucks are. However, the vast majority of games in the early catalog have been token puzzlers such as Tetris and Zuma, completely inoffensive but not really enticing to your average gamer. Up until a month ago, the only really noteworthy release was NanaOn-Sha’s musika, a game that sounded cool on paper but amounted to little more than a spelling bee with dance club visuals. These games only seemed to highlight the fundamental limitations of the iPod, in terms of control and horsepower. But then Harmonix, fresh off their Rock Band revolution, quietly released Phase, a game that shows plenty of untapped potential from Apple’s handheld phenomenon.
If you’ve played any music game in recent years, particularly of the notes-on-a-track variety popularized by Guitar Hero, then the gameplay in Phase won’t really surprise you. Since you’re working with a touch wheel instead of a plastic Stratocaster, Harmonix returned to its simpler Frequency/Amplitude series for inspiration. Gone are the 4th and 5th notes, chords, star power – much of what defines the current crop of music games, but the remaining core is still fun. New to Phase are long chains that require you to slide your finger across the wheel. This mechanic feels great and helps give this game a bit of an identity.
What really defines this game though is the music selection. From the outset, you have seven pack-in tracks, most of which are great (“Dragonfly” remix) and one that’s nigh unbearable (“The Theme of Awesome”). These will entertain for an hour or so and could probably justify the game’s paltry $5 pricetag alone. However, Phase‘s true value lies in its ability to assign beats to your own library of songs. Any MP3 can be used, so long as it’s not absurdly long or short, and the technology seemed to be very accurate in the few dozen songs I tested. Slower ballads occasionally throw the syncing off, but fans of any music genre can make this game work.
While Phase is fun for what it is, I want to be careful not to oversell it. Though this game is practically a must-have given its price, music games have evolved in the past few years and I cannot imagine this game holding your attention for very long, even with the custom soundtrack. I also want to give a head’s up to folks with large hands. If you have gorilla mitts like me (above), you’re hands will likely cramp up after fifteen minutes of play. Not a knock on Harmonix, just a general acknowledgment that the the iPod was not originally built for gaming. I’m sure that Apple already has taken this under consideration for if and when they’re truly ready to compete with the Nintendo DS and PSP. When that day comes, they’d be wise to use this game as a template for how to make a successful casual game.
Overall: 3 Stars