These are exciting times for handheld gaming, what with PSP and DS slugging it out for the hearts and minds (and thumbs) of gamers, while mobile phone gaming continues to evolve at the speed of light.
Does the world really need another pocket gaming platform? Apple thinks so, having introduced downloadable games for its fifth-generation iPod.
Clearly the iPod is never going to compete with PSP or DS in terms of sheer processing power, dedicated controls or game complexity. And despite the iPod's success – Apple has shifted nearly 60 million of them since the first one was sold in 2002 – the device is nowhere near as ubiquitous as the mobile phone.
After playing all nine launch titles, we think the iPod could well find a healthy niche in the casual gaming market. But whether iPod gaming really takes off will depend as much on Apple's publishing strategy as it does on the physical characteristics of the device itself.
Let's start with the facts. Taking the top-end 80GB model as our example, it weighs 157 grams and is noticeably slimmer than our battered old second-generation iPod. Its 2.5-inch QVGA screen is 60 per cent brighter than the last model, and it's a decent shape for gaming.
The battery life has also been given a boost, offering up to 20 hours audio playback when fully charged. You won't get that much playing games, but as far as we can judge you can comfortably get through a day's worth of on-and-off gaming on car or train journeys without running out of juice. It charges via USB connection to your PC or Mac, although you can buy a power adapter separately.
Control is via the scroll-wheel, which is where our quibbles start. What was an innovative approach to navigating through hundreds of albums can be clunky when it comes to playing games. As you'll see from our reviews, the scroll-wheel isn't as well suited to games requiring four-way digital movement – glaringly so in the case of Pac-Man and Bejeweled.
However, when games are designed for it like Vortex, or luckily suit it in the case of Zuma, the scroll-wheel works perfectly well. The lesson for Apple: while the big casual and retro game brands may make people feel comfortable about downloading their first iPod game, it'll be important to ensure there's a healthy supply of bespoke titles for the device. Interestingly, by self-publishing Vortex and Texas Hold'em, it seems Apple is prepared to lead the way.
Also noteworthy is the uniformity of certain features around the games. Every title gives you a choice of listening to its own music and sound effects, or your own songs from your iPod library. Indeed, most will set it to the Auto setting, so that if you have songs playing when you fire up a game, they'll be the soundtrack. In our tests, the only snaggle is that the volume jumps up a couple of notches when starting a game for some reason.
Every game's Pause screen has an option to 'Abandon and Save', so you can dive out of any game at any point, and then come back to it next time you play. This is great. Every game also asks you to enter your name before playing for the first time, which had me dreaming of some kind of global high-scores community synchronised through iTunes. Unlikely? Maybe, but who knows what the future holds.
Talking of iTunes, browsing and buying games is a painless process through the iTunes store. Each game's page on the store itself gives you a decent amount of information, and a 30-second video preview. Once you've downloaded them, you can read the instructions for each from within your iTunes library, and set them up to AutoSync next time you connect your iPod. It's streets ahead of mobile phone game buying.
There's been some controversy on the iTunes Store around the price of the games. Is £3.99 here in the UK a swizz compared to the $4.99 that US owners are paying, which converts to around £2.67? Perhaps, but it's not exactly a new phenomenon. It's the same reason you can get the new Scissor Sisters album for £8.99 on Amazon.co.uk, and $11.99 on Amazon.com (£6.42).
At a time when mobile operators are still charging £5 for 100KB Java games, £3.99 for a richer title taking up 20MB or more doesn't seem that harsh. It's early days for iPod gaming, but few people spending £12 on Zuma, Texas Hold'em and Mini Golf would feel short-changed.Be sure to bookmark our new, dedicated iPod section for news and reviews of future iPod games. Note that our score below relates to the iPod from a gamer's perspective, and reflects too the cost of iPod versus other handheld machines and phones. As a music player, it's our nine out of ten favourite!