Exclusive: hands on with iPhone's Pang

Bursting the iPhone's bubble

Exclusive: hands on with iPhone's Pang
| Pang

I could walk you to the exact spot in an arcade on Blackpool front where a shiny Pang coin-op cabinet once stood. Its outline is still visible on the sticky carpet from the sheer weight of 10p pieces I piled into it during the Silver Age of the arcades.

But almost 20 years later (to the day), I have to wonder whether that simplistic bubble popping game can compete with the vast number of hugely imaginative games filling the App Store. Maybe, if Pang is somehow new to you, its charms will be lost, but to those of us who filled the arcade coin boxes and spent hours at the harpoon on our home computers, its gameplay will remain as unique and addictive as ever.

Assuming, for the moment, that the forthcoming iPhone adaptation of Pang (also known as Buster Bros. In the US) is your first encounter with Mitchell's big bouncing balls (oo-er missus) we'll take a fresh look at the gameplay and see how original it remains.

The world is being assailed by large bouncing bubbles, and it's your job to pop them. You therefore travel the major cities and monuments of the world armed with a trusty harpoon. Hitting the 'fire' button shoots this harpoon vertically up the screen, until the spearhead hits the top and both the harpoon and its rope vanish.

To begin with, these apparently dangerous bubbles are huge, and bounce all the way to the top of the screen. Running underneath one and skewering it with your harpoon splits the bubble in half (which also happens if the balloon bounces into the trailing rope).

The two resulting bubbles don't bounce quite so high, so getting underneath them is more dangerous. Shoot them and they split again into even smaller spheres (Asteroids style) until they're eventually destroyed.

Clearing the screen of bubbles is your ultimate objective, but much of the challenge comes from the level designs. Ladders are introduced, along with obstacles and platforms - all of which conspire to make it harder to thrust a spear through the bubbles and to run about the screen without getting bashed on the head.

The iPhone version includes all the expected gameplay elements, such as the vast array of power-ups (double harpoons, time freeze, a ray gun, etc), and very recognisable levels from the arcade classic.

The backdrops and imagery have received a welcome update, though the original game wasn't exactly bad looking in the first place (and I do rather miss the manga stylings of the old game) so a fresh lick of digital paint is a basic nicety that certainly doesn't hurt, but probably wasn't altogether necessary.

The most important factor is how the joystick and button of the arcade machine have been adapted to the iPhone's touchscreen. Rather than settling for the typical on-screen D-pad, the developer has clearly put some serious thought into how your harpoon-wielding character is manoeuvred.

An elongated rectangle has been placed at the bottom left of the screen, operating as a kind of 'sensor area'. The majority of the movements are only left and right, with little in the way of ups and downs, so that sliding your thumb across this long, yet thin control box (accompanied by an ordinary 'fire' button on the right) works a treat, and is very difficult to lose even when the action heats up.

There have been some subtle additions to the iPhone version of Pang, including a great new mechanic that could only work on Apple's handheld. Once your 'Pang' meter is charged, shaking the handset sends off a volley of five harpoons from your current position, which proves to be a superb, emergency lifesaver when a shower of bubbles is raining down on you.

It also includes a Time Trial mode, in which you simply attempt to survive for as long as possible on a screen rapidly filling with different kinds of bubbles. Some of these don't just bounce around the place, but float in all directions and add an interesting new dimension to the usual 'dodge and pop' gameplay.

It has to be said that Pang's originality perhaps hasn't weathered the test of time quite so well as other games of that era, but this adaptation is unerringly faithful and sure to please the legions of Pang aficionados out there.

Whether it'll convince newcomers to try the game is a different matter, but if the unusual (and distinctly Japanese) aesthetic of Pang's gameplay is at all intriguing to you, it's unlikely to disappoint - although its appeal might not last all that long.

Its success, therefore, is likely to be hinged on price rather than the quality of its adaptation. If, like so many retro remakes, Pang is positioned on the upper years of the App Store pricing system, its longevity could be harmed. But as a budget range special, Pang would be the kind of gift that keeps on giving to retro fans for a long time to come.

Spanner Spencer
Spanner Spencer
Yes. Spanner's his real name, and he's already heard that joke you just thought of. Although Spanner's not very good, he's quite fast, and that seems to be enough to keep him in a regular supply of free games and away from the depressing world of real work.