'Little Wings' Soars by Not Trying Too Hard
"Little Wings" is a simple game with a simple goal: Get a bird with underdeveloped wings skyward. Its play control system is as rudimentary as it gets -- there's one button, and it's not even really a button, it's the whole screen. It might sound dumbed-down, but the game succeeds as a relaxed, mellow casual game that fits the iPhone perfectly and can still be fun at a dose of just two or three minutes.
03/08/11 5:00 AM PT
Some iPhone games try to emulate the kind of layout you'd see on an actual video game controller -- a directional pad on the left and a set of A/B/C buttons on the right. That's a familiar configuration, it allows for a lot of options, and the developer can let the player customize just how everything's laid out.
In practice, though, the touchscreen control pads just don't offer the level of detailed control you get from an actual dedicated controller, and detailed control is exactly what you need when playing that type of game. You can't feel the buttons beneath your fingertips, can't orient your thumbs without looking at them, can't apply juuust enough pressure so that a twitch of the wrist will execute your next move. Basically, it's like trying to play after getting your hands shot up with Novocaine.
This problem comes up when so-called classic games for systems like the NES or the PC finally get the iOS treatment. But games that are built from the ground up for iOS or other touchscreen platforms often figure out better ways to provide control via a touchscreen. "Angry Birds" does it by letting you pull back the slingshot, "Cut the Rope" makes your fingertip a razor blade, and "Little Wings" simplifies things even further -- there's really just one button, and it's the whole screen.
Less Angry, More Hopeful
The story of "Little Wings" is as simple as its control scheme. A bird with malformed wings wants to take to the skies, and given its physical infirmity and the fact that it lives in a 2D side-scrolling universe, the best way to do that seems to be to slide down hills and ramp up the other side. This has the effect of propelling the bird high into the clouds at great speed if done just right. Gravity soon asserts itself, of course, but if reentry is timed just right, the bird is again sent soaring, speed maintained.
Speed is important, of course, because night is soon approaching, and the faster it flies, the longer it will be before the darkness comes and puts the bird to rest. A deep and debatable philosophical comment, perhaps.
Anyway, what is it with birds and popular iOS games? "Angry Birds" is still going strong, and "Little Wings" also centers on a character of the beaked persuasion. Maybe it all goes back to the bit about control. Birds don't carry weapons, they don't throw punches, and they can't kick worth a damn. They just fly. It all comes down to "flap" or "don't flap." No eight-directional control pad necessary.
More accurately for "Little Wings," it comes down to "dive" or "don't dive." As your character soars in the air, touching the screen will cause it to go into a nose dive. If your dive lands you on the decline of a hill and you time your release correctly, the bird will carry its momentum as it slides up the next hill. Keep it up and you may be able to soar all the way to another island. Not a hard technique to learn, but very difficult to perfect.
Avoiding night's cold embrace isn't your only motivation. The landscape is littered with coins that increase your score if you time your dive-bombing to come in contact with them. There are also blue pellets scattered throughout the land that give you a welcome speed boost.
When I first played "Little Wings," I was amazed at how hard it was to get past the fifth island. Frustration crept in. Later I realized that getting to the next island isn't exactly the point.
The game is actually filled with achievement challenges -- perform this many aerial tricks of one sort or another to reach the next "nest." The hillscapes don't shift much; you're just tasked with increasingly difficult challenges to carry out there.
And even though the hillscapes don't change in layout, they do change in color. The game is aware of the date, and the game's color scheme changes with the day.
As for music, "Little Wings" features a MIDI-tastic score that can get a bit repetitive by your nineteenth try at collecting 200 coins. But music and sound effects have separate volume buttons, and the bird's chirps and squawks are charming in their resolve.
Once I figured out what it was about, "Little Wings" won me over.
It's not necessarily a quest to escape your island or fly as far as you can go, and killing pigs or anything else isn't on the agenda.
This bird just wants to go for a spin, and with the right technique and timing, he'll catapult himself right out into the clouds.