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App Smart

Space games offer nostalgia on smartphones, tablets

Galaxy on Fire 2

Handout

Galaxy on Fire 2

There are game apps, and there are game apps. Some gamers like the imagination in fantasy games, some thrill to gory shoot-’em-ups, others love the wonderfully named MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Each genre has unique characteristics.

But there’s one class of game app that both harks back to the origins of video gaming and shows off the amazing graphics capability of a modern smartphone or tablet: space games.

Continue reading below

My favorite.

Galaxy on Fire 2

Free on iOS and Android

The “Galaxy on Fire 2” app is one of the best-known 3-D “space opera” games. Space operas involve an element of fantasy, combat, and intellectual play. There’s a good reason for the success of “Galaxy on Fire 2”: It is hugely impressive.

You play the role of Keith T. Maxwell, an experienced human space pilot catapulted to a distant and perilous part of the galaxy. You control Maxwell’s ship as it flies through space, and a story unfolds as the app leads you through different missions.

At first the missions are simple, so you can learn the complex controls for the ship’s flight, its weapons, navigation, systems upgrades, and so on. The learning curve is steep because you have left, right, and up and down to manage, and you must spot targets in different parts of the 3-D environment around you. The game offers lots of automation, however. For example, you can fly manually to specific points in space on missions, or click autopilot.

You’ll fly around mining asteroids, running missions for in-game characters, and upgrading your vessel’s shields. There’s also a lot of combat. Chasing enemy ships among the stars and rocks near a planet is enormous fun, with just about the right amount of difficulty. You dock with space stations, fly to different star systems, and rendezvous with other ships as part of the unfolding story.

It’s all rendered in fabulous 3-D that would look at home on a desktop PC. The HD edition, when run on a top-end device like a new iPhone 5S, even includes extra visual effects like clouds and lens flares.

But it takes lots of fiddling to learn how to play. “Galaxy on Fire 2 HD” is free for iOS and Android devices, though the game tries to entice you to make in-app purchases to upgrade your ship. There are also pop-up ads. Other than that, it’s great.

Atari’s Greatest Hits

Free on iOS and Android

How could I omit Atari’s official free iOS and Android Greatest Hits retro gaming app? “Asteroids,” an official version of the 2-D vector graphics space classic, involves your ship’s surviving a chaotic assault of heavy asteroid rocks, each of which you shoot at to split into pieces that are smaller but move faster, and are therefore potentially trickier to destroy or elude.

The game is as good as you would expect, coming from Atari. The touch-screen controls may even be a little more intuitive than the big plastic arcade machine controls of old. Just don’t expect amazing 3-D graphics — even though you may get unexpectedly hooked by the strange vector images on the screen.

I have just two complaints. Atari has not upgraded the app in about a year — which is a shame, given how fast that mobile device operating systems evolve. And getting “Asteroids,” along with 99 other classic Atari space games, will cost $10 through an in-app purchase.

There are some goodies in there, like “Lunar Lander,” where you have to control the angle and thrust of your engine to land softly on the moon.

F-Sim Space Shuttle

$4.50 on Android
and $5 on iOS

Last, for a simple and satisfying space game check out “F-Sim Space Shuttle,” which places you in control of the iconic spacecraft as it comes in to land. You have to rotate your phone to adjust the shuttle’s controls, keeping this notoriously nonaerodynamic “flying brick” on track for a safe landing. Graphically rich and reasonably rewarding, this app costs $4.50 on Android and $5 on iOS.

Kit Eaton writes on technology for The New York Times.
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