So I downloaded this racing game called Ground Effect from the app store the other day. I fired it up and selected a vehicle, etc., and started racing. I didn't have my headphones plugged in, and the music coming out of the tiny iPhone speakers seemed repetitive and annoying, and I wasn't sure what was going on (the game provided very little in the way of explanation). Fortunately I was not in a hurry. I played around for 15 minutes and it started to dawn on me: there was something deeper going on with this racer than all the others I've played in the two years since Apple unveiled the app store.
Fast forward 3 days. I'm basically obsessed with the game, reading the entire 600+ post thread for Ground Effect on the Touch Arcade game forum, seeing the developer Glenn Corpes's comment about the physics of the game, starting to realize why I like this title so much: he created this world, and he obsessed over the details and the physics of it - the speed of the craft, the density of the cushion of air beneath you, the sensitivity of the controls, the difficulty of each level. And he drops you into his creation with zero fanfare because fancy menus and trophies and career modes and weapons and all the trinkets and ceremony that would normally accompany such a game - he doesn't want that stuff. He doesn't want anything that might dilute the purity of the racing.
So anyway, on the day I got the game I played for awhile and figured out how to race well enough to unlock the first few levels. I got stuck on level 4, like most folks. Luckily I didn't get too frustrated and I found enough patience to slow down and play around with the course. I tried some new things and started to relax and care less about winning and more about speed and form and scenery and exploring the freedom of the open level. And then I unlocked level 5 and then I unlocked level 6 and then I had the experience that led to this short essay.
See, in the game you are flying this thing called a ground effect vehicle (GEV). It moves forward to create a cushion of air between the hull and whatever surface you're flying over: water, rock, grass, etc. So it seems like a hover craft at first. You tool around with a few feet of air between you and the ground. But GEVs, also known as ekronoplans, are different from hover crafts. Because if you go off a cliff with a hover craft, I'm pretty sure you'll tumble to the ground like a rock. But an ekronoplan *loves* to go off a cliff. It reminds me of a flying squirrel.
You know the scene in Avatar, when the main guy catches his own banshee, and together they go tumbling off the cliff with the banshee struggling to fly with a rider on his back, and the rider just trying to hold on, to survive?
And they tumble down, down, down, and the banshee flaps mightily but each flap of his wing just smashes into the rocks and they roll down the face of the cliff, completely out of control? Somehow, about halfway down, banshee and rider both realize how to mutually survive this catastrophe, and they stop struggling and just: WHOOSH out into the air, over the trees, flapping and gliding and then whizzing along the rocky face of the cliff for the sheer joy of it.
That's how it felt when I was racing against my ghost on level 6, finally getting in sync with the pulse of the game, tapping my boost rhythmically with each checkpoint, faster, faster, faster and then: WHOOSH! Over the edge of the cliff, soaring across the valley.
There's a trick where you can pause the game and unlock the camera and pan and zoom the entire world to your heart's content. Using this trick, I took a screenshot to show how it feels to soar off the cliff in a tight race on level 6.
Now I'm on level 12, with 2 levels left to unlock. Level 12 is hard. I'm racing my ghost and learning the course properly instead of immediately grinding my way toward first place. Wearing my headphones and cranking the music (which, through headphones, has turned out to be quite good). I'm in no hurry to finish this game.
In normal racing mode, you start out in last place and slowly fight your way past seven other vehicles to try and take first place in the course of three laps. Third place or better will unlock the next level.
Ghost mode, on the other hand, pits you against the record of your best time for each level. There are only two vehicles on the course. In a good race you'll be neck and neck with your ghost most of the way, swapping the lead with every twist and turn. You start to get a feel for the best times to conserve your boost and the best times to unleash. You slowly chip away at your record time.
Following close behind my ghost reminds me of when I was in my early twenties snow skiing with my brother. It was the first time we skied as friends - and as equals - instead of big and little brothers. I remember noticing with some surprise how well he could ski, and we flew down the slopes in single file, swapping the lead with each run. The joy of focusing with all your body on the minute details of the terrain as it flies past in a blur, the joy of accomodating each rise and fall of the landscape in synchrony with another skier. This little iPhone game somehow brings a fraction of that experience back to me.
The latest version of Ground Effect has a mediocre 2.5 star rating on iTunes. I've purchased and played almost 200 games for the iPhone in the last 18 months or so. Most of them had more than 2.5 stars. *Very* few of them even came close to giving me the satisfaction that I've found with Ground Effect, and the ones that did were certainly not racers.
Let this be a lesson about App Store ratings.