Orbital: The Perfect iPhone Game

I’ve got a lot of games on my phone: 20 different tower defense games (wow, that can’t be right, can it?), my US RDA of match-three games, three Flight Control-style path-drawing games (oh, Aqua Globs, thank you for adding two new maps today), a handful of artillery games (iShoot is so close to Scorched Earth, it hurts), four—wait, really?—four pinball games? WTF. I don’t even like pinball in real life.

Lately, though, I’ve been playing just one game, which looks to be pretty much the perfect iPhone game: Orbital.

Orbital Field

Orbital presents you with a large, empty field. At the bottom, you have a little cannon that oscillates back and forth, rhythmically sweeping its bore like a windshield wiper across the field. When you tap the screen, the cannon fires a shot. When the shot hits an obstacle or a wall, it bounces off. While it moves, the shot loses momentum and slows down. When the shot stops, it expands radially until its perimeter hits an obstacle, at which point the shot becomes a new obstacle itself, with the number 3 in the center. When such a circle is hit by another shot, the number in the center—a counter—decrements. When the counter reaches zero, the circle vanishes and you score a point. If the fired shot comes back across a boundary at the bottom of the screen, just above your cannon, you lose. Optionally, the circles may distort the playing field like heavy masses gravitationally distort space, affecting the fired shot’s path.

Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?

Here’s why this game is awesome:

Orbital Field, Shot Fired

1. It’s simple. See above; that’s the entirety of the game. Those are all the rules.

2. It’s gorgeous. The graphics consist of neon lines and colorful particle effects. They’re 100% pure visual candy.

3. There’s a single control. One. Uno. Ichi. Eins. The Chinese word for “one.” Just tap the screen anywhere—anywhere at all—to fire a shot. You simply wait for the cannon to swing back to whatever position is best for firing a shot, then you tap the screen. Done.

4. It’s quick. A typical game lasts around a minute if you’re good. Ten seconds is more like it sometimes. This means you can actually play a complete game while waiting in line for your gyro. Hell, you can probably play a half-dozen games. Because…

5. No load time between games. When you tap New Game, you get the new game immediately. When the game ends, you can tap the screen to get the menu immediately, and from there, you can tap the New Game button again.

That’s it. Extremely simple gameplay. Gorgeous graphics. Quick games with no load times between. It’s the perfect portable game. You can sit there all day, pushing a single button, getting immediate, awesome visual feedback. It’s the perfect game.

Also, it has a cool robot voice.

Client Test Summary

I’ve completed my tests of the Mac blog clients that I’ve managed to dig up. As a refresher, they are these:

  1. WordPress built-in web client
  2. MacJournal
  3. Ecto
  4. MarsEdit
  5. Blogo
  6. Flock

Blogo and Flock are definitely not for me, for reasons I’ve hinted at before.

MarsEdit certainly looks nice, but it lacks a word count widget and it does not work with rich text; it works in markup land only, which is not what I want out of a blog client.

Ecto works quite well with WordPress (but not so much with Blogger, but I don’t care about that), and the price is right: $18. The word count widget is modal, not modeless, so it interrupts my writing when I want to check my word count. It features a rich text editor that’s appropriate for a strict blogging app.

MacJournal is gorgeous. It looks good, it works well (I’m writing with it now, in fact). I has a nice, live word count widget. It features the full-up Mac rich text editor I’d hope for. The price ($35) is a little steep for me for a blogging client, but that’s because it’s not a blogging client. It’s a journaling app with blogging capability. Unfortunately, its management of WordPress’s categories and tags leaves a lot to be desired. Although it uses categories perfectly well, it doesn’t allow you to create your own in the app itself. And although it uses the standard Mac tagging system for metadata, those tags are apparently not shipped back up to the blog.

The WordPress built-in web client is also gorgeous. It has a mostly live word count that’s modeless. It has an appropriate rich text editor, albeit with non-Mac shortcuts for formatting. The price is perfect, though, and it’s obviously 100% compatible with WordPress. It’s not an offline editor, of course, which puts it out of the scope of this testing, strictly speaking, but still, it’s quite good.

I’ll probably use the built-in client for most things, resorting to one of my existing text editors (Journler or Scrivener) for offline work. MacJournal looks really nice, though. Really nice.

And of course, these tests might all go to hell when I try to add images to posts…

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Client Test (MacJournal)

The final client on my list of clients to test is MacJournal, published by Mariner Software. I think I only ran across mention of MacJournal once in my perusal of the Mac blogs and of Google, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Checking my basic requirements, yes, MacJournal handles offline editing and posting just fine, and it keeps the posts in its own database that doesn’t clutter my filesystem with posts. Perfect on that front.

MacJournal also handles multiple blogs. It seems to do a reasonable job of it, but it’s a little confusing to configure. While the actual setup of the blog server details is as trivial as the other apps I’ve tested, in that you simply type the URL of your blog and the log in, getting to that point wasn’t immediately obvious, and management of these is not quite as intuitive as in Ecto or MarsEdit. Still, I do currently have MacJournal set up with multiple blogs, so it passes—just not with flying colors.

As for my two desired features, MacJournal passes beautifully. To review, those desired features are as follows:

  • Word count widget
  • Proper Mac rich text editor

MacJournal features a live, modeless word count (and character count) widget right there at the bottom of the editor window, plain as day and very useful. Excellent.

It also uses the very rich text editor about which I’ve posted and after which I’ve longed in the other apps (including the WordPress built-in editor). It’s the Mac rich text pane, the system-supplied widget that’s used in TextEdit, Scrivener, Journler, Voodoo Pad, and most other rich text editing apps. Furthermore, it uses the rich text editor’s ruler, giving you access to all the formatting options you expect from the rich text editor. I’m not sure how the ruler itself is useful to a blog, but it’s there. All the menu items are as you’d expect, along with all the menu shortcuts. And the rich text editor popup menu is fully armed and operational.

It allows some aspect of tag/category management. Like most Mac apps, it supports a completely arbitrary tag list, generated and managed on the fly without reference to any existing body of tags. (If you’ve ever worked with tags on a Mac app, you know what I’m talking about. If not, don’t worry about it.) I’m not sure at this point how this tag system will interface with my blog’s, but we’ll see shortly. (Update: Nope. The tag didn’t stick. Fooey.)

The category management is pretty minimal. You can only set the categories to which the post belongs, and only when uploading to the blog; you cannot create new categories.

Let’s just test the ordered list capability here, using the standard Mac rich text editor ordered list formatting. Again, the names of the HiRISE uplink apps that I’ve written:

  1. HiPlan/the HOGG
  2. HiTemp
  4. HiSEAS
  5. HiCommand

Overall, too, this app is nicely polished. It looks good. It looks like a proper Mac application with properly designed iconography and everything. (That’s what’s been bothering me about Ecto. Although it works pretty well, its icons leave something to be desired. They look like they’d look if I designed the icons to my own apps. Well, I’m a pretty okay software developer, but I’m no graphic designer, and my icons tend to reflect that. [By icons, here, I mean the toolbar icons and the custom widget icons, not the actual app icon as it appears in the Finder. On that front, Ecto really shines, strangely enough.])

It’s also $35, which is more expensive than I’m willing to go for a blogging client.

And hey, that’s the point, actually. MacJournal isn’t a blogging client. It’s a journaling application with the ability to post to blogs. It can also post to iWeb and to MobileMe or to e-mail. Or not even post at all. That’s why the full ruler is present, and that’s why the full formatting bar is available. It really is a full rich text editor, on par with an app I’ve mentioned before, Journler. In fact, the two seem to have similar goals. One of the main difference is that MacJournal gives you multiple journals contained (if you like) in multiple documents (the local database to which I’ve referred). I’ve got one document here right now, and it’s got two journals in it, each of which is linked to a different blog. I could add a third journal that has nothing to do with a blog, and I could create a brand new document to hold multiple other journals. Journler, however, is focused on a single journal and currently has now blogging capability. (It used to be there, though, but not in the current version. The author notes that he’d like to return it in a future update.)

It’s pretty nice, though, and if I weren’t already using Journler, I’d probably pick it up.

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Client Test (MarsEdit)

Next up on my list of apps to test with WordPress is MarsEdit. This app and Ecto are usually mentioned as the apps to use for offline blog writing.

MarsEdit deals with offline posts as I’d expect. It keeps them in its own database somewhere, out of my way, not cluttering up my filesystem. This is a good thing.

MarsEdit also handles multiple blogs quite well. Adding a new blog is as trivial as giving it a URL and signing in to the blog. (Ecto is that easy, too, by the way.) I can manage posts from multiple blogs right here in one app in one unified window. Very nice.

MarsEdit fails me on my basic desires, though. First up, it’s not a rich text editor. It’s an HTML editor (in plain text) that happens to take double newlines as marking new paragraphs. It gives me a mostly live preview of what my text will look like when made rich (i.e., when the markup is converted to style), but I want a rich text editor. I don’t want an HTML editor. The HTML editor is somewhat novel, however: I can select text and apply the appropriate markup for bold by hitting Command-B, as expected. (And Command-I for italic, etc.) Instead of making the text bold, though, in the editing window, it just inserts the appropriate HTML code. The editor does have the expected popup menu, however, that includes all the expected things in a Mac text editor popup menu for plain text.

The other failure is in a word counter. There doesn’t appear to be one at all.

Fiddlesticks! I can’t post any lists with this app. Oh, sure, I know HTML and could generate the necessary HTML to create a nice ordered list or an unordered list, yes, yes, yes. But that’s not that point. I don’t want to edit HTML. I want my rich text editor with built-in lists that keep that HTML code away from my sensitive eyes. There might be one of those custom markup languages (like Markdown or what have you) that this app recognizes, but again, there we are dealing with markup directly—and this time it’s one I don’t know.

I’m also very hesitant to try inserting images into a post here, thanks to the need to fiddle with markup directly. That’ll come later.

MarsEdit seems to work perfectly well with WordPress (and it seemed to work perfectly well with Blogger, too). Unfortunately, it’s not for me, since it doesn’t do either of the two basic things I really want in an offline editor.

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Client Test (Ecto)

First up in my tests of blog posting software and its interaction with WordPress is Ecto, currently published by IllumineX and currently in beta for version 3 and with no sign of earlier, non-beta versions being available. It’s been around for a while, and, alongside MarsEdit, is one of the most recommended Mac blog posting clients.

In the realm of absolute basics, Ecto certainly manages offline posts. Nice. The offline posts are kept in the app’s own database somewhere, and I don’t have to worry about files cluttering my filesystem. Also nice.

It also works with multiple blogs quite well. I can edit posts from multiple blog sources all in one app window, which is a really nice feature when dealing with multiple blogs. Thus I can edit Strange Torpedoes (this blog), my personal, laptop-hosted blog, and the HiRISE blog all at once.

As for my basic desires:

  • Word-counting widget
  • Proper Mac rich text editor

Ecto does okay with the word-counting widget, in that one exists. Unfortunately, it’s a modal widget, meaning I have to stop work, click a button, examine the results window (a nice overlay, I’ll give Ecto that), and then click another button to dismiss the results before getting back to work. I prefer a modeless widget, one that keeps a live count of my words as I type. The WordPress built-in editor has something nearly live, but not completely, but at least it’s modeless. My current favorite writing tools, Scrivener and Journler, both have live, modeless word counters. Scrivener has a nice target mode for its word counter, in which you can set a goal and track your progress towards that goal. Nice. Ecto, though, is not so nice. But at least it’s got a word counter, and I’ll give it a pass.

As for the proper Mac rich text editor front, it does pretty well. Once you’ve got a proper Mac app, though, it’s not hard to have a proper rich text editor; it’s one of the system-supplied widgets. Thus, the text editor has all the things you’d expect, including the popup menu and a Format menu with the usual formatting commands and the usual command shortcuts (Command-B for bold, for instance). It has a decent widget bar at the top, one that features buttons for formatting. There’s something like this supplied with the system rich text editor, in that when you activate the ruler, you typically get a set of formatting widgets, too. Ecto’s particular set, however, is not the system-supplied set. It’s a custom set that’s more appropriate to the world of blog publishing. That’s a nice feature, but the custom set looks… well, it looks custom. It doesn’t quite fit with the Mac interface. Functionally, though, it works just fine, so I’ll give it a pass.

Other nice features include the management of tags and categories, as they’re called in WordPress. In fact, it appears to get information about the kinds of metadata supported by the blog from the blog, so if your blog doesn’t support tags, you don’t see tags in Ecto.

Ecto works with images, but I’m not willing to test it out yet. I feel like that’ll break the spell.

So then. Ecto looks pretty good, at least as far as it works with WordPress. Overall, I’m pleased with it, and the price is right: $18.

Unfortunately, Ecto did not work well with Blogger, but I think at least part of that problem was due to Blogger. Ecto kept adding additional, unnecessary newlines between paragraphs of my posts, resulting in paragraphs with more than a comfortable amount of space between them. Because Ecto seems to work fine with WordPress, however, it seems like at least part of the problem is Blogger—but on the other hand, Ecto ought to be able to adapt to Blogger’s data format, unless Blogger isn’t publishing a useful API or format. (On the other other hand, I’ve given up on Blogger so I don’t really care.)

As an aside, back when Mac OS X came out, IllumineX made a name for itself—in my book, at least—with a suite of pretty cool games that were also, well, pretty. They took full advantage of OS X’s “lickable” interface. BabelBloX was pretty fun.

As another aside, it looks like the app’s proper name is “ecto” in all lowercase. I find that a little annoying, a little pretentious. On the other hand, I have apps that I’ve written with names like HiPlan, the HOGG (where I insist the “the” is part of the name, yet don’t necessarily insist on capitalizing it), HiTemp, HiSEAS, and HIPHOP, so who exactly am I to judge?

Update: Eh, the tag/category management is a little buggy. I set a new category for this post in Ecto, but Ecto did not update the categories on my blog and it filed the post as Uncategorized. It also now lists some tags multiple times, and flipping between categories and tags in the editor sometimes seems to leave cruft behind.

Update 2: I’d meant to check out the use of ordered (numbered) lists in these tests, not just unordered (bullet) lists. So let’s take a look at one. Here are the main apps I’ve written for HiRISE:

  1. HiPlan/the HOGG
  2. HiTemp
  4. HiSEAS
  5. HiCommand

How’s that look? Answer: Nice! I’m quite pleased, given how Ecto and Blogger worked together on this front, which was basically not at all.

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