A look back at the history of iPod Click Wheel games

Pour one for the iPod Touch: the era of this portable music player is finally more than two decades after it began, with Apple’s recent announcement that the iPod Touch would no longer be in production . Aside from serious music enthusiasts and audiophiles, music players aren’t really used by most listeners anymore, with the growing popularity of streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal. Far less conceivable is the idea of ​​ripping (or, well, downloading) songs onto a separate device and listening to them on the go today.

But long before the death of iPod devices, there was the demise of another Apple gadget that never took off: iPod games. These aren’t the iOS games you can always download from the App Store and play on your iPod Touch, but the ones that use the iPod’s most enduring feature: the Click Wheel. The very first iPod featured Brick, which was essentially Apple’s version of Breakout, as a hidden Easter egg, both developed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; you would use the click wheel to steer the paddle left and right in Brick. This click wheel feature would be used in future iPod games, one of the best-known titles being Vortex, a free game included with the iPod Nano and iPod Classic. It’s a brick clone that makes full and integrated use of the click wheel to rotate the paddle around a cylindrical arena filled with breakable bricks.

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Oddly enough, Apple seemed to have plans for the iPod as the most unlikely game console in the mid-2000s. Pop Quiz, testing the player on their knowledge of the most popular pop and rock stars of the decade, such as Gorillaz, U2, Metallica, Beyonce and more. The developer has often billed itself as the first studio to make games for the iPod, which it called “sonic gaming rig”, but it is clear that this term has not taken off. Other studios like PopCap Games, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft eventually followed suit, with more third-party iPod games emerging in the App Store. What made them so revolutionary in 2006 was that they were games you could buy and download straight to your iPod’s small screen, as long as you were willing to strain your eyes for the right price.


Initially, iPod titles were limited to quizzes and classic games like Sudoku, Solitaire, Pac-Man, Tetris, Mini Golf, and Mahjong, but the iPod game library seems to be diversifying with the release of Lost: The Video Game for Devices. iPod in 2007. It was an adventure title based on that TV show everyone was watching over a decade ago, where you search for resources and tools on a huge desert island. Following this, a series of Sims games like The Sims Bowling, The Sims DJ and The Sims Pool; Sonic the Hedgehog; bomber; and even a CSI Miami game, where you would solve crimes and play in your trademark sunglasses as the inimitable detective Horatio Caine.

These games barely made a splash at the time – people certainly didn’t buy iPods for gaming – and it wasn’t hard to see why; the iPod was far from optimized for gaming in the first place. While the Click Wheel was nifty for selecting songs from a drop-down menu, it couldn’t really adapt to inputting more complex and refined gestures, given that the Click Wheel was primarily tactile. That’s because button controls were always reserved for the iPod’s key function: browsing and playing your music library, even while you were playing those games. I’m not sure how gamers did it back then, but imagine trying to control Sonic The Hedgehog’s breakneck speed with the Click Wheel.


However, not all iPod games were equally unplayable. Some of the most compelling iPod games developed specifically for the device were Musika, a music visualization game by rapper Masaya Matsuura’s PaRappa developer; Phase, a rhythm game from Harmonix, the studio behind music games like Dance Central, Rock Band and Guitar Hero; and Square Enix’s Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes. Rather than just ports of existing games, these have been tailor-made for the iPod, while making smart use of your existing music library. Musika, for example, challenges your reflexes by encouraging you to press the select button each time you recognize a symbol in the shimmering flurry of shapes and colors, rendered and synced to the frequency spectrum of your songs. Then there’s Phase which, like other Harmonix games, involves hitting the corresponding buttons on the Click Wheel each time a note cascades down a three-line track. The most impressive remains Song Summoner, who Andrew Webster of The Verge dit was a “full-fledged strategic role-playing game with turn-based battles, unit creation, and real-life story,” while featuring teams created from songs on your iPod.


Yet even with the contribution of triple-A developers, the iPod game library remained modest until the end, with only 54 Click Wheel games ever released. Apple’s famously closed ecosystem also meant that the company was reluctant to create a software development kit that allowed developers to create their own iPod games, which ultimately stunted the growth of iPod games. And as older models of iPod devices were phased out to pave the way for the iPod Touch, so too did the click-wheel iPod game library. With Apple removing all of these games from the App Store in 2011, they came perilously close to scattering into the digital ether for good.

Luckily, a few click wheel games have been salvaged by Internet Archive, but others, like the beloved CSI Miami iPod game, remained unpatched and unplayable. And as Apple continues its relentless march to rid its portfolio of outdated hardware and games, there’s no better time for us to look to make a bigger concerted effort toward preservation of digital and games. CSI Miami: The iPod game deserves a second chance at life, after all.

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