Old vs. new iPod/iPhone hardware: The graphics challenge

When Apple launched a speedier version of the iPhone and iPod Touch earlier this year, it opened up the door for game makers to create more advanced titles. The newer hardware is quite a bit speedier than older models both in its processing power, and how much memory it has. It's also capable of running a more advanced graphics API called Open GL ES v2.0 that lets game developers use textures and lighting effects that won't run on older devices that use the v1.1 specification.

Another problem is that the two versions of Open GL ES are incompatible with one another, meaning that game makers either have to make two different versions of their app, or code a single one that includes both in one package. As a result, few have gone through the effort to make this happen.

Most game developers have worked hard to create titles that play well on both platforms, so as not to keep potential buyers from being able to purchase their works. There are also some who have begun using some Open GL ES 2.0 effects in their titles, or programmed in certain graphics modes that just don't run that well on older hardware. We've rounded up 13 notable titles that do both. Click through to see them.

Note: All screens were captured on an iPhone 3G and a third-generation iPod Touch, the latter of which is sporting the newer hardware. For the simplicity of these screenshots, we've noted it simply as a 3GS since it's otherwise identical in terms of how the games are rendered.
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Twilight Golf

Twilight Golf ($2.99)
Twilight Golf Lite (free)

Twilight Golf looks great on both devices and maintains a buttery smooth frame rate too. The big difference is in its shadow effects, which are noticeably smoother for those who are on the newer iPhone/iPod hardware.

Seen here is one of the more action-packed levels, where users have to flick their ball across a cascading wall of blocks to reach the target, which also happens to be falling.
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Air Master 3D

Air Master 3D (99 cents)
Air Master 3D Lite (free)

Air Master 3D is one of the more impressive 3D titles for the iPod and iPhone platform. Players control a small ship using accelerometer controls and attempt to take down an entire fleet of enemy ships and structures both on the land and in the air.

Besides the dramatic change in water, users with newer hardware get more draw distance, fluffy clouds, and a smoother frame rate.
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Blue Skies

Blue Skies ($2.99) | Blue Skies Lite (free)
Blue Skies 3GS ($2.99)

Blue Skies was one of the first apps out of the gate to feature support for Open GL ES 2.0. This becomes most noticeable when over water, which goes from a very repetitive looking grid of blue, to a gorgeous, glistening patch of ocean that reflects light. Improvements can also be seen over land with large expanses of land and steep elevations.

As with many other games on this list, the visual bump is welcomed, but there's so much else happening on screen that you won't have much time to admire it. It's also worth noting the game comes in two versions, one for owners of the older iPhone/iPod hardware, and those with the newer. While those who have the speedier devices can play both versions, those who may have mistakenly purchased the 3GS version will get a "told ya so!" message before the app quits.
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Dark Raider

Dark Raider ($2.99) | Dark Raider Lite (free)
Dark Raider S ($2.99)

Dark Raider, which comes from the same folks who created Blue Skies, follows a similar pattern. There are two different versions of the app, with the "S" version running only on those with an iPhone 3GS or third-generation iPod Touch.

This top down action RPG game gets a few extra graphical goodies in its S form, with additional textures and lighting effects. Seen here, it's most noticeable on the floor of the level.
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Asphalt 5

Asphalt 5 ($6.99)

Asphalt 5 is Gameloft's fifth Asphalt title, but only the second in the series that can be found on the iPod and iPhone. Besides running a bit smoother on newer hardware, one of the most noticeable differences is the "bloom" effect. This creates highlights over every object in the game, and can sometimes mask jagged textures or polygons.

There is no option to turn this effect off, but it shouldn't bother players too much. They'll probably be too busy focusing on what's around the next curve.
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Rope Raider

Rope Raider (99 cents)

Rope Raider is the latest in a long series of rope swinging games for the iPod/iPhone. The game, which was just approved by Apple last week, has players shooting out a grappling hook to latch onto buildings while trying to grab coins and time bonuses.

This game can actually run at full detail even on older devices, but can sometimes get choppy if there's too much happening on screen at once. As a result, it has three different graphics settings that users can switch between. These simply add extra goodies like a more detailed parallax background which you can ignore while you're busy swooping between sky scrapers.
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Worms

Worms ($4.99)

Team 17 Software's long-running Worms franchise hit the App Store just about a month after the announcement of the iPhone 3GS. As such, it didn't ship with any fancy graphical features. They are coming, though.

Team 17 is working on an update that will bring a much prettier-looking game to those with newer devices including visuals like water refractions, advanced particle effects, and the bouncy, animated backgrounds--all things that have come from the PlayStation 3 version of the game. You can see the differences in what that will look like in the screenshot to the left. The shot on top is the game running on an iPhone 3G, while the one on the bottom is on a 3GS.

Until the update comes out, the existing version has a low graphics mode that users can pick, which helps the game run on older hardware.
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iDrop Dead: Flower Edition

iDrop Dead: Flower Edition (99 cents)
iDrop Dead: Flower Edition Lite (free)

iDrop Dead is a relatively simple game which has players attempt to inflict the most damage possible to a rag doll that must suffer through all sorts of traps and tribulations. Instead of blood or guts when body parts fall off, the characters leak obscene amounts of flowers that dissolve into nothingness.

While there are no major texture or lighting benefits to speak of, there is a noticeable frame rate and load time improvement for those on newer devices. These users can also take advantage of a higher quality of particles, rearing its head every time your player leaks flowers--which is to say all the time. It's actually impossible to tell there's any difference from this screenshot, but we're including it anyway.



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Iron Fist Boxing Third Strike

Iron Fist Boxing 3rd Strike ($3.99)

Iron Fist Boxing Third Strike has users punching, blocking and dodging their way through a match with either their friends or computer-controlled opponents. Those with an iPhone 3GS or third-generation iPod Touch get a few extra graphical bells and whistles, most noticeably a sweaty sheen that covers all the boxers. Is this really useful? Not at all, but it does give the game a more tangible 3D feel, as you can see the light source move depending on what's happening to your boxer. 

Other graphical add-ins include a neat bloom effect that you can see when you're flayed out on the ground after getting your butt kicked, and some motion blur that makes certain punches look faster than normal.
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Eliminate Pro

Eliminate Pro (free)

Eliminate Pro, Ngmoco's controversial first person, multiplayer shooter is not the best looking game on the iPhone, but it's certainly quite a bit of fun. Players can take turns hunting down either humans or bots. If it's the former, they'll be using up previous energy, which recharges on its own over time, but can also be bought as an in-app purchase. Needless to say, the system has caused quite a stir by those who don't want to shell out to play more.

As for the graphics though, there's no major discernible difference in the few levels we took screens of. There are still plenty of jagged lines and identical textures.

The biggest thing users are bound to notice is the frame rate, which stays steady on the newer hardware, but can chug a bit when the action gets heavy on older devices. On newer iPhone/iPod hardware, character models are a little more filled out and feature shadows.


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Wild West Pinball

Wild West Pinball (99 cents)
Wild West Pinball Free (free)

Wild West Pinball is a 3D, top-down pinball game that features simple touch-screen controls. Users on more advanced hardware get the benefit of specular lighting, which may not show up so well in the shot to the left but gives some of the table objects that neat-looking sheen. You can really see it the most on the table's wood grain and the bumper huts on the top.


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Ravensword

Ravensword (not yet released)

Ravensword is an upcoming title from Crescent Moon Games, as published by Chillingo. It was submitted to Apple for review last week, meaning it could show up in the App Store any minute now.

The game has players wandering around a huge 3D world, tracking down ancient runes to help free the king of a spell that keeps him and his kingdom at the whim of the enemy's army. What that means for iPhone and iPod users is that a little extra horsepower makes for a much lusher world. Users on the newer hardware get a higher draw distance and shadows, both of other characters and in-game stuctures.

Seen here is a shot of the game area of the game as running on an original iPhone versus on the newer 3GS hardware. Ignoring the user interface on the 3GS shot, you can see just how much farther you'll be able to see if you've got a newer iPhone or iPod.
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Adrenaline Golf Online

Adrenaline Golf Online ($4.99)

Eurocenter's Adrenaline Golf Online is another one of those games that benefits from lovely reflective water effects. Players can spend so much of their time taking in the background that it's an added bonus to have it look a little better. This is also one of the few games where iPhone/iPod users with newer hardware can turn the extra effects off if they want to cut down on distractions.


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