Flying cattle class from one continent to another has improved, but one thing remains the same: the in-flight games are still pretty crap.
On my way over to and from Germany for Gamescom earlier this year, I attempted to do something I've never had much success with before: sleep. That inevitably failed, so I opted to kill time by scouring through Emirates' range of in-flight games, of which there are hundreds.
This story originally appeared in August 2017.
Accessible through the in-flight menu or the Vita-esque gamepad, Emirates serves 103 games to those flying cattle class on their long-haul flights. Most of those are singleplayer affairs and classical board games, like backgammon and Monopoly, although there's a few multiplayer offerings like in-flight poker.
Nice to see Bejeweled on there.
The Emirates website proudly boasts that it's been rated the best in-flight entertainment for the last 10 years running, but the airline's a bit behind the times on the video game front. Singapore Airlines, for instance, had access to a small range of Nintendo games, including Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, Pokemon, Mario Golf, Zelda: Oracle of Ages and more.
Their website at the time of writing, however, has the same titles I saw on Emirates' ICE system: Bejeweled 2, 2048, and Football Cup.
All the games I experienced had the quality and style of very early era smartphone games. The time of copyright on most of the ones I tried was from between 2008 and 2011, although there were a few games that were well over a decade old.
The developer on every game I saw was DTI Software, although they're now part of the Global Eagle in-flight entertainment conglomerate. They're the market leader for in-flight video games, and you can view their catalogue online.
Because Emirates' ICE system had over a hundred games, I'll simply go through my experience with each game I played. I whittled down the list to the ones that looked the most entertaining and ploughed through 15 of those before my body refused to continue.
Emirates In-Flight Games: The Kotaku Review
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
Maybe it'll keep the kids from screaming?
TYPE OF GAME
The variety of games, the in-flight controller was comfortable and bright, the touchscreen worked quite well.
Shovelware from top to bottom. Playing 2003-2004 games in 2017 doesn't scream world class, nor does a laundry list of ancient Popcap games.
DTI Software / Popcap
Android / Linux hybrid
About seven hours across two flights: an Airbus A330 flight from Vienna to Dubai, and a A380 flight from Dubai to Sydney.
There's good reason for that: for the most part, you're playing some pretty crappy smartphone games. To Emirates' credit, their Vita-esque controller works real well. The biggest problem is that most of the games run like shit, the input delay is immense, and the games are so poorly coded that things like AI, frame rate, and content were all afterthoughts.
If anything, the prevailing design logic seems to be "put something bright that moves on the screen so kids will shut up". That seems to explain games like Tennis Showdown, which doesn't really illustrate what you're in for.
I'm a bit of a cricket nut, so that's where I started.
Welcome to the camera angle from hell. Image: Alex Walker/Kotaku
3D Cricket: A pretty rudimentary game of cricket from possibly the worst perspective imaginable. Instead of being directly behind the batter, or over the bowler's shoulder, like every cricket game for the past 25 years, the camera is placed to the right and just behind of the batter.
Normally you'd want more of a straight on angle so you can assess, well, where the bloody ball is going. But every delivery just looks like it's angling in, making for one of the most miserable cricket games I've played in almost 30 years. At least you could have a laugh at Ashes Cricket 2013.
On the bright side, the game had basic settings you'd expect of mid '00s cricket games. There was a cone for batting, field settings and four choices of deliveries for bowlers. But the perspective was a complete nightmare, and no feedback timer to help get your timing down.
I love cricket games, but even I couldn't play this for too long.
3D Football: A reduced game of soccer with international countries (no names, brands or anything identifiable besides each country's colours) and perhaps the worst AI imaginable. In that it didn't exist.
To illustrate just how garbage 3D Football was, here's a shot of the notes I took at the time:
Six a side. What is this, futsal?
Like many of the games available, there was little in the way of progression, modes, or customisations. Matches were more or less quick play games against different teams with higher or lower "stats", but with no identifiable characteristics between any of the players, it was hard to know what the stats actually applied to.
Especially when the goalkeeper just stood there, watching me cart it in from the halfway line.
Tennis Challenge: More of a traditional tennis game, and fortunately from a traditional camera angle. Most of the basic stuff is in there: drop shots, lobs, winners down the line, you get the idea.
None of it's licensed and there's no customisations to set player styles apart. There aren't any court types, court effects, or even player names. Matches aren't even a full set: it's the first to two games, which gives you an idea of just how long the developers expected someone to play this for.
Banana Pachinko: "Premium in-flight entertainment," they said.
Bump-out: A game about driving around a ring and bumping AI drivers into black pits of nothingness (or just off the edges). Surprisingly feature packed compared to the other games: there were multiple levels, characters (but not with any identifying stats or attributes) and the frame was playable. And by playable, I mean in the way the original Star Fox was playable.
For the most part, you're bumping cars into defined points on the map. But if you get rammed one too many times, you'll go flying Smash-style. It was probably the most graphically impressive game compared to everything else, but tank controls ruined the experience somewhat.
This is a spin on Pong, but with more stuff in the way.
Cyber Klash: Basically Pong with more shit in the way, and the ability to shoot at the enemy player. Most people don't enjoy playing Pong anymore.
Heavy Weapon: A licensed Popcap game from 2005, Heavy Weapon is a side-scrolling shooter with a tank. That shoots upward.
It was fun enough back in the day, when the frame rate wasn't rubbish and you could smoothly control the aiming and movement of your tank. The Emirates in-flight port doesn't have that option, and it's decidedly less entertaining as a result. Again, fun for maybe a level or two, but when you're fighting against the game's performance as much as the enemies within it, you're in for a short ride.
Tennis Showdown: More fun tennis than actual tennis, Tennis Showdown pits a variety of cartoon-ish characters against each other in a friendly game of tennis.
And then I saw the main playmode, which turned out to be a Mortal Kombat style tournament ladder. Oops.
Like Tennis Challenge, the winner is the first to two games. The controls weren't awful, but they were still a little unresponsive (which I think is mostly the device and the processing power available, rather than the game itself).
More Mario Tennis meets Animal Crossing, really.
The worst part is the camera: when you run to the net, it zooms in, eliminating vision of your opponent. Why? Why not just have a fixed viewpoint?
The other kicker was an atrocious frame rate, which is always what you want when you're trying to stop a serve from barrelling down the middle. Game, set, no thanks.
Pizza Frenzy: Another 2005 Popcap gem, Pizza Frenzy is basically like a half-baked Cook, Serve, Delicious. Pizza orders appear on a map, and you drag those orders onto your pizza shop as fast as possible.
Over time the game gets faster and faster, unlike my spirit, which slowly died with every virtual calorie I delivered. Alternatively, it could have been the drinks that I started ordering at this point, knowing there was so many other games to get through.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: This wasn't available on the smaller Airbus plane, only the A380. It's not much to crow about: there's no effects, transitions, or anything flashy whatsoever about the licensed quiz game.
Imagine playing a quiz game and turning every animation off, every video setting to 2003, and then play the game with no sound. That's the in-flight Millionaire experience.
2048: It's the same game you can get on your phone, but with a harder to use interface. Also, evreyone's moved onto Threes now anyway.
Home Run Hero: This is the game other airlines have advertised on their websites as part of their in-flight games. It wouldn't load, however, so I've got no idea how good/awful it was.
Inflight Rally: Another game from 2005, Inflight Rally was a rudimentary rally game that reminded me a little of SEGA Rally. It wasn't anywhere near as good, or customisable, and the ordinary frame rate made it a bit difficult to navigate corners in the dark.
But you did have multiple cars and a couple of tracks to race on. There wasn't any vehicle damage, and the graphics would have made Manic Karts look like Horizon Zero Dawn. It played better than most of what Emirates had to offer, mind you, even if the input delay made driving a nightmare.
Party Game Tournament: Basically a knock-off Mario Party with just the mini-games. Not really much to speak of here, other than the fact that someone obviously had the right idea by buggering off the board game element.
Wreck'n'Road: A Mario Kart-style arcade racer with a sub-par frame rate, dodgy handling and some really shoddy graphics. But it was also one of the very few games to actually have a progression system, unlockable trophies and multiple characters, which really surprised me.