Review: Gyro Tennis for iPhone

Gyro Tennis 1.0

Tennis is one of those sports that can be difficult to translate to any gaming system, console or handheld. It doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional game controller. Developers have largely avoided the game on the current generation of Microsoft and Sony systems, but tennis came to the Wii with a whole new spin a few years ago. The initial launch of the Wii brought the promise of a new level of ease and realism with it’s motion control system. The packed in WiiSports included a tennis game, which along with bowling, was one of the more popular in Nintendo’s proof of concept game. Unfortunately, since it was part of a compilation of mini-games, the included tennis game was a very stripped-down version of the game.

When Nintendo finally decided to improve upon their motion control system, they did it by adding a gyroscope to their controller in the form of an add on called Wii MotionPlus. Two of the initial release games were tennis games. I own EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, and I absolutely love it. It is the best motion controlled game I have ever played. It has its flaws, but the gyroscope-based control adds so much more depth and realism to the experience of playing a game of virtual tennis.

Fast forward to this Summer’s announcement of the new iPhone 4. One of the more intriguing and unexpected announcements was the addition of a gyroscope for gaming. There are so many accelerometer games for the first two generations of the iPhone, so I thought this could be a great addition if implemented well. Some of those early games could be difficult to control, requiring exaggerated movements for the phone to register them. The movement required is also a big distraction from gameplay, because as you are doing all of this moving of the iPhone, your view of the action is moving with it.  The addition of the gyroscope allows the phone to detect much more subtle movements, which can greatly enhance the accuracy of motion based control while also making it easier to keep your eyes on what you are doing.

Thanks to my history with both motion controls and tennis games, when I saw the release announcement for Gyro Tennis from Personal Applets, it definitely piqued my interest. Like many of those pre-MotionPlus Wii games, the existing tennis games for iOS have a mixed track record, and the controls are often among the chief complaints in user reviews. Gyro Tennis isn’t a perfect game, by any means, but if you want one that really shows off the control capabilities of the iPhone 4′s gyroscope, this is it. When it comes to controls in an iOS tennis game, Gyro Tennis takes the Grand Slam.

One of the first things you notice when you start Gyro Tennis is the vast array of control and configuration options.

In the Equipment menu, you can choose your playing surface, racket, ball, and the number of sets require to win a match. The racket and ball choices are cosmetic only, but the surface selection does have some impact on the match, in terms of ball speed and reaction. I will touch on this a bit more later.

The Setup menu contains all of the game’s basic settings. The first thing you are presented with is your player options. As well as making use of the iPhone 4′s new integrated gyroscope, Gyro Tennis also allows you to use the front facing camera to take a self-portrait for your player profile. If you would like, you can also select a photo from your camera roll to use instead. This doesn’t have any impact on playing the game, but it is a nice touch to see a developer diving right in and making use of the latest iOS features. One thing to note, however, is that due to these feature implementations, this game only works on the iPhone 4 and 4th Gen iPod Touch.

The second setting is for Gyro Sensitivity. This setting has a very wide adjustment range, and does make a noticeable difference in the feel of the controls from one extreme to the other. I prefer a lower sensitivity, which has a little more “give” to it, for lack of a better term. When it is set higher, the racket movement is extremely sensitive. I really appreciate that PersonalApplets took the initiative to allow such a wide variation in the feel of the controls.

The Setup menu also contains all of the sound and crowd animation controls. There are separate volume levels for sound effects, serve grunting (like it or not, it’s part of the game today), and background music. You can also turn any or all of these off if you choose. It is necessary to do this if you don’t want any sound, as simply muting the phone with the hardware switch will not mute the sound during a game.

Considering the fact that many iOS games struggle in the music department, I like the developer’s choice of using music library integration for building a custom playlist to use during gameplay. It may seem like a cop out, but why bother spending development time on something that isn’t essential to a tennis game when the user can simply add their own preferred music? Again, this doesn’t make the game, but it is another nice feature that adds more user customization.

The Opponent menu lets you choose among 16 different opponents, 8 men and 8 women. The 8 on each side cover each of the 8 Technical Profiles mentioned previously. The 8 are also divided up into 3 court styles. There are 4 All-Around players, 2 Baseline players, and 2 Net Players. There could always be more, but it is good to see that the developers covered all the necessary bases and included a wide variety of player types to go up against. If you get tired of going up against the AI opponents, there is local multiplayer via Bluetooth, as well. There are some interesting looking additional modes for two player games. Besides the standard tennis match, you can also choose Flat Tennis, Sidewall Tennis, and Moon Tennis. Unfortunately, I do not have access to another iPhone 4 or new iPod Touch, so I was not able to test multiplayer for this review. I will try to update this later when I can test it out.

The Control menu contains settings for difficulty levels and control methods.

There are 5 different difficulty levels- Just Hit the Ball, Point and Shoot, Take Control, Getting Character, and Become a Pro. Just Hit the Ball allows you to position your player on the court using your finger, but actually disables the gyroscope controls. The AI takes care of the swings in this mode. Point and Shoot is exactly the opposite. It allows you to use the gyroscope racket control, but automatically positions your player on the court. Take Control is the first mode that gives you control over both swing and positioning. Getting Character goes a step further, by adding player Technical Profiles.

Included are common tennis player types: Top Spinner, Accurate, Great Backhand, Fast Runner, Great Forehand, Rigid, Grasshopper, and Strong Hitter. Each of these Technical Profiles has various levels set for Speed, Serve, Forehand, Backhand, Accuracy, Topspin, and Backhand. The Pro level maxes out all of the difficulty settings, and also slows your court movement speed and makes the racket smaller.

As well as the difficulty levels and the technical profiles, you also have control over the gyroscope implementation. There are three selections- Off, Horizontal, and Horizontal + Vertical. Set to Horizontal, your gyro controls only cover left to right racket aiming. The Horizontal + Vertical setting also allows you to control the height of the shot by tilting your iPhone toward or away from you. One thing to note about the Gyro controls is that changes are locked out in certain difficulty levels. In Just Hit the Ball, the Gyroscope is locked to Off. In fact, it is the only level where Off is even available as a setting. Point and Shoot and Take Control both allow you to choose either method of gyro control. Getting Character and Become a Pro lock the Gyro to Horizontal + Vertical.

Wow. Are you dizzy yet? There are a ton of options here, but that is definitely a good thing. The wealth of difficulty and control options in Gyro Tennis is one of its strongest features. The easier settings are great for getting acclimated to the unique controls at your own pace, because executing player movement and full gyro control takes a little getting used to. Once you do, however, it is a fun and rewarding experience. Also, I can assure that the game will remain a challenge for a while, as there is a big difference in difficulty from Point and Shoot to Pro. I went from being able to easily win a match only dropping a game here and there, to barely being able to score a point. Granted, this was in a short period of time for my review, but I feel like the Pro level will still remain a challenge for a while.

Before we delve into gameplay, there are also a few other menus and items to be aware of on the home screen.

There are links to Help, Feedback, a Demo, and a YouTube Video. The Help is spread across six separate screens, and is quite helpful in explaining the different aspects of game control. The YouTube video covers a lot of the same material in a 2:55 video. I always appreciate it when a developer puts decent help files inside the app, rather than making you go to a website to get answers to your questions. The Demo was the only letdown for me. You can select two AI players to go up against each other, so you can see a match in action. This is a cool idea, but this “match,” if you can all it that, ends after one point. The first time I ran the Demo, the first serve was an Ace, and that was it. Needless to say, that didn’t show me very much. I would like to see the developer expand the Demo to last until you stop it, so you can step back and get a look at extended game action.

The Feedback button is another of many nice touches in Gyro Tennis. Plenty of apps have a link to their page in the App Store and sometimes pester you to leave them a review. Gyro Tennis has such a link, but thankfully without the pestering. It also has a feedback link for direct contact with the developer. I personally think this is a much better method for communicating critiques or compliments to the developer. App Store reviews are great for fellow iOS users, but are a bit impersonal for feedback to the developer in my humble opinion. The are also links to the PersonalApplet’s home page and customer support page, and an email link to send a recommendation of Gyro Tennis to a friend. Again, I always appreciate it when a developer makes it easy to get in touch with them, and lets you do it from the app itself.

So, Gyro Tennis has a ton of control options, and some good in-app help. Those are great attributes that all apps should have, but what do they matter if it plays like a rainy day at Wimbledon? No worries here, because Gyro Tennis serves up an ace when it comes to gameplay. When I started reviewing, I was a little apprehensive that the control system would feel completely gimmicky, but that wasn’t the case. It isn’t perfect, but Gyro Tennis’ control system and gameplay make it unique and a lot of fun.

The first thing you notice at the beginning of a match is what’s missing- the players.

Because of the unique method of control, Personal Applets decided to go with disembodied rackets on the court, rather than something more traditional. Even though it looks odd, it actually works quite well for this application. The addition of player animations would actually make it more difficult to see the orientation of the racket. With the racket displayed alone, you can clearly see the angle controlled by the gyroscope. In the easier levels, you have the option of seeing a ball path displayed on the screen for serves and shots, showing where your chosen angle will direct the shot. This really helps you get a handle on the controls as you start playing. By the time you get to the Pro level, however, looking at your racket angle is all you will have to go on, which makes the decision to show the racket alone a valid one. Rest assured, however, the racket alone is enough to go on once you have spent a little time with the game.

To aid you in getting more comfortable with Gyro Tennis’ controls, Personal Applets has included a feature packed Practice Mode.

The use of a Civil War-style cannon rather than a ball machine is a little odd, but other than that aesthetic decision, this mode is pretty straightforward. The Practice Mode uses the same Setup and Control settings as the Match Mode, so you can practice any scenario you would come across during normal gameplay. You can also choose between two of the four available playing surfaces, grass and clay.

Once inside Practice Mode, the ball cannon simply replaces the opposing racket on the other side of the court.

Using the Cannon menu button on the right of the screen, you can adjust the cannon’s position, and the height and speed of the cannon’s shots. You can also determine which direction the cannon will shoot, with choices of right, center, left, alternating right and left, and random. If there is one thing that bugs me about iOS games with some type of Practice Mode, it is that the developers often cripple it, or don’t allow for you to easily hone in on problem areas with it. With all of these customizable settings, Personal Applets has done a solid job of giving the user the ability to focus on any aspect of Gyro Tennis they need work on.

Once you get used to the idea of being a body-less racket, then it’s time to get down to the business of actually playing the game. Gyro Tennis is an interesting blend of arcade and realistic gameplay, but the end result is a lot of fun regardless. The first skill to master is the use of the gyroscope. Thanks to its enhanced sensitivity, the movements required to execute shots to either side or at various heights are very subtle, and don’t obscure the view of the game. Thanks to the included gyro radar display in the upper right corner, you can easily check to see how the gyroscope is tracking.

Just below the radar, a reset button is included to re-center the gyroscope any time it isn’t tracking correctly. The reset button can also be used to calibrate the gyroscope to a different center. This is especially helpful if you are reclining or laying down while playing, and want to recalibrate the vertical to work better in those positions. This is yet another nice touch that adds to the overall refinement of the game.

In all of the game modes, movement across the court is really fast, even the supposedly more realistic Pro difficulty mode. Basically, the racket follows your finger exactly, wherever it goes, no matter how fast it gets there. This means that you can start and stop in ways that would be physically impossible for a player in a real tennis match. That isn’t the end of the world. There isn’t anything wrong with with the arcade feel that the speed of the game provides, it just clashes somewhat with the realism that the gyroscope-based racket controls offer. I think this could easily be remedied by adding or unlocking existing speed controls, regardless of difficulty level. Also, while the different court types affect the speed and physics of the ball, they have no bearing on the speed of the racket’s movement across the court. Anyone who has watched a French Open match has seen players sliding and noticed the slower starts and stops unique to the clay court. I spoke to the developer, and he said that the speed of the game was actually in response to feedback he had received from testers, but that he also likes a more realistic feel himself. He said that he would consider updating and adding to the speed control options in a future update.

Whatever the speed, the court movement controls are accurate and responsive. Personal Applets also did a nice job in offsetting the racket slightly in front of your finger’s position, so that it doesn’t cover up the racket. I’ve played plenty of games on the iPhone where screen real estate became an issue because the controls weren’t as well thought out, so this is a welcomed addition.

There is one other small issue with the court movement controls. In the Pro mode, your racket’s speed is reduced slightly, to a more realistic level. I prefer the speed in this mode, but the implementation is not completely intuitive. Instead of allowing the racket to trail behind your finger’s movement if it is too fast, the racket still moves across the screen exactly in sync with you. However, if you are moving too fast, the racket turns grey until the reduced speed allows it to arrive at that point on the court. You can’t hit the ball if the racket is gray. Once the racket’s color returns, you can return the ball as usual. I can see the point of this design decision, as it keeps the racket’s position from being obscured by your finger. Although, it would be nice to have a choice of how the racket tracks across the court at slower speeds. In my opinion, seeing the racket move at actual speed would help me get a feel for how fast I can actually get around the court in the Pro mode.

There are a few items missing from Gyro Tennis that are commonly available in other tennis apps in the App Store. While there are 16 different opponents of various styles to square off against, several different difficulty levels to try, multiple combinations of control settings, and local multiplayer to keep you busy, I was left a little flat by the absence of tournaments or some type of career mode. Also, while the graphics of the game are certainly acceptable, the flat menus and buttons and lack of crowd detail pale a bit in the light of apps styled for the Retina display and the iPad. Last, while Gyro Tennis was released before the announcement of iOS 4.1, it would also get a huge boost from the addition of online multiplayer and GameCenter.

Thankfully, the developer said that all of these suggested features, in some form or fashion, will be added in future updates. If that happens and their implementation is up to the app’s current standards, then I think Gyro Tennis definitely becomes the best tennis game currently in the App Store. As it stands right now, I think Gyro Tennis has a great control system, many refined features, and is a lot of fun to play. It takes some practice to get used to the controls, but there are plenty of ways to play, practice, and adjust the difficulty to help you along. If you are a tennis fan, or someone who appreciates a game with a unique and innovative control system, Gyro Tennis is definitely worth the investment, especially at its current sale price of 99 cents.

Gyro Tennis from Personal Applets can be found on the App Store here.

Personal Applets provided a promo code to Just Another iPhone Blog for the review of Gyro Tennis. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.