When the iPad was unveiled and I started to imagine the types of games a 9-inch touch screen might engender, I envisioned gorgeous, intuitive and, above all, immersive experiences. Osmos for iPad is one of the best I've found yet.
The game, which is adapted from a well-regarded PC version and costs $6 in the App Store, puts you in control of a tiny blue organism, a mote, which you direct around the screen, growing in size as you absorb the smaller blobs around you. Of course, all sorts of challenges, including bigger motes trying to absorb you, complicate that mission.
But what's really special about Osmos is the experience of controlling that game play. Tapping behind your mote scoots him around the screen, predictably, but at any time you can pinch to zoom in or out, allowing you to navigate a tight passage or survey the level at a distance. Additionally, you can swipe with one finger to alter time - drag left and all the motes slow to a crawl, drag right and they shoot around like bouncy balls. Different speeds and levels of zoom have situations in which they're uniquely useful, and these elegant controls are the perfect complement to the game's polished visuals.
Osmos teaches you these gestures in early levels, but after that there's little instruction. You're given a basic goal and left to your own devices to go about achieving it. Depending on your style, the game play can be rambunctious or meditative, and often it's both in the course of one level.
There's not a huge variation in the game play, admittedly, and it's so engrossing that I imagine most players will zip through the Odyssey track pretty quickly (there's an arcade mode that lets you play levels one at a time, too). But in some ways this simplicity is the game's biggest asset, because it allows for a remarkable cohesiveness between all of its elements, from game play and visual style down to the soundtrack and menus. It's not only a "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" type thing; here, the whole is so dazzlingly packaged that you don't really think of the "parts" as parts at all.
For me, Osmos on the iPad is an experience first and a game second, and it uses the iPad achieve game play that would be impossible - or, at least, not nearly as compelling - on any other platform. At its best, the iPad isn't just an app machine or a gaming device but a portal into some other environment entirely, and I hope that other developers will follow Osmos' lead and strive not just to adapt familiar gaming experiences to the tablet but to create new ones for it entirely. [iTunes]