Minecraft–Pocket Edition (for Android) review

Minecraft – Pocket Edition is a brilliant port of the Minecraft experience to mobile devices that isn't great yet, but is getting better all the time.
Photo of Minecraft–Pocket Edition (for Android)

After conquering the PC, Minecraft has packaged its creative, addictive gameplay into Minecraft—Pocket Edition for Android ($6.99). While hardcore Minecraft players might be impatient with Pocket Edition’s limitations, it packs the soul of Minecraft into the body of a mobile device.

For our readers in caves on other worlds and did not understand the preceding paragraph, Minecraft is an enormously successful indie game in which players are dropped into a landscape made of different kinds of cubes. Players “mine” these cubes which can in turn be “crafted” into building materials and tools, thus forming the crux of the game.

Originally released for the Xperia Play, Pocket Edition quickly rolled out for Android in October 2011 and iOS a month later. Currently, both iOS and Android have the same features.

Pocket Edition comes with two modes: Creative and Survival. In creative mode, players can fly around and focus on building from an infinite supply of materials. The core gameplay is in Survival mode, where the day is for building above ground (stacking blocks to make castles, bridges, etc.) and night is when monsters come out and attack the player and destroy his or her creations. There’s no story, no conceit. The only advantage the player has in a hostile environment is creativity.

For a longtime player of Minecraft, some aspects of Pocket Edition breathe new life into the game. Jumping into combat against a squad of skeletons in the dead of night and frantically tapping the screen feels thrilling and dangerous. When building my first home, I didn’t want to put the game down. I kept telling myself that I just needed to mine and lay a few more blocks, and then I could stop.

All the while, it’s hard to believe that all of this is happening on a phone. The game looks great (in its own, blocky way) and the controls are extremely responsive. Even with 15 other apps running in the background and the game’s graphics set to “fancy,” I only noticed the slightest stutters as I skimmed over the digital landscape in creative mode. Survival, which has AI monsters, saw a few more hiccups but nothing that interrupted gameplay.

Something Special
The most noticeable difference between Pocket Edition and Minecraft is probably what’s missing, and there’s a lot. Several key minerals cannot be found in Pocket Edition, and red stone—an in-game method for creating electrical circuits—does not exist. Experience orbs, enchantments, potions, and books are still nowhere to be seen in Pocket Edition.

The Nether, Minecraft’s hellish hyper-space travel dimension, is also absent. However, one of Pocket Edition’s few unique characteristics is the “Nether Reactor.” Once crafted, the reactor core forms the heart of a massive “Nether spire” filled with dangerous zombie-pigmen. If you can’t go to the Nether, the Nether will come to you.

Pocket Edition also has a modified default control scheme. On the left of the screen are directional arrows with a jump button at the center. Tapping with your right thumb selects blocks within a halo, which fills as you mine them. This is a clever way to make the game feel more “mobile” while still being Minecraft.

Purists can also opt to “split controls” in the options menu, which restores the center-screen reticle and mouse-like functionality. It feels like awkwardly playing an emulation of a PC game without a mouse, and I found the default touch controls to be better.

Flying in creative mode also has an unusual interface, requiring players to double tap the jump button. In order to change altitude, players must press and hold the jump button again, then slide their thumb to either the up or down button. This awkward arrangement works, but it feels like it could be improved.

Pocket Edition obviously lacks a left and right-click capability, meaning that the function of some items is different from in the PC version of Minecraft. For instance, to eat food—which restores health—players tap and hold as if they were mining a block with a food item in hand. The food will be consumed, and the next item in the pallet will slide into the player character’s hand. Users should be careful because that they don’t hold their finger down to long, lest they inadvertently destroy something.

One of Pocket Edition’s greatest strengths is its seamless multiplayer capabilities, provided all the players are on the same WiFi network. Players can jump in and out of any other player’s world, making it easy to pick up and start playing with friends. However, it does lack ban commands. If you’re concerned about griefing, be sure to keep your Pocket Edition world hidden.

Unfortunately, Pocket Edition players cannot currently connect to Minecraft multiplayer servers.

The Joys of Work
One of the defining characteristics of Minecraft is that players must work for everything. When you play, you begin with nothing, and even have to harvest the materials to make tools. This can be tedious, but it also brings a deep level of satisfaction to completing anything in the game.

Pocket Edition occasionally ignores this concept in the name of better mobile play. Approaching a higher block, your Pocket Edition character will auto-jump up the cliff. He will even auto-swim as long as you keep moving forward, sinking only when you stand still in deep water (incidentally, this makes doing anything underwater particularly frustrating). While this feels against the spirit of Minecraft, I have to admit that it works well on the mobile platform and was clearly the right choice.

Most irritatingly, the game uses something called MATTIS or the Minecraft Advanced Touch Interface System. Instead of arranging materials in a particular configuration in order to transmute them, as is the method in the PC version, Pocket Edition players simply select what they want to craft from a scrolling menu and the materials are deducted accordingly.

Not only does this feel too “easy,” it destroys the thrill and satisfaction of discovery. Because Minecraft came with no documentation and precious little explanation, players have to learn, and even research, how to accomplish goals in the game. Simply selecting an item from a menu just doesn’t have that same emotional weight to it. It’s not special and there’s no magic; it’s just menu navigation.

Weirdly, not all of Pocket Edition’s crafting system uses MATTIS. When cooking food or materials in a furnace, the traditional fuel-on-the-bottom-stuff-on-top format still applies.

It’s clear that the more alchemical, labor-intensive crafting used in the PC version of Minecraft probably would not be fun if ported wholesale to mobile. But MATTIS feels like a copout, and I believe that Mojang can come up with a more elegant solution.

The Limitations of Mobile
While Pocket Edition puts Minecraft in, well, your pocket, it’s not without some problems inherent to the platform. For one thing, during periods of darkness in-game—either because it is night or because your character is in a deep hole—grease spots on the screen become especially noticeable. This is gross, but worse it makes the screen even harder to see.

Most importantly for seasoned Minecraft players is that Pocket Edition does not generate infinite worlds. The worlds are fairly large, but can be fully explored with a little effort. A limited world also means limited resources, so miners planning on investing some serious time in a world should be careful to conserve non-renewable resources like coal.

A mobile platform also means a less powerful one, and Pocket Edition doesn’t have fancy explosion animations, caves, generated structures, or even clouds in the sky. However, some of these shortcomings will be addressed in future updates of the game.

Getting Better All the Time
The PC version of Minecraft pioneered a new kind of distribution model, where players gained access to early versions of the game and received frequent updates from the developer. This has continued to this day even after the game reached a high-level of development.

Minecraft – Pocket Edition is being developed in a similar manner debuting on Android with only a handful of features, and has grown dramatically. For experienced players, this means having to wait longer for familiar features. But it also means that players can be lured back to the game by meaningful additions made by the developer.

Of course, there are real issues. Like how in the current version (0.5.0 alpha), players cannot view the name of a material or an item’s health bar from the inventory view. This makes it difficult to select a tool that isn’t one hit away from breaking or choose the correct material. It’s an issue now, but version the next version is due any day now.

That may sound like rationalizing what is, effectively, shipping an unfinished product, but many aspects of Minecraft are charming in their broken-ness. Because it is a creative game, its limitations can lead to amazing creative breakthroughs. And while the updates can be frustratingly slow, or completely change the way the game works, it does mean it’s constantly fresh.

It’s important, especially for experienced Minecraft players, to recognize what Pocket Edition is not. It’s not a way to keep working on your PC Minecraft world while out and about, nor is it a straight port of the desktop game. Instead, it tries to find the core experience of Minecraft (the “soul,” if you will) and put it on a phone. Given how loathe I was to stop playing it, Minecraft—Pocket Edition comes very close to achieving that goal.

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Genre Board/Puzzle
Platform Android

Minecraft – Pocket Edition is a brilliant port of the Minecraft experience to mobile devices that isn't great yet, but is getting better all the time.
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