iPhone Gems: Action Puzzlers, Table + Pinball Games
You could easily spend $50 on a bunch of random new games at the App Store, or you could save your cash for the really good ones. Today, we’ve selected a collection of different iPhone action puzzle, table, and pinball games to spotlight, and as always, we let you know which are and aren’t worth your hard-earned dollars. If you’re in a rush, here’s a hint: skip straight to Demiforce’s new Trism—it’s the best of the bunch.
Years ago, after Nintendo acquired the rights to Tetris for the Game Boy, Sega came up with a wannabe called Columns—a shallower, prettier game where players matched like-styled gemstones in an attempt to rack up points—to give fans of its Genesis/Mega Drive and Game Gear hardware something similar to play. Nearly 20 years later, Columns has been released for the iPhone in an updated version called Columns Deluxe ($5), bundled with a second Sega puzzler known originally as Puyo Puyo, and here as Puyo Pop.
We’ll cut to the chase: Columns Deluxe is a very sloppy port. Sega should be embarrassed by the quality of this two-in-one title, which looks almost as if it’s slowly running the old Game Gear games under emulation, a shame given that the iPhone’s hardware is capable of outdoing the superior, console versions of both games.
Columns provides a split screen view of two empty wells that gradually fill with multi-colored gemstones. You use finger swipe gestures to move the gems into position, and as matched gems disappear, the remaining gems fall and sometimes trigger chains of additional matches. Puyo Pop is based on the same idea, only replacing the gems with blobs that merge together as they touch, and more easily make matches than the Columns gems. Besides possessing choppy, poorly animated art and unimpressive audio, both of the games incorporate terrible use of the iPhone/iPod touch accelerometer to move pieces around; you’ll want to turn it off immediately in favor of the swipe gestures, which also don’t work all that well. Similarly, though the screens are split into two wells, both games are only single-player titles—you versus the CPU—which takes away the rest of the fun both games offered in earlier, better versions. Our advice: skip this piece of shovelware unless Sega radically improves everything from the interface to the art and audio. iLounge rating: D+.
On the iPod, Gameloft built a reputation for releasing titles that were flashier versions of other companies’ classic and not-so-classic games. Diamond Twister ($5) is, in essence, the three-or-more gem-matching game Bejeweled mildly recast as a jewel heist adventure.
The word adventure might be a little too kind, as Diamond Twister does little more than provide short stages that use dollars, time limits, and changing board sizes to keep the Bejeweled-alike gameplay semi-interesting from level to level, interrupting every once in a while for a “mission” story that doesn’t affect anything but the background art.
While this approach is fairly shallow, Bejeweled was even less deep, and thus there’s more variation here than in PopCap’s official iPhone title Bejeweled 2; Diamond Twister also sells for half the price. On the flip side, Bejeweled 2 has superior visual effects, both in and in-between levels, and its new Power Gems break up the gameplay much as Diamond Twister’s more powerful reward gems do, making a number of gems disappear simultaneously. Pricing is the only reason we’d give Diamond Twister a small edge here; both of these games are fine time-wasters but not spectacular. iLounge rating: B.
To be clear, we love and really appreciate puzzle games; in fact, we think that this genre is one of the best-suited to being enjoyed on pocket-sized devices. But though Pangea Software’s puzzler Enigmo ($10) has received a lot of attention thanks to Apple’s marketing largess, and strikes us as having a lot of promise as a concept, it didn’t really do much for us in execution.
Each of Enigmo’s 50 stages is a puzzle that requires you to figure out how to get drops of liquid to flow from one or more starting points to an equivalent number of destinations. You’re given a set of tools that can be used on each stage to direct the liquid, and the ability to rotate each tool around 360 degrees to precisely aim where drops will go. Succeed in getting enough drops into the container(s) and you advance; the timer runs until you rethink your use of the pieces to succeed.
There’s nothing wrong with Enigmo’s graphics engine, which renders everything within each puzzle environment as 3-D objects that can be zoomed in on or out from at will; however, the textures aren’t great, and the minimalist audio consists largely of drips and wah-wah noises from machines you’re interacting with in the levels. They get louder as you zoom in closer on them, an audio effect that like the particle-based liquid droplet system is supposed to be an impressive demonstration of an iPhone AV feature, but is interesting more in what than in how it performs.
Puzzle games aren’t necessarily supposed to be aesthetic powerhouses, nor are they necessarily supposed to be as compelling on a second-by-second basis as action games. But having played many great puzzlers over the years, we know that both of these goals are achievable, and that Enigmo is a little shy of both marks. Brainy players will enjoy the puzzles for what they are; given the $10 price, we think others should hold off for the inevitable sequel. iLounge rating: B-.
Some games just shouldn’t have been released on the App Store at all. Random5’s iTiltPinball ($2) is one of them. As one of only a couple of pinball games to appear around the time of the iPhone 2.0 software’s launch, iTiltPinball is basically a poorly-drawn pinball table with the questionable addition of iPhone accelerometer-enhanced physics.
What is there to do here? Fire the poorly animated ball and then tilt the iPhone around to make it move through sparse targets, racking up meaningless points; you can use the flippers at the bottom to try to keep the ball in play.
We could go further in describing iTiltPinball, but in summary, the physics suck, the collision detection sucks, the audio sucks, and overall, the whole game sucks—simply put, the original pinball machines released in 1931 were more impressive than this, and in 25 years of playing games, we haven’t ever played a console or handheld rendition of pinball as terrible as this one. To its partial credit, Random5 has posted a note to the App Store saying that an improved version 1.1 “should be available soon,” but we’re not going to sit around and wait for updates from any company that would release something this poor and attempt to charge for it. Developers, take note: demo-quality games rate Ds in our book, so make them worth playing before releasing them, not afterwards. iLounge Rating: D-.
MotionX Poker Dice
Card games are nice. Dice games are nice. So now there’s a game called MotionX Poker Dice ($5) from Fullpower Technologies that combines the two with a simple motion- and touch-based interface.
You get three shakes of the iPhone to make the best possible five-card hand from five six-sided dice, and Fullpower has glossed up both the dice and the table-like surfaces they’re rolled on to look almost photorealistic. Eight sets of dice are unlocked at the start, and additional sets get unlocked as you play; you also earn “gems” as you play, and have several tables to choose from—most are available only if you succeed in winning coins on your hands, a process that’s slow since you don’t have much control over the “bets” you place.
By cell phone game standards, MotionX Poker Dice looks sharp, and the use of dice rather than cards makes its familiar gameplay seem almost original; however, the game’s simplicity—particularly its lack of a more complex gambling engine—limits its long-term appeal. Contrary to early gushing comments, we don’t think this game is “amazingly clever” or “mesmerizing,” but rather a nicely executed example of how the iPhone’s accelerometer and touchscreen can enhance a classic game rather than detract from it. We look forward to an update or a sequel with deeper gameplay, wireless multiplayer functionality, and even greater user customization. iLounge Rating: B.
Super Monkey Ball
There’s no bigger shame than a game that has obviously been engineered to the nth degree visually but falls substantially apart because of poor controls. That, in a nutshell, is Sega’s Super Monkey Ball ($10), a seven-year old arcade game that made its console debut on Nintendo’s GameCube.
We played the game for the first time back in 2001, shortly after meeting Sega’s Toshihiro Nagoshi in a Tokyo office during the GameCube’s launch. As insane as the idea of steering a monkey in a ball through mazes sounded at the time, the GameCube controller, Nagoshi’s team’s surprisingly strong audiovisual work, and some included monkey-themed mini-games made the experience fun.
On the iPhone, Super Monkey Ball is not a complete disaster—in fact, the graphics are so impressive that you might be willing to forgive a bit—but there’s no getting around the fact that Sega screwed up on its use of the hardware accelerometer. Rather than letting the user calibrate the iPhone’s starting orientation and motion sensitivity, Sega chose a single setting that results in your monkey-filled ball rolling completely out of control unless you tilt yourself and the iPhone into a specific position. Even then, you won’t find that you have a great deal of control over the ball, a fact that first-time Monkey Ballers might assume is inherent to the gameplay despite the fact that it definitely is not, and needn’t be here.
Compounding this is the game’s save system, which doesn’t keep track of your progress on a stage by stage basis; instead, there are five save points spread out over 110 stages. Consequently, though there is a lot to play through, it wouldn’t be surprising if you wanted to stop after 15 stages and then became bored after having to repeat them again and again. If the original Monkey Ball’s mini-games are still in here, waiting to be unlocked—which we doubt—we have no idea, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep playing all the way to the end since the game kept forgetting our position.
There are some positives to the translation, including a fairly nice attempt to preserve the original game’s frame rate and general polygon counts; though objects and backgrounds aren’t as detailed as in the first GameCube title, they’re better than what you’d see on on most handhelds, save for the Sony PSP. Music similarly isn’t as catchy as in the first game, but it’s not bad, either. Our impression is that Super Monkey Ball was rushed a bit to make the launch of the App Store, and though it’s a decent game as-is, it would be a lot better if its controls and save system were updated to let people enjoy their progression through the stages. iLounge Rating: B-.
On rare occasion, we come across a game that seems like it has the potential—with additional polish—to be the Tetris of a given platform. Writing for a different publication years ago, we said as much about a little-known game called Phear for the Atari Jaguar. Nintendo agreed, acquiring and eventually transforming the title with mixed results into Tetrisphere for the Nintendo 64. Demiforce’s new game Trism ($5)—an accelerometer-enhanced triangle-matching game—has similar potential on the iPhone.
The screen is filled with colored triangles, and you have to get the flat edges of three same-colored blocks to touch to eliminate them from the screen. It’s not enough to bring the sharp corners of the triangles together; one flat edge on each triangle must touch another flat edge on another triangle. This is hard to do with three triangles, and even more of a challenge with four.
Lines of triangles can be moved in three ways, sliding in two diagonal directions and one horizontal, while you can flip the iPhone in any orientation to make new blocks slide downwards in the direction you’re holding the device. Certain events create multi-colored blocks, locked blocks, blocks that allow fine-positioning for matches, and bomb blocks—if you don’t diffuse the bomb block within a certain number of moves, the game is over. Additional modes place the game on a timer, or give you a par number of moves to create a certain number of matches solely by turning the iPhone on its sides.
There’s no doubt that Trism is fun, and especially in the iPhone rotating puzzle mode, equally smart. However, it’s missing just that little je ne sais quoi factor that transforms a really good game into a truly great one—special effects, a pounding soundtrack, skinnable blocks and backgrounds, or greater success/failure pressures—and as such, the standard game’s levels feel a little samey and empty despite the occasional pop-ups of the aforementioned special blocks. Should the developers keep on working on this one, or release a sequel, they’re probably going to have something incredibly awesome on their hands; for now, Trism is a very strong start and most likely worth your $5 to check out. iLounge Rating: B+.
ZEN Pinball: Rollercoaster
The final game in today’s iPhone Gems is ZEN Studios’ ZEN Pinball: Rollercoaster ($5).
We’re huge video game pinball fans, and having played many of the best titles released for game consoles over the past 15 years, we feel comfortable saying that certain developers have taken purely digital pinball games far past the limitations of the wood-cabineted machines they were based upon. Others, such as Random5 and the iTiltPinball game mentioned above, do worse than even archiac pinball tables. The majority, like ZEN Studios, fall somewhere in the middle.
Unlike games that feature multiple machines or multiple screens of play within one machine, ZEN Pinball: Rollercoaster tries to emulate a single machine to a surprising degree of detail. You can play the game without messing at all with the camera, but if you press a button to unlock it, turning the iPhone or iPod touch results in dramatic shifts of your vantage point, allowing you to see the cabinet’s exterior sides, or tilt the machine forward for a better view of the table’s front. The effect is undeniably cool, and different from what we’ve previously seen in pinball games.
Unfortunately, the unlocked camera is intended for viewing fun rather than to aid in the gameplay, and ZEN Studios doesn’t do many of the smart things that we’ve liked in past pinball simulations: there’s no quick close-up on the ball as it moves to a distant part of the table, no temporary transparency to aid your view as it passes under or around static objects, and no complete transition into sub-screens accessed by dropping the ball into traps scattered around the floor. Games for the NEC TurboGrafx-16 and Sega Genesis mastered some of these tricks—and more—a long time ago, radically improving gameplay in the process, but ZEN Pinball: Rollercoaster seems content to let you enjoy a simple simulation of a nice-looking table. You might like that, but we found the fun factor limited due to the vantage point; hopefully a sequel will offer more than just a cool demonstration of how nice a pinball table can look in 3-D on the iPhone. iLounge Rating: B-.
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