iPhone Gems: Casual Games, Fishing, and 3-D Shooters
We’ve spent the last week testing so many new iPhone and iPod touch games that today’s 19-title Gems column is a two-parter: the first part, published earlier today, focuses on new games that are similar to ones we’ve already reviewed, and the second part focuses mostly on new genres.
Below, we review a fishing game, two 3-D shooting games, two interesting puzzle games, and two games that aren’t easy to classify by genre. Skip to Venger and Topple for our top picks of part two.
As one of several “casual entertainment” games we’re reviewing today, Diner Dash ($5) by PlayFirst isn’t bad. It’s a comical simulation of restaurant management, as presented from the perspective of an owner-slash-waitress who has to quickly manage everything from seating to serving, clearing plates, and building up to bigger and better restaurants. There are fifty stages in the game, spread across five different restaurant venues, and you graduate from serving a couple of people at one of two tables to a room full of tables, people, and different types of items to serve.
The gameplay seems simple enough, but becomes more frenetic as you keep playing: you tap to move your character from picking up an order, to dropping it off at the counter, to serving it to customers, then picking up the check and dishes, with an increasing number of simultaneous orders and tasks to balance. Customers indicate their happiness with little bubbles of hearts or facial expressions, and you need to keep turning tables, seating new customers, and supplying people with drinks while they eat. You do a lot of tapping, moving in different orders from location to location on the screen based on the demands of your customers, and get extra points for doing it quickly plus—if possible—simultaneously, picking up multiple similar items from tables before moving on to the next task.
We’re not going to tell you that we were so excited by Diner Dash that we would have bought it when it was first released for the iPhone and iPod touch at $10—we didn’t, and now it’s selling for $5. As a $5 game, we’d call it a B title in terms of anything except pure pacing, which it excels at ramping up as you move through the stages. At a higher price—yes, we realize that the developer charges $20 for the Mac version, with an ad-supported version for free—we’d be hard-pressed to recommend it to our readers. It’s a nice diversion if the waitressing theme interests you, but like the genre-starting arcade game Tapper from years ago, it’s hard to get deeply excited about. iLounge Rating: B.
There was something about CandyCane’s puzzle games Fuzzle ($2) and Fuzzle Lite (Free) that reminded us of Douglas Adams’ famous description of Earth in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: “mostly harmless.” These titles, which present you with 8-by-8 grids that have colored discs scattered across their surfaces, are pleasant, decent puzzle games that neither offend nor deeply impress. Lite is Fuzzle, only with point and difficulty level limits.
The idea is simple: you need to match five or more colored discs at once to eliminate them from the grid, which continues to crowd with more discs in a random distribution as you keep playing. To make matches, you drag a disc from any one occupied spot to any unoccupied spot adjacent to a same-colored disc, assuming that the complete path you’re following is empty; you can’t make a disc jump over occupied spaces, or replace a different disc. As such, the more crowded the grid becomes, the less room you have to make matches, and when you’re out of room, the game ends. To make matches easier, CandyCane gives you a black “bomb” disc that will eliminate all of the on-screen discs of the color it’s matched with, and a rainbow disc that works as a wildcard with any other color of discs. Eliminate discs and you get points; after 400 points, the Lite version ends, but the paid version continues on.
Other than noting this title’s potential licensing value—if the F’s were replaced by M’s, this would be an ideal promotional gimmick for M&M’s candies—we can’t say much about the Fuzzle titles except that they’re fine time-wasters, with little in the audio, visual, or gameplay departments to make a lasting impression. The only parts that break up the standard color matching, the rainbow and black bomb blocks, don’t feel as if they’re skill- or challenge-generated—unlike similar blocks in Demiforce’s Trism—and the gameplay thus strikes us as a little too basic and monotonous. The Lite version is worth downloading as a free demo of the idea; the paid version doesn’t currently offer enough more in our view to justify paying for. iLounge Rating (Fuzzle Lite): B. iLounge Rating (Fuzzle): C.
Believe it or not, there have been good fishing games for both game consoles and computers. Hot-B made a name for itself years ago with its Black Bass and Blue Marlin titles, and since then, there have been other takes—ponderous or arcadey—on fishing as a sport. iFish ($1) from John Moffett doesn’t approach any of these titles, or even the mini fishing games included as afterthoughts in games such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s quite literally the stupidest and laziest rendition of fishing that we’ve ever seen on a gaming device.
iFish consists of a screen that tells you to cast a line—using the accelerometer—and then a static screen showing a hand holding a fishing pole in front of one of 10 pieces of background art located around the world. You sit at that screen listening to the sound of rushing water, and can flip the pole from the left side of the screen to the right. That’s it. The screen is literally completely still with the exception of the flipping pole, and you’re given no visual water or fish movement to watch; you can’t even see your line in the water; it’s just a still picture. Most of the time, nothing happens except for a notice that you’ve “Missed!” a fish, but rarely, you are told—not shown—that a fish is snagged on your hook and you’re given on-screen controls to try and lure it in. If you succeed, it’s described and tossed into a bucket. That’s it.
We’ve tested few games that are so bad that we’d recommend removing a developer from the App Store for charging for them, but iFish falls into that category. This is worse than demo-grade software development, offensively described as a fishing simulation. iLounge Rating: F.
We are huge fans of 3-D shooting games, and having already covered espressoSoft’s Star Smasher, we’ve been looking for something more than just a simple “shoot at ships, shoot at rocks” experience on the iPhone and iPod touch. This past week, two major titles—Nanosaur 2: Hatchling ($4) from Pangea Software, and Venger ($4) from Wretched Games—have added to the platform’s options, and though neither is ideal, they’re both extremely interesting new releases.
There is absolutely no question that Nanosaur 2 is the more professionally developed of the titles. Like a number of other Pangea Software ports to the iPhone, it’s based upon a game previously released for computers, and boasts an amazing graphics engine—surely the best we’ve yet seen in a 3-D shooter on this platform. You fly through settings populated by dinosaurs and futuristic machines, shooting at land and air targets as you try to recover dinosaur eggs scattered across large maps. Turning the iPhone lets you steer, and pressing on the screen fires weapons; get hit a few times or crash into the ground, and you’re dead. There’s even a full cinematic introduction to the game, complete with voiceovers and a comic book-like presentation of explanatory images.
As we’ve noted with prior Pangea games, the problem with Nanosaur 2 isn’t the graphics—in fact, the engine here is complemented by the most impressive overall model and texture art yet in one of the company’s iPhone releases—or the music, which is professionally composed and developed. It’s in the controls, which thanks to sketchy use of the accelerometer in the iPhone just strip what could otherwise be a fun flying and shooting game of its mainstream potential. Games of this sort reached their apex with Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series, benefitting from precise directional pads and multiple buttons, but on the iPhone, there’s way too little of a sense that you can fly in and out of dangerous nooks on the ground to scoop up eggs without risking smashing up and losing lives. Whenever Apple gets around to supporting true joystick-style controls for the iPhone, games like Nanosaur 2 will require re-evalution, but for now, they strike us as beautiful-looking demonstrations of the hardware, rather than games we’d want to play all the way through. iLounge Rating: B-.
Venger is an almost completely different story. It doesn’t have the visual panache of Nanosaur 2—it actually looks like an Atari Jaguar game from 1996. And there’s no fancy voiceover, storyline, or soundtrack. You get a simple futuristic song that plays while you fly straight through 20 maze-like levels, dodging obstacles while shooting at flying and ground-based targets. The stages are broken up with asteroid fields, boss encounters, and different sorts of simple 3-D art. And yet it all works.
You tilt the iPhone to steer your ship, press on the left side of the screen to shoot your left laser, and the right to shoot your right; hitting both will fire both at the same time. Spaceships, turrets and wall-mounted cannons blow up as you hit them, and bosses have weak points that need to be exploited as you fly around them and strip them of their offensive and defensive capabilities. It’s a little bit like Nintendo’s StarFox, a little bit like Namco’s StarBlade, and a little bit like a fan-made homage to these and other classic space shooting games. But importantly, it’s actually fun. Wretched Games actually gives you meaningful control over your ship, letting you feel like you’re actually weaving in and out of trenches, aiming and hitting targets, and vanquishing bosses; your shield strength, combined with the so-so intelligence of the game’s targets, makes you feel like you can actually make progress even though you might go down in flames trying.
Could Venger benefit from better graphics? More music? Or a lower price? Yes. But if we were stuck on a desert island and had to choose either the game with fun gameplay or the one with amazing visuals, we’d pick the fun one any day. The iPhone isn’t yet a great platform for 3-D shooters, but as Nanosaur 2 demonstrates that it can more than handle the aesthetics, Venger shows that it can offer fun and longevity, as well. Now if only we could get all of these things in a single game. iLounge Rating: B.
After trying Toy Bot Diaries, the previous game from IUGO Mobile Entertainment, two things were obvious: first, this creative and obviously talented company isn’t just the average small iPhone developer, but it’s also still trying to get its sea legs on this new platform. Its second title Shaky Summit ($5) is very different from the first: unlike the strictly two-dimensional platformer, this is a 3-D game with a very simple concept: pick a character and climb 10 mountains littered with natural obstacles. Each mountain you climb is actually a race on a split screen against another character; whoever climbs fastest wins, and if that’s you, the next mountain is unlocked. Additionally, there are three difficulty levels, and you can play each level on the first two to unlock the third.
What’s simultaneously interesting and disappointing about Shaky Summit is its “casual gaming” approach to interactivity. This phrase often equates to “dumb it down to the point where anyone can play” within the game development community, and IUGO’s approach is somewhat consistent with this; it has created levels where you do little more than regulate the speed of your character, while triggering obstacles on the mountains to keep your speed up, and your opponent’s down. So, while your character runs forward, you can shake loose a stone in his path, roll a log in the water for him to walk on, or knock a bunch of bees towards his opponent. The camera is mostly to your character’s back, shifting to a side view to show you running through caves where gaps in the ground and stalagtites pose threats to progress, and then shows your character from the front when he reaches the top of the mountain.
Visually, Shaky Summit is neat, and it sounds fine, too, but as a game, it’s boring and initially confusing. Rather than clearly stating what you’re supposed to be doing, an in-game tutorial leaves you wondering what your button presses are accomplishing, and it’s only after a bit of play that you realize how little you’re actually controlling—often, what you do control is non-intuitive. Rather than touching the screen to make your character walk on one of those logs in the water, you need to move the log. And rather than shaking the iPhone to cause an earthquake, a la the Shaky Summit name, you have to tap and hold on the screen at a certain time. You don’t get a great sense of control or satisfaction from the experience, and there’s also an odd warning screen at the beginning that often lets you know that you need to restart the iPhone because of low memory concerns, even though the game seems to run fine if you don’t turn the device on and off. Like Toy Bot Diaries, Shaky Summit left us feeling like IUGO has the right parts to make great games but needs the time to actually finish them to really thrill players. Despite the cool ideas here, we’d hesitate to recommend spending the $5 for this game; the same assets could easily be repurposed into a much more compelling action experience. iLounge Rating: C+.
Ngmoco is on a roll. We loved Maze Finger, a free electrified maze game it released this weekend, and we’re almost as impressed by Topple ($1), a completely different title that debuted at the same time. Topple is a cartoony 2-D rendition of Jenga, the classic “keep stacking blocks vertically until they fall” game, but with Tetris-like pieces for blocks, and one major challenge: the surfaces that you start with are rarely flat.
As such, you need to tilt the iPhone a little to keep the blocks semi-stable as you build your stack upwards, and move quickly to reach one of two specified heights. One height is enough to clear the level, the other lets you earn bonus points beyond simple completion. As you stack, the blocks make faces that sort of indicate their stability, and you’re also given non-block pieces—eggs—that interrupt your progress. You can toss eggs off the screen, as well as discarding undesireable blocks, but you lose if you toss more than a few blocks or let the stack collapse.
Topple’s art and music are whimsical, the challenge level is moderate, and the game is unquestionably fun and unique. Trying to balance the randomly selected pieces as they come out is tricky enough, but having to rotate the blocks, try to stop things from collapsing underneath freshly laid ones, and keep the iPhone tilted properly adds a level of unpredictability to the action that we found refreshing. This is a very good game for players of all ages, and at $1, a very good value, as well. Given its pricing and development quality, we can’t wait to see what Ngmoco does next. iLounge Rating: B+.
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