iPhone Gems: Five Sci-Fi Games, From Space Monkey to Star Wars
If you’re a fan of space or science, our latest iPhone Gems feature is sure to be of interest: we’re looking today at five different sci-fi games that have recently received prominent billing in the App Store. Though their ratings are all in the B range, it’s worth noting up front that several of the scores have been weighed down by overpricing: two of these games were previously released for Click Wheel iPods, selling for half the price, and rated higher before because they were much better values for the dollar.
Thus, as you look through our reviews of titles such as Spore Origins, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and Star Trigon, you’ll have to ask yourself this question: “is it really worth paying $10 for a game like this on the iPhone?” If you think the answer’s yes, try the title anyway. But in our view, Apple’s $5 iPod game pricing model was a smart move, and more reasonable for titles of this caliber. Though less ambitious, less expensive titles such as Space Monkey and Space Out demonstrate that you can get a lot of entertainment on the iPod touch or iPhone for only $2 or $3 per game. Read on for all the details.
$2) is definitely in the latter category, though it has surprising production values given how utterly simplistic and now inexpensive it is. You control a monkey who floats around in the center of the screen collecting space garbage and avoiding dangers, starting out with batteries that can give you fatal electric shocks, and eventually much bigger, badder threats. You can turn the iPhone or iPod touch on either axis to play, but the game is basically the same: swipe on screen to use the monkey’s ever-outstretched hands and feet to catch things, and turn the limbs away when bad things are flying through the air. The monkey’s movements are all on 45 degree angles, and junk always appears on either a 45 or a 90, so there are only two positions you need to master to grab or avoid initial items.
There are 50 levels of Space Monkey, and they’ll appeal to casual game players, but as experienced gamers, we found the slowly-evolving gameplay and highly similar backgrounds deterrents from wanting to go all the way through. Glu breaks up the stages with boss encounters—such as an early one with the robotic Brass Monkey, complete with an animated cutscene—and different types of items to pick up, such as yo-yos and juggling balls that rack up points but keep your hands and feet from grabbing other junk. You also eventually need to turn in a certain way to grab specific types of items that are only hand- or foot-friendly, and can touch certain floating pieces of background junk to add them to a readable library of debris.
Even if you don’t find that description or the gameplay super compelling, there’s no doubt that Space Monkey has cuteness on its side: the art, the occasional cut scenes, and the theme are all charming. There’s an actual sound track, actual sound effects, and a legitimate level structure with ascending challenges, so for the revised $2 asking price, it’s a good enough value to keep casual gamers wondering what’s next. We wouldn’t have recommended it for $5, and serious gamers won’t love the pacing, but as a cheap little way to pass the time, it’s good enough to merit a flat B rating overall. iLounge Rating: B.
There’s no need for a lengthy description of Binary Square’s Space Out ($3), beyond to describe it as an intentionally ultra-retro mix of Space Invaders and Breakout into a single game. It’s really Space Invaders at the core, but you get a paddle rather than a gunship, and use Breakout-style balls to smash the lines of advancing space invaders. Power ups increase the number or size of balls on screen, the size of your paddle, and so on; levels vary in patterns of aliens, and are bounded by invisible walls that let your ball reflect back rather than floating out into space.
Binary Square’s intentional use of old school art and sound effects, including intentionally vocoder-like voice samples, is a nice touch—if not quite as cool as the radical update Taito gave Space Invaders in its recent Nintendo DS and Sony PSP release Space Invaders Extreme. But then, it’s a lot less expensive: $3 is a fair price for a title of this type. Space Out only misses our flat B-level rating because of its controls, which needn’t be any more advanced than properly tracking dragging gestures at any place on the screen, yet suffer from occasionally complete unresponsiveness and the lack of any ability to be used other than at paddle level on the screen. Those with big fingers will find that they can’t simultaneously see the bullets being fired by the aliens and the paddle that’s about to get hit by them below. While Space Out is a good title as-is, a few small tweaks could make this a much cooler combination of two titles into one. iLounge Rating: B-.
If we were only looking at space-themed games in this edition of iPhone Gems, Electronic Arts’ PC and Mac game Spore would surely be more galactic in scope than Spore Origins ($10). The full Spore is a popular simulation of evolution, starting with single-celled organisms and scaling up to galactic conquests; Spore Origins by contrast is a stripped-down title that focuses solely on the first fifth of Spore, where single-celled creatures evolve in tide pools into more complex water-based creatures. Note that we’ve already reviewed and liked the Click Wheel iPod version of Spore Origins, which came out a week or so before the iPhone OS take, and sells for half the price.
Spore Origins for the iPhone and iPod touch is, in a phrase, a more drawn out version of the Click Wheel iPod title with better graphics. The essential gameplay is identical to that of the previously released title, letting you swim in mostly open-ended pools of water, collecting DNA balls and eating other creatures in order to make your creature bigger and more powerful. As you progress, you can use a creature editor to change your character’s color and pattern, as well as add offensive, defensive, perceptive, and speed-enhancing body parts. Between the Click Wheel and iPhone OS versions of the game, the majority of the levels are extremely similar; not surprisingly, the background art and characters have both received upgrades, and there’s now some introductory video in the title, as well.
Yet surprisingly, the game’s not more fun on the touchscreen devices; it’s actually a bit less enjoyable because of the control scheme, which depends upon imprecise accelerometer movements rather than the steering wheel-like controls of the Click Wheel iPods. EA tries to modulate this by letting you set the device’s orientation to something other than its default, but we didn’t have a ton of luck making this work entirely as we’d wanted.
To its credit, EA has tried to do a few things to use the touchscreen devices more impressively than the older iPods. The creature creator lets you choose a photo from your library or take a photo to apply as a texture to the creature’s body. Special effects, including transparent current flow, floating pieces of kelp, and clouds of gas from what look to be coral reefs, have been added on top of the stages found before. And new stages have been added: there are now 30 levels to go through rather than the prior version’s 18, some with new enemies that are bigger and more deadly than the ones found on the iPod’s. Though the sound is similar between the two versions, there’s no doubt that the game looks better on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Unfortunately, the effect of adding the new levels isn’t necessarily a net positive. While the iPod version seemed like it was over too soon, the iPhone version feels like it drags, despite the fact that it requires the same four or so hours to play through. EA’s new stages consist largely of boring mazes, which force you to follow currents to escape from rocky barriers in the water, and there’s still an ultimate, slow-paced confrontation with an oversized fish-like creature to slog through. We also experienced lots of in-game crashes, typically mid-level, though we’re not sure if they’re attributable to screenshot-making, the game itself, or the unstable iPhone OS. In any case, despite its superior graphics, Spore Origins isn’t as worthy of our recommendation as the Click Wheel version thanks to its less appealing control scheme and twice as high price; had the price been lower, and the control a bit better, it would have rated higher. iLounge Rating: B-.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Mobile
Like Spore Origins, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Mobile ($10) from THQ Wireless is decidedly not the same game as you’d get by plunking down $50 on a Microsoft, Nintendo, or Sony console title; instead, it’s a heavily stripped-down version of an ambitious action game that instead gives you only a taste of what the full game offers. Overpriced for the experience it delivers, Force Unleashed is still an interesting release, and provides an interesting option for future developers to take when creating iPhone and iPod touch-ready game experiences.
You control an evil young apprentice to Darth Vader, tasked with carrying out assassinations of Jedi knights during the years following Episode 3 and preceding Episode 4. Unlike the console game, there’s no need to make your character run, jump, or do anything except for repeatedly swing his lightsaber and use Force powers: the lightsaber is there mostly to block and reflect back gunfire, while the Force powers enable you to lift, push, and pull objects, electrocute people and things, and heal yourself either directly or through draining the life from enemies.
What’s compelling here isn’t the predictable appearance of familiar Star Wars characters, such as the random presence of Princess Leia, both her adopted and actual fathers, and a number of Wookies in various levels of the game. It’s the use of the touchscreen, which THQ Wireless actually manages to make interesting by giving you an evolving list of powers and various practical challenges to use them. In some stages, after dispatching dozens of human foes, you’ll knock down or grab AT-STs, TIE Fighters, or giant plants, occasionally using them as weapons. Doing this requires memorization of certain force gestures, as well as following on-screen prompts to use one or another at a given time.
Though extremely limited by comparison with the console game, and consisting solely of flat backgrounds through which 3-D character models run—unfortunately most often in diminutive, hard-to-see form—Force Unleashed Mobile keeps its levels interesting enough to make you want to keep playing. It’s also surprising that the game can be played either in horizontal or vertical screen orientation; it properly adjusts the artwork to let you enjoy either type of view. While we feel compelled to note that we enjoyed the free demo version of the Lucasarts console title more than the paid iPhone game—a demonstration of the gulf between the ambitions of console and most mobile game developers—other iPhone OS game makers could still learn a lot from Force Unleashed about making gesture-based iPhone titles fun to play. At half the price, this would have been a must-try title for many iPhone gamers; at current pricing, only Star Wars fans and budding iPhone OS developers need apply. iLounge Rating: B-.
For Namco, a Japanese game developer we used to love and respect, the iPod and iPhone have proved to be gaming minefields. First, the company dropped bombs in the forms of pretty awful Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man games, then it tried its hand at a mediocre update of Pole Position. Now it has released Star Trigon, an obscure arcade puzzle title that we enjoyed playing as a $5 Click Wheel iPod game, but can’t recommend with equal enthusiasm as a $10 iPhone OS title.
As noted in our Click Wheel iPod review of the game, Star Trigon was originally developed by the team responsible for the popular Mr. Driller puzzle titles, and offers similarly super-simple gameplay with highly Japanese anime-styled music and art. You control a character who is viewed from an overhead map screen showing multiple dot-like planets; the character spins around the planet in an orbit, detaching and flying to another planet when you touch the screen. The only science of the game is learning the effect that releasing from orbit will have at a given moment in your spin; tap at the right moment and you’ll jump correctly to a planet of your choice, but tap wrong and you’ll fly off into space and lose one of only a handful of extra men you keep in reserve.
Moving from planet to planet properly is part of the game. The other challenge is doing so in a pattern: your goal is to make triangles by connecting the planet dots line by line, saving floating people who are lost in space between the planets. There are 79 stages, structured in clusters of unlockable beginner, easy, medium, and hard levels, and you ultimately need to not just beat these levels, but get through all of the levels shown to you on a given level of difficulty. You can re-play the game on higher difficulty levels without necessarily seeing the same sequence of levels over and over, as the game changes stages now and again to keep things challenging and interesting. It’s easy to do the several beginner stages with a few men in reserve, but you’ll probably need to go through easy three or four times before you unlock medium, and even more times to unlock hard. Some of the stages give you only one man to succeed or fail, others let you run down your stock of lives trying.
Simply put, the level design is increasingly smart and interesting as the stages progress, revealing different types of planets with different orbit speeds, poisonous effects, and sizes, as well as power-ups to keep you going. Some players may be turned off by the simplicity; others may not like the seriously Japanese aesthetic. There’s a full soundtrack, real in-game art and a real menu structure here, but they’re all of the heavily cutesy manga variety; the characters have favorite foods and blood types, the things you’re trying to rescue look sort of like yellow baby chicks, and so on. They don’t detract from making this game worth playing, but they’re nichey.
Our major issue with the iPhone version is simple: the price. While the graphics are modestly better here than they are on the Click Wheel iPods, there’s no more value or quality in the $10 version than you get in the $5 one, and what struck us as a nice but simple game for iPods comes across as just too expensive for the iPhone platform. The small handful of people already familiar with the little-known Star Trigon arcade title may feel that it’s worth buying anyway, but we’d hold off until the price comes down: this is a fun little game, but not worth $10. iLounge Rating: B-.
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