iPhone Gems: Four Hyped Games and a Serious Editorial
In recent weeks, Apple has intensified its efforts to position the iPhone and iPod touch as bona-fide game consoles, but owners of these devices know the score: thanks to control limitations and a wide range of developer issues, it’s very hard to find console-quality games in the App Store. This week, we looked at a bunch of titles that mimic, at least in part, past console game success stories: Ngmoco’s Rolando, Cobra Mobile’s Low Grav Racer, Namco’s I Love Katamari, and Source IT Software’s Zombie Mansion. Only one of these titles fully succeeds at offering a console gaming experience, and then, due to obvious polish that the other games here lack.
Read on for all the details. And we strongly encourage you to read this article’s conclusion, which is as important as any of the individual reviews above.
Published by Ngmoco and developed by Hand Circus, the action-puzzle game Rolando ($10) is perhaps the most important game yet released for the iPhone. It’s not that Rolando is perfect, or that its graphics engine is revolutionary, or that its control is ideally suited to the device. It’s actually not any of these things. Rolando is important because it is obvious that the developers have actually, finally bothered to release a 1.0 version of a game that feels like a complete, finished, and then polished console-quality piece of software, rather than releasing something sloppy with plans to fix all of its issues later.
Those familiar with Sony’s LocoRoco and puzzle games dating back to Psygnosis’ Lemmings will feel right at home with Rolando’s gameplay. You control ball-shaped blobs called Rolandos as they try to get from one or more starting points on a side-scrolling on-screen map to a common exit found elsewhere. The map is, of course, filled with platforms, obstacles, and enemies, and you can generally make your Rolandos roll and jump from place to place, sometimes with the added assistance of springboards, moving platforms, and other devices found throughout the levels. Different Rolandos have different motion characteristics; standard blobs move and jump with gravity as a concern, for instance, but spiky commando Rolandos can stick to walls and generally move on all sides of floating platforms.
Where Rolando goes incredibly right is in the execution of its audiovisual components. The cartoony blob art style is charming, though shamelessly borrowed from LocoRoco, Sony’s PlayStation Portable mascot game in Japan, which used layers of flat-shaded, slightly animated shapes to create characters and environments; Rolando’s style is virtually the same, with a consistently smooth frame rate, pop-up bubble text and a wonderfully clean interface making everything work together. Audio is similarly engaging, with a legitimately complete, fun soundtrack and cute sound effects. The game is aesthetically flawless in what it attempts to achieve.
Our feelings about the gameplay, however, were more mixed. On the plus side, Rolando has 36 different levels spread out across four worlds that are themed with forest, fire, town, and shadow backgrounds. Each of the levels could take you minutes or half hours to complete, typically leaning towards the latter, and you’ll actually want to play through all of them. Consequently, in addition to possessing cool art and music, Rolando fully earns its $10 asking price on the basis of longevity. That said, however, the controls are less than ideal. While the developers have worked to give you the ability to control multiple Rolandos at once, using tap, drag, selection box and other techniques to change who you’re controlling and what you’re seeing, these commands interrupt the game’s flow and remind you of the iPhone’s inherent controller weaknesses. So do the character controls, particularly for the spiky commando Rolandos, who roll at fairly high speeds with the tilt of the iPhone, but not necessarily in the direction you’d expect given the device’s orientation. If the game has any frustrating moments, they are—as with far too many iPhone games—due to the device’s lack of a dedicated game controller.
Ultimately, Rolando is an A on concept, A on aesthetic execution, and A on length for the price, with a B for execution of controls. While it would normally be on the edges of our A- and B+ ratings based on the strong weight we give to control considerations, the scope and polish of this title literally demand a high recommendation in our view; to call Rolando anything other than excellent overall would be a mistake. That said, its flaws are not easy to ignore, and they’re almost entirely attributable to the iPhone’s reliance on accelerometer and touch-based controls. Until Apple releases or allows developers to release a hardware solution to this nagging problem, this platform will continue to deter releases of Rolando’s caliber, and disappoint gamers who are expecting console-quality controls to accompany the few console-quality games that are published. iLounge Rating: A-.
Like the previously-reviewed Clusterball Arcade, Low Grav Racer ($6) from Cobra Mobile has taken the first steps towards a goal that we, and no doubt many people have been anxious to see achieved on the iPhone: the release of a futuristic racing game to rival Sony’s famed Wipeout series. And, like Clusterball Arcade, Low Grav Racer gets part of the equation very right, but part wrong.
Hovercraft-style racing games became popular with Nintendo’s release of the SNES game F-Zero, a game with extremely high speed motion and precise control, and took a huge step with the original PlayStation Wipeout titles, which radically improved on F-Zero’s graphics and added competitor-eliminating weapons, but fell a little backwards in ease on control. Low Grav Racer is very obviously inspired by both of these series, but primarily the Wipeouts, using floating vehicles with glowing vapor trails, missiles, shields, speed boosts, and mines; the feel of the game is unmistakably floaty and wide-tracked, like Sony’s titles. Fully polygonal artwork recalls the cloudy, impure air stages of the F-Zero titles, with frame rates closest to the Nintendo 64 version, F-Zero X, and enough 3-D structural detail to legitimately impress at this stage of the iPhone’s development. The music isn’t memorable, but it’s suitably energetic and clean; sound effects are fine, not great.
What’s off here? No surprise: the controls. Cobra Mobile provides no control adjustment or calibration scheme, and thus playing Low Grav Racer is—like Clusterball Arcade and many other racing games for the iPhone—somewhat of an exercise in frustration. Acceleration is automatic, so you’re left to attempt precise turns and try to snag on-track shield, boost, and weapon power ups; the shields and speed boosts activate automatically, the latter making control even more difficult, and the weapons are fired by pressing an on-screen button. This is all par for the course on iPhone titles these days, and takes away from what otherwise would be a legitimately good—not great—Wipeout wannabe. Should Low Grav Racer receive an update with control calibration, consider it worthy of our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.
Although we had all but written Namco off as an iPhone and iPod game developer based on its several, hugely mediocre ports of old arcade games, there have been signs that the company wants to do more than pimp overpriced versions of Pac-Man and Pole Position to Apple fans. The little-known 2-D arcade game Star Trigon was a step in the right direction, albeit more reasonably priced on iPod than on iPhone, and now the company has released I Love Katamari ($8), based on a series of quirky but amusing 3-D PlayStation games.
The initially bizarre objective in I Love Katamari, as with its grandfather Katamari Damacy, is to create huge, rolling balls made from stuff that’s been left scattered around various environments, starting with small items and only later working your way up to larger ones. As a second objective, you’re tasked with making the ball large enough to acquire an item found inside the environment. Thus, when you play the first level inside a home, you need to start your ball with small pieces of candy and mahjong tiles, scale upwards to pencils, magazines, and drink bottles, then grow to the point where you can use the ball to grab a cat who’s wandering around in a second room. Making the ball large isn’t enough; if you haven’t rolled up the cat by the time the level’s six-minute timer expires, you need to restart.
On a positive note, I Love Katamari is a far more ambitious and challenging title for Namco to port than anything it has previously tackled on either the iPod or iPhone. The task of creating a 3-D engine capable of smoothly displaying all of the accumulated objects initially required a console with the power of a PlayStation 2, though Namco succeeding in coming close on the less powerful PlayStation Portable. Whether because of Namco’s lack of iPhone coding prowess, or inherent limitations of the iPhone hardware, however, I Love Katamari doesn’t look great on this platform—it is sluggish almost at the very start, and only becomes worse as more items are added to your ball. Combine this with the standard iPhone control issues, exacerbated here by Namco’s decision to make you tilt the device on absurd, screen-obstructing angles in some cases, and you’ll have a better chance of hating Katamari than loving it.
That’s a shame, because the stages and concept found in I Love Katamari are otherwise strong enough to justify the $8 price tag. Had the game been as smooth and controllable as frankly any of its predecessors, it might well have merited a strong recommendation. But it’s not; this is yet another case of a game that feels like it was released before the developer bothered to get everything working properly, and frankly, we don’t want to sit around waiting to see how long Namco will take to get it right. iLounge Rating: C-.
Zombie Mansion ($5) by Source IT Software was hyped as an exciting first-person shooter for the iPhone. In short, it’s not. Based upon a Doom-style 3-D engine, this game places you in the role of a guy trapped in a “monster infested mansion” who needs to find keys and power-ups to survive, then ultimately escape. You’re armed with a projectile weapon that looks sort of like a magic wand, and use on-screen controls to move and shoot.
Though we weren’t very impressed by Zombie Mansion, we will give it credit for a few things. Most of the game’s rooms may be bland in design, but there are some—few—that almost approach the original Doom in graphic detail. For the most part, your movement throughout the mansion and its grounds is smooth, thanks perhaps to the lack of enough environmental activity to really push the iPhone hardware; similarly, the game’s 3-D modeled monsters don’t look too bad. All of the action takes place with a faux NIN-style industrial soundtrack that wouldn’t have made it into 1996’s Doom spinoff Quake, but isn’t awful, and using translucent on-screen controls that look poor, yet work decently to let you move inside the levels.
However, to attempt to list Zombie Mansion’s many failings would frankly take more time and effort than we think it deserves; while we didn’t find it unplayable, it possesses the sort of amateurish, shareware-quality execution that seems more worthy of a charitable donation than a price tag. Our first session started us randomly in a room of a house, moving through stages named and themed “dungeons,” “hell,” and “attic.” Each was populated with mediocre-looking enemies, occasionally including zombies, but more notably sorcerers and men with cow heads. Objects found in the rooms sometimes jumped upwards from one elevation to another. So did we, at one point finding ourselves completely locked into the floor inside a cave somewhere in hell. The weapons animations are pretty terrible, and the “find keys, attack monsters” theme is pretty weak.
For obvious reasons, we wouldn’t recommend Zombie Mansion to our readers. Between this and the previously-reviewed Cube, it’s obvious that the iPhone has potential as a first-person shooter platform, but that it’s going to take more than a decent engine and theme to make titles of this sort worth purchasing. Will iD Software be first to release a truly compelling game of this sort in the App Store, or will someone become the next iD Software by making its mark sooner? Every forgettable Zombie Mansion-style release makes us all the more anxious to find out. iLounge Rating: C-.
With 2008 coming to a close, we wanted to take a moment to address an iPhone and iPod touch coverage-related issue that’s of strong concern to our editors, as well as our readers. As many people are already aware, the video game publicity process is and has for years been broken: mediocre software is over-optimistically pumped up before release, sold to overexcited buyers early on, and then heavily discounted before fading into bargain bins and obscurity. Now, the same phenomenon is occurring in the App Store, and as a consequence, unlucky early customers too often wind up feeling underwhelmed and poorer for the experience, then find that the titles they just purchased are quickly selling for less, and impossible to resell.
While we enthusiastically support the iPod and iPhone development community—at least, those developers who turn out reasonably priced products that are either good or great—Apple’s decision to try an “almost anything goes” approval process, complete with endless beta-style product revisions, has its consequences. First, it compromises the end user experience to a degree that Apple and its users would previously have viewed as entirely unacceptable. Second, as the historic number of C, D, and F-rated products we’ve reviewed this year demonstrates, there is now a lot of risk in purchases that wasn’t there before. More products, and more bad ones, get released every week now than in the first two or three years of the iPod’s existence.
Heading into 2009 and potentially difficult economic times, we strongly encourage you, our readers, to avoid the temptation to empty your wallets with a series of overhyped impulse buys—anything that you probably won’t use a month or even a week after you made the initial purchase. Wait until the new release hype has given way to actual reviews of products that will save you from disappointment; you’ll simultaneously save money and encourage developers to do a better job of creating products that are actually worth paying for. As always, we will continue to point out the truly noteworthy new releases to help you make better, more informed decisions about how to spend your hard-earned wages.
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