iPhone Gems: Pool, Puzzle, Music + Slots Games
Last week’s iPhone Gems games column focused mostly on “games with balls,” and by reader request, this week’s is a sequel: we start by looking at three more iPhone/iPod touch billiards titles, several more ball-themed games, and a few other interesting titles.
There’s a lot to see in this edition. Skip straight to iSlots, Tap Tap Revenge, and Virtual Pool for the most notable titles of the week.
Last week, we looked at one billiards title—Vegas Pool Sharks Lite—which didn’t exactly blow us away, even as a free download. This week, we wanted to find at least one legitimately cool pool game, so we tried Adrenaline Pool Online ($5) by Eurocenter, Pool ($6) by PosiMotion, and Virtual Pool ($8, also known as Virtual Pool Mobile) by Celeris. These three titles offer very different takes on cue sports, and though none is ideal thanks to each game offering at least something nice in aesthetics, multiplayer modes, or controls, we do have our favorites.
Of the three titles, the one that made the most positive impression visually is Virtual Pool. Celeris has ported a highly impressive 3-D billiards engine to the iPhone OS, providing not only pool tables and nice-looking 3-D balls, but also six completely 3-D modeled environments ranging from a practice and low-end competitive garage to higher-stakes bar, pro, and championship settings. Playing through an extensive career mode unlocks these additional rooms; a quick play mode lets you practice or play a real game in any of the rooms you’ve unlocked.
When you’re playing the games, which include 6-ball, 8-ball, 9-ball, 10-ball, rotation, and straight variations, you compete against numerous computer-controlled opponents or human ones, each represented by name, face, and a funny description. The game includes video cut scenes—some more annoying than desirable—as well as smooth, believable ball physics and full 3-D camera motion. Virtual Pool looks as close to playing real pool as you can currently come on the iPhone, and though the audio is little more than the sounds of the cue stick hitting balls, and balls hitting balls, the overall experience is pretty impressive.
Where Virtual Pool has small issues, in our view, is in control. You’re presented with a fantastic 3-D view of the table and a relatively straightforward, touch-friendly control scheme: the ball’s in front of you, so pull back with your finger on the cue and swipe forward to shoot. Need to adjust the ball’s spin? Press a button, move your cue stick’s position on the ball’s surface, and then shoot. Simple, right? Sort of. You’ll probably want to judge your shot from a different angle. And you might want to shoot from that angle, like overhead, or off to a side, perhaps using a trajectory line to judge the angle. But you can’t. And the touch controls don’t give you a great sense of precision in shooting, either; we liked the other control schemes here more. We’d call this a highly impressive game visually with a fine approach to controls and a price that’s a little on the high side. Should the developers offer additional control schemes—hopefully, borrowing from the next title here—it might be worthy of an even higher rating. iLounge Rating: B+.
By contrast, Adrenaline Pool Online takes a completely different approach to presenting billiards. It’s a 2-D game with a graphics engine that could charitably be described as mediocre, but an underlying gameplay engine that is actually really impressive. First, Eurocenter may only provide you with four types of cue sports—8-ball, 9-ball, and straight are familiar—but there’s also a special 21-ball variant called snooker, which we haven’t seen in any other iPhone title. We’ll leave the description of snooker to others, but it suffices to say that it’s nice to see it as an option here.
The real advantage of Adrenaline is its online component. You can create a profile for yourself, complete with a picture and a few details, and then either play against random other people online or those who you select. Plenty of people are online playing the game at any given time, so it’s easy to find opponents in the event that you don’t want to play against the computer or a friend sharing your device. Eurocenter has made matchmaking extremely simple; you’ll get play requests even before you set up your profile, as long as you’re wirelessly connected. It’s pretty impressive.
Another thing that we really liked about Adrenaline is its control scheme. Touch the screen and you’re given an aim line, as well as a transparent enlarged view of the cue ball and cue stick. You can use multi-touch to adjust spin on the ball, as well as the angle of the stick, tracking your shot’s trajectory at all times; a power meter on the top of the screen and a “shoot” button remove your need to rely on imprecise flick gestures for shots. While our ideal billiards title would give you both great touch controls and an alternative scheme like this one, if we had to choose one given the current options, Adrenaline’s would be the one we’d pick.
Where Adrenaline really disappoints is in aesthetic presentation. Unlike the other games featured today, its rendition of both the table and ball physics comes across as bland and a little slow. Similarly, though we liked the look of its menus, we weren’t really impressed by the way they sounded, or the sounds in the game itself. These are things you either have to overlook or hope to see improved in the future. We’re in the latter camp, but it’s worth noting that this title’s price is a little lower than either of the competitors we look at today, and in the right range for a game of this sort. iLounge Rating: B.
The final title in this group is Pool from PosiMotion, which has the least to offer in terms of depth, but makes up for it a little with a smooth 2-D presentation of 8-Ball, 9-Ball, and straight games—the only ones it includes. You’re given an overhead view of a crisply-drawn table with very smooth ball physics and fine sound effects, as well as a rotating 2-D cue stick and a meter on the side of the screen for shot strength. There are also fine-positioning buttons on the bottom of the screen, but sadly, no spin adjustment. When you’re done positioning the stick, you pull your finger back on the meter, letting the level increase numerically from 0 to 100—a smart way to help users judge strength. Release your finger and the stick hits the ball.
PosiMotion clearly hasn’t put as much time into this title as the others—you can only play a straight game alone, with human or computer opponents only in 8-ball or 9-ball—and there’s no doubt that you get less here in terms of either graphics or depth than the other two titles, respectively. This is an okay billiards title, but we’d say that it needs a lot more work before it’s worthy of an asking price equal to or higher than Adrenaline’s. iLounge Rating: C.
Though we tried Tapulous’s rhythm game Tap Tap Revenge (Free) for the first time literally months ago, and have previously covered it in our news section, we opted not to review it until now. The reason: though this game has come to enjoy tremendous success as a free download, and has continued to evolve since its initial release, it didn’t initially excite us at all. As a derivative of earlier games such as Phase for Click Wheel iPods, and predecessor PlayStation titles such as Frequency, Tap Tap Revenge seemed to have stripped most of the frills out of these games, leaving a super-simple music and tapping experience for iPhone and iPod touch users. But updates have shown that the developer is committed to making it better.
In Phase-like fashion, Tap Tap Revenge presents you with three beams of colored light, down which glowing balls stream towards a checkpoint at the bottom of the screen. You touch each beam’s bottom terminus as the balls hit the checkpoint to rack up points, and occasionally, arrows fall down the beams, and you need to shake the device left, right, or down. The combination of tapping and shaking now makes Tap Tap Revenge a little more interesting than it would have been with tapping alone; there’s also a two-player simultaneous tapping mode where both sides of the screen become tapping zones.
Really, the only reason to care about the balls and arrows is that they roughly track the beats of songs that are playing in the background. Notably starting with Sony’s original PlayStation Parappa the Rapper, prior games in this genre have either included exclusive, catchy music and interesting background graphics that keep you interested in hitting buttons, or other moving art set to beat-heavy tracks from famous musicians. Phase actually let you use tracks from your own iTunes library. Tap Tap Revenge doesn’t do any of that. Instead, the songs now vary from included freebies that you’ve never heard of to new, free tracks offered every Thursday from an increasingly familiar array of artists, and downloadable tracks. This week’s happened to be a song from Katy Perry, and every week brings the prospect of something better, but the list of new downloadable songs is filled with unfamiliar artists rather than ones you might want to tap along to. The ability to add new music is a nice differentiator, but Harmonix and Apple’s approach with Phase—generating tap patterns based on your existing library—was better.
The counterbalance, of course, is Tapulous’s asking price. Given that Tap Tap Revenge is totally free, it’s hard to complain much about everything it’s missing by comparison with prior titles—real background art, better music, and more compelling rhythm gameplay—but it does feel like a work in progress that is continually becoming better. As it stands today, we’d call it a good freebie that has the strong potential to become great in a sequel. iLounge Rating: B.
The other music app we look at today is Bloom ($4). Developed by musicians Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers as Opal Limited, it was launched last week with some hype as a “generative music player,” on “endless music machine, a music box for the 21st century.” It’s not a game. It’s not really a music creator, either, unless you believe that a bird randomly pecking keys on a soft synthesizer is making “music.” Hide that bird behind a colored circle generator and you have Bloom.
You load the app, hit “listen,” and various synthesized drones create a layer of background noise; on top of this, you hear the pinging of synthesizer keys at random. Each key generates an expanding bubble on the screen, and if you go into “create” mode, you can touch the screen to make sounds and bubbles, too. Both the sounds and bubbles fade, only to be replaced by more, echoing what you’ve touched before. The app offers nine different “moods,” which are basically color swaps for the bubbles and backgrounds, either individually selectable or picked at random.
To call Bloom pointless would be a mistake: music apps needn’t have a point to be interesting. But for $4, Bloom just strikes us as a waste of money; some people may fawn over its pedigree, but people were giving away apps better than this in the first week the App Store was open. It’s a demo, nothing more. iLounge Rating: D.
When Griffin released the $2 title Lucky 7 Slots, we described it as “demo-quality software,” requiring “considerable added depth in order to be worth paying for.” iSlots (Free) shows just how accurate this previous conclusion was. The developer Chris Miles hasn’t just created a better slot machine rendition than Griffin’s—one that looks more like the real thing, complete with a scrolling marquee in the center, even letting you scroll up and down to see its top or bottom halves if you want. He’s giving the title away for free, and using the marquee as a promotion for other titles in the App Store.
In essence, iSlots and Lucky 7 Slots are made from the same mold. You’re playing a simple single slot machine with no incentive to keep playing other than the questionable thrill of seeing your on-screen number of credits increase every once in a while. You can still bet one to three credits, earn only on a single payline, and stop playing whenever you want—without any way to cash your credits out for anything; a “cash out” button is actually for settings, letting you change sound settings, including either chimes or spinning sounds as the reels spin, but little else. It’s like one of those inexpensive slot machine simulations that are sold at novelty or dollar stores.
Except iSlots just looks really nice. And it doesn’t cost anything. If Lucky 7 Slots was a demo with a price tag, iSlots is a demonstration of how a good free app should look and feel. Based on what we’ve seen here, we’d definitely consider buying a more fully developed version of iSlots with more machines, higher stakes, and a more complete audio portion. iLounge Rating: B+.
Even though we’ve reviewed over 300 iPhone and iPod touch apps so far, Freeverse’s Plank ($2) is one of the most difficult games we’ve had to rate. Developed by Strange Flavour, this color-matching puzzle title has some of the best themed art we’ve seen yet on this platform, and also offers legitimately interesting gameplay with good sound effects. But it’s also missing that magical X factor that transforms something cool into something great.
At the core, Plank is a simple three-or-more-of-a-kind block-matching game like Bejeweled, Diamond Twister, Columns Deluxe, and many others released for the iPod and iPhone platforms. Here, the blocks are balls, and the balls fall onto a wooden plank that appears to be suspended on a moving platform on what initially appears to be a train. You tilt the plank by tilting the device left or right, and the backgrounds pass by as you tilt in a given direction.
While this is happening, balls fall from the sky, rolling left or right with the tilt of the plank. Match three like-colored balls and they disappear; match them vertically and all the balls below them also disappear. The twist here is that you can shift the already-landed balls left or right, rather than controlling the movement of the balls that are currently falling from the sky. Play more, and different ball colors drop, the action speeds up and slows down, and the backgrounds change. Bombs drop down to clear out deadwood, and you can shake the iPhone or iPod touch a limited number of times to do the same.
Simply put, Strange Flavour’s art in Plank is awesome by puzzle game standards. The steampunk art style—think hyper-clean and modern items made with classical materials like brass, copper, and wood—is fantastic. Occasional train sounds in the background add a little ambience, and occasionally, a jet of smoke or steam will come off of a meter on the top right of the screen. Plank is literally fun just to look at.
Unfortunately, you spend too much time looking and too little time actually doing. Even when more balls begin to fall from the sky, and the game picks up pace, it doesn’t feel as exciting or frenetic as the best games in this genre; there’s a lot of dead air here. Consequently, what could have been—and perhaps, still can become—an awesome iPhone puzzle title comes across as superbly developed visually but bland as a gameplay experience. Ultimately, your lack of control over the falling balls, the slow speed of the rolling ones, and the limited width of the plank relative to the dropping balls all deprive you of the fun you’d hope to have given the screenshots. Even for the price, which is highly attractive given the quality of the presentation, we’d recommend it only to people who like their puzzlers slow. Our strong hope is that this one continues in development, gains some more gameplay twists, and emerges as excellent as it could be. iLounge Rating: B-.
The final titles in this week’s games roundup are Tangrams ($2) and Tangrams Lite (Free) by Brian Wuster. Like TanZen and TanZen Lite, titles we previously reviewed, these are based on the Chinese tangrams puzzle game, where you start with the silhouette of a large, angular shape, and are given seven smaller, angular puzzle pieces that can be rotated and placed inside to recreate it. The smaller pieces can’t overlap, and they also can’t exceed the boundaries of the silhouette.
These two Tangrams titles offer a couple of advantages to iPhone users. First, they offer even more puzzles for people to enjoy: Tangrams has over 500 to TanZen’s nearly 300, and though this developer doesn’t note how many puzzles it offers in its free version—TanZen Lite includes 18—the fact that you can get any puzzles to play for free is nice. Second, the interface here is straightforward: there’s a tray of pieces at the bottom of the screen, you touch the tray to dispense pieces, and then rotate pieces by tapping them over and over to turn them on 45-degree increments. We preferred TanZen’s multi-touch rotation system overall, but liked the fact that Tangrams turns the pieces in the only steps you’ll need to actually solve the puzzles.
Where Tangrams stumbles is in the rest of the experience. TanZen lets you choose from all of its puzzles using pages of a menu; Tangrams and Lite both present you with randomly selected puzzles, giving you no choice between them. TanZen’s interface looks and feels nicer—a lot nicer, really—and the full version costs less. If we had to buy just one tangram title, it would be TanZen, but given the presence of the Lite options and the relatively low prices here, we’d suggest trying both for free; you might find that you want both. iLounge Rating (Tangrams Lite): B. iLounge Rating (Tangrams): B-.
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