iPhone Gems: Sports Games - Golf, Baseball, Pool, Boxing, Skee-Ball + Air Hockey
Though the iPhone and iPod touch are still in the minor leagues where sports games are concerned, there’s some great news in iPhone Gems this week: the App Store finally has a truly impressive golf game. And it’s joined by a wide variety of other titles, ranging from relatively new baseball, golf, and boxing titles to table sports such as pool and air hockey, and even another Skee-Ball title.
Our top picks this week are Let’s Golf and 10 Balls 7 Cups. Read on for all the details.
There’s no question whatsoever that Let’s Golf! ($6) by Gameloft is the best of the sports titles we look at this week, and one of the best games released for the iPhone and iPod touch overall. We could go through its on-paper credentials—63 3-D holes spread out across four courses, four characters to choose from, a Wi-Fi multiplayer mode, and oh yeah, it’s one of very few golf games on this platform—but they’re not really necessary to understanding what makes this title special.
Gameloft has a track record of taking inspiration from excellent games on other platforms, and Let’s Golf! clearly has a lot in common with some of the most popular game console titles out there: Camelot’s Hot Shots Golf, We Love Golf, and the Mario Golf games. Revered for their colorful 3-D graphics, intuitive controls, and interesting courses, these titles were the best Sony and Nintendo could get for their consoles, and Let’s Golf basically brings the same formula over to the iPhone.
Consequently, you see 3-D-rendered courses that have actually been given both ground texture detail and believable trees, lakes, sand traps, and even flying objects overhead—planes, hang gliders, birds and the like can be seen when your ball is shown coasting through the air. The camera work is great, and it’s actually fun just to look at the game thanks to the combination of detail, color, and changing objects from hole to hole. Plus, there’s upbeat, course theme-specific music while you’re playing, such as a bagpipe-accompanied track while you’re golfing in Scotland, yet another sign that this title was fully developed rather than just tossed out incomplete with features left to be added later.
Ultimately, what makes Let’s Golf work so well—with only occasional disappointments—is the control scheme. All you need to do is aim by swiping to turn your character left or right, then use an intuitive on-screen gauge to set your power and accuracy; timing is required to get both right for a shot. This is the best control scheme yet devised for a golf game, and it works flawlessly on the iPhone, apart from the slightly underexplained randomness factor caused by wind: though you’ll occasionally see leaves blowing or some other modest visual clue, Let’s Golf doesn’t do an especially good job of playing up the impact of wind on your shots, and strictly following the putting meter can sometimes result in some really short putts. Additionally, the frame rate is fine, but not as silky smooth as we might prefer, a tradeoff to achieve the higher polygon counts that make the courses and characters look so good. Virtually every golf game has its quirks, though, and having played a bunch of them over the years, we can say with some confidence that Let’s Golf succeeds because it has so few of them, at a very reasonable price. It sets a new gold standard for iPhone sports gaming, and merits both our high recommendation and rare flat A rating. iLounge Rating: A.
Though its name may be cryptic, there’s a lot to like about Graveck’s 10 Balls 7 Cups ($1)—the second rendition of the Skee-Ball coin-operated mini bowling game that we’ve seen for the iPhone. The first, Skyworks’ Arcade Bowling, was a shallow but legitimately interesting little title that didn’t seem as if it needed much improvement. 10 Balls 7 Cups simultaneously shows how titles like this could become better, and falls a little short of actually doing so.
Graveck has pulled off something impressive here: rather than just drawing a 2-D picture of the 3-D bowling alley, it has actually constructed the entire thing as a three-dimensional model, with the titular seven target cups and 10 balls based upon a solid, entirely believable physics engine. Flicking balls into the cups is easy, just as it was in the Lite version of Arcade Bowling, and the developer adds to the challenge by occasionally illuminating certain cups for bonus points. The game is generous in awarding points when you hit the cups, but also makes it possible to gutter balls and thereby receive no points, a nice balance.
Taking the concept even further than Skyworks, Graveck has included a ticket redemption system, awarding you tickets for your scores and then giving you an on-screen store to spend them in. The items you can purchase are actually funny, ranging from a free drink of water to a pet tabby cat (400 tickets) and a radio controlled truck (750 tickets), with other items—a “stupid fart application”—being given low ticket values to hint at the developer’s disdain for their value. Graveck gets a big thumbs up on everything mentioned here; it has a good sense of humor, and legitimate programming skills, besides.
Having said all of that, 10 Balls 7 Cups does fall short of its potential. The only time when the 3-D rendering actually matters is when the camera shifts backwards from the cups for the first time, placing your perspective at the end of the lane; otherwise, only the subtle scaling of the balls hints at the power of this graphics engine. There’s no zoom-in when you hit a challenge shot, no replay mode, or other feature that takes advantage of the modeled course. Similarly, the ticket redemption is a really smart concept, but there’s no visual payoff: you never see the tickets spilling out in 2-D or 3-D, have no chance to actually see the items you’re choosing or winning, and get only a text-formatted list of those items that you’re supposed to e-mail to people to brag. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring, yet easy to imagine a more visually advanced redemption system changing that. Similarly, the audio is sparing; Skyworks includes two songs, Graveck zero. Only the sounds of balls racing up the alley are there to accompany the action. In our view, for the $1 asking price, Graveck has done an impressive job here—this is a very good title overall—but the addition of music and better paybacks for continued play would make it better. iLounge Rating: B+.
In September and October of last year, we looked at five different air hockey games for the iPhone: all were presented from a 2-D perspective, and some—notably Acceleroto’s $1 Air Hockey and Sea Lion’s $3 Air Hockey! Fingertip Sports—were more impressive than others. The latest title in this genre is Air Hockey Pro ($1) by Sean McNamara: it’s the first 3-D rendition of air hockey, and definitely worth a look thanks to its unique visuals.
As with 7 Cups 10 Balls above, Air Hockey Pro has developed a complete 3-D model of its classic arcade game, here including an overhead lamp system, 3-D mallets and a simple black 3-D puck. But just like 7 Cups, Air Hockey Pro doesn’t actually do much with the 3-D models: the game is presented entirely from a fixed forced 3-D perspective that could have been rendered as easily with 2-D artwork, save for the ever-so-slight occasional sway of the camera left or right—an effect that appears to be there more to remind you that everything is 3-D rendered, than to actually improve the visual or gameplay experience. The developer doesn’t even follow its earlier competitors’ examples of using dramatic zoom-ins for in-game or Instant Replay effects; once the table has finished rotating around on Air Hockey Pro’s title screen, there’s little benefit to the 3-D at all here.
One thing that the developer has done right here is to offer three different table textures—classic, retro, and ponies—to make the game a little more visually interesting, though the sound effects are plain, there’s no music, and no multiplayer mode, either: the only incentive to keep playing is a sliding scale for difficulty that ranges from “beginner” to “one with the puck;” a bug makes it hard to move the slider back once you’ve pushed it over to the maximum difficulty level. Once again, this is a nice enough game given the low asking price, but it really needs a little extra oomph to make it worth choosing over its competitors. iLounge Rating: B.
One’s view on Gamevil’s Baseball Superstars 2009 ($5) and its free version, Baseball Superstars Lite (Free) will depend largely on what you expect from the iPhone as a platform. If we acknowledge up front that most of the iPhone’s sports games to date have been based on titles from other devices—computers, game consoles, handhelds, and mobile phones—and thereby eliminate pure originality as a necessary criterion for enjoying a “new” release, the questions then become simple: how good is the source material the title draws from, and how well is the iPhone version executed? In the case of Let’s Golf above, Gameloft started with ambitious, best-of-class cartoony 3-D golf games, and did a good job bringing as much of them as possible to the device; for Baseball Superstars 2009, Gamevil has used an unambitious game that falls short of the Sega Genesis’s 20-year-old launch title Tommy Lasorda Baseball, and doesn’t push the iPhone or iPod touch hardware at all.
The problem here is one that has become fairly commonplace on the iPhone: smarter and more capable developers see Apple’s devices as capable of running slightly downgraded versions of relatively advanced PlayStation Portable titles, while others fill the App Store with upgraded versions of comparatively primitive mobile phone games. Notably, Gamevil’s prior Baseball Superstars titles were developed for cell phones, with the 2009 version looking essentially like Konami’s once-popular Powerful Pro Baseball games, albeit formatted for a lower-resolution, vertical cell phone screen. On the iPhone, Gamevil rotates the screen for widescreen play, stretches the already primitive art, and overlays a translucent on-screen joypad and buttons after the fact to provide a similar input scheme.
Thus, in visuals, sounds, and controls, Baseball Superstars 2009 just feels lazy; for instance, instead of bothering to develop a touch interface for the game, Gamevil just maps everything—including menu navigation—to the on-screen joypad and buttons. Sound effects are sparing, with short, crappy voice samples for “ball,” “strike,” and “out,” while the music is minimal and primitive. The graphics are similarly many steps backwards from what anyone except mobile phone game developers have found acceptable for the past 10 years; on-screen batting, pitching, and fielding are handled with flat 2-D characters who look like poorly drawn cartoons. It’s even less ambitious than D2C Games’ bizarre Chalkboard Sports Baseball for Click Wheel iPods, which is really saying something.
But if all you’re looking for is a basic game of baseball, Baseball Superstars 2009 isn’t terrible. Pitching and batting controls are basically as one would expect—the benefit of the joypad input scheme—with computer-handled fielding, a common if not ideal way of dumbing baseball down for handheld devices. Multiple modes, including batting and pitching “missions,” quick play and limited league play, enable you to pick up the game, hit a few balls, and then exit if you don’t want to sit through a whole game or series. There aren’t real players, real teams, or really deep action to be found here, but as an old-fashioned cartoony game of baseball, what’s here is passable. Six months from now, Baseball Superstars 2009 will be basically forgotten, but for the time being, it’s one of very few options for baseball fans, and a decent enough way to pass the time. The Lite version offers you the chance to sample three innings of typical play or a few abbreviated games in the other modes, more than enough to let you know what you’re getting in to. iLounge Ratings (Paid and Lite): C.
The worst title of the week is Smack Boxing Lite (Free) by Full Control. Normally, we’re happy to review both the paid and free versions of a game—particularly when there aren’t many titles in a given genre, such as boxing—but after trying the Lite demo, we decided that it wasn’t worth spending even $3 to get the full version of this poor boxing game.
Over the years, the boxing genre has been dominated by two types of titles: realistic simulations such as EA’s Fight Night games, and cartoony titles such as Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! and Wii Sports, or Midway’s Ready 2 Rumble. Serious boxing fans have appreciated the grit and increasingly detailed action in the Fight Night series, but there’s always been room for the fun, over-the-top alternatives, which have used everything from secret moves, professional wrestling-style caricatures, and simplified rules to make their action more exciting and less technical. Smack Boxing clearly belongs to the cartoony camp, using eight almost ridiculous fighters—a pirate, a fat geek, a robot, and even a guy dressed as Santa Claus—to try and appeal to the player’s sense of humor.
Unfortunately, the art is so utterly mediocre that even a substantial visual overhaul couldn’t rescue this game. The 2-D characters appear to have been created in a 3-D modeling program and rendered as flat, low-color 2-D graphics that could charitably be described as sub-optimal in both design and execution. There’s nothing dramatic or visually interesting about the way they throw punches, block, or hit the canvas; in these regards and others, Smack Boxing feels steps backwards from games released more than 20 years ago. From a sonic perspective, the game’s only a little better than average: the constant rumble of audience noise almost makes up for the lack of music and mediocre boxing sound effects—rather than voices for the 10-count, for example, you get a series of beeps.
If anything in Smack Boxing deserves praise, it’s the control scheme, which might have worked had it been surrounded by more compelling aesthetic content and depth. Controlling your boxer is a matter of tilting the iPhone left or right, then tapping or swiping either on the left or right of the screen to throw punches, each landing with an oversized “Biff!” or “Smack!” graphic. Uppercuts are handled through upwards swipes, jabs through taps, and crosses through left or right swipes; blocking requires you to hold both fingers on the left and right sides of the screen at the same time.
All of this completely makes sense, but when it’s surrounded by ugly art and unimpressive game action—the controls intentionally stop working almost entirely during the overly frequent times your stamina drops too low—all you’re left with is a game that’s not fun to watch, not fun to hear, and not fun to play. The demo contains three of the eight total characters found in the full version, assuming that any of this interests you enough to bother trying either one. Even as a free title, Smack Boxing Lite merely made us hope for something worth paying for. iLounge Rating: C-.
We’ve been reviewing pool games since the days of the Click Wheel iPod—Electronic Arts’ The Sims Pool was a legitimately good, though relatively simple 2-D title. By comparison, the iPhone has seen its fair share of pool titles: Midnight Pool was one of the more ambitious releases, with the expensive Virtual Pool, fun Adrenaline Pool, and so-so PosiMotion Pool as other 3-D and 2-D options, respectively. Another set of 3-D titles, Killer Pool ($1) and Killer Pool Lite (Free) by Sauce Digital, now offer even more billiards action for those who may be interested in other options.
Killer Pool opens strong, with a nicely illustrated title screen that hints at a seedier, tattoo-and-skulls world of pool competitors, continuing through a list of games that range from 8-Ball and 9-Ball to Black Ball, Killer, and Octokiller. Up to 10 human players can compete at once, versus nine skill-differentiated computer opponents named everything from half-bar “Rachel” to four-bar “Killer.” The tables can be decorated with either a Killer Pool logo or a skull graphic, and presented from either an overhead perspective or a user-angled 3-D view, complete with very modest camera rotations to track sinkable balls. While the camera work isn’t especially strong, and the table art could stand to be a lot better, the balls look pretty good and feature overhead lighting highlights that add to their realism. On the flip side, there’s no music, and only the simplest of sound effects; moreover, unlike Midnight Pool, there’s nothing more to the interestingly named characters than text, as you never get to see them on screen.
From a gameplay perspective, Killer Pool plays a pretty solid game of pool when it’s working properly—unfortunately, a bug we noticed repeatedly in 9-Ball and 8-Ball modes prevented us from properly turning or moving the ball into its initial breaking position. Notably, we had the same problem with Killer Pool Lite, which only includes the 9-Ball mode, and thereby suffers even more as a consequence of the bug. Other than this issue, we found the Killer Pool easy to control, with easily adjusted cue angles, spin, and an intuitive power meter that lets you see how far your stick has been pulled back before you hit a “play” button to take your shot. This is clearly a game of geometric strategy rather than action, without a timer, music, or other efforts to try and ratchet up the pace or excitement. Some players will like this approach; others will prefer the structure and challenges of the aforementioned competing pool games.
While the bug noted in Killer Pool and Lite is a deal-breaker from a ratings perspective, as it really limits enjoyment of the titles’ two best-known play modes, the presence of the various Killer rules variants and tables, combined with the nice visuals and otherwise good control scheme, make these games one worth watching in the future. Fixing the bug and introducing online play modes would make these titles serious competitors. iLounge Rating (Paid): C+. iLounge Rating (Lite): D.
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