iPhone + iPad Gems: Deathsmiles, Ducati Challenge HD, Sonic & Sega Racing + Street Fighter IV Volt | iLounge Article

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iPhone + iPad Gems: Deathsmiles, Ducati Challenge HD, Sonic & Sega Racing + Street Fighter IV Volt

Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at a collection of four titles that range from racing games to a shooter and a one-on-one fighter—all “arcade games” with impressive graphics and solid soundtracks that really show off what Apple’s devices are capable of.

Our top picks for the week are the weird but fun shooter Deathsmiles and the fighting game Street Fighter IV Volt - Battle Protocol, though there are some noteworthy caveats that kept each of these titles from earning a high recommendation. Earlier this week, we published a standalone review of Gameloft’s BackStab, which is equally solid and worthy of checking out, too. Read on for all the details.

Deathsmiles

Fun, beautiful nonsense—that’s Cave’s new iPhone and iPod touch shoot-em-up Deathsmiles ($5, version 1.0) in a nutshell. Based upon an obscure Japanese arcade game released in 2007, Deathsmiles uses a manga-inspired witches-and-monsters theme as an excuse to fill the screen with cartoony girls in Halloweenish lingerie, Victorian era backdrops, and boatloads of fantasy enemies and ammunition. Brief but decidedly entertaining as a shooting game while it lasts, Deathsmiles follows Cave’s formula of overloading players visually with hundreds or thousands of 2-D objects at a time, requiring the graphics power of at least iPod touch 3G and iPhone 3GS devices—though regrettably without adding proper Retina Display or iPad support in the process. The game scales up for the iPad in 2X mode, but looks coarse. On the other hand, the combination rock and classical music soundtrack sounds very good on all of Apple’s devices, and is accentuated by Japanese voiceovers and decent sound effects.

What’s changed in Deathsmiles from Cave’s better-known earlier releases is the screen orientation: this is a side-scrolling shooter, mostly moving through levels from left to right, though there are occasional vertical jaunts. In a small twist, Cave provides you with a button to change the direction you’re shooting in, so as targets appear off to the left or right of the screen, you can point yourself in either direction. You can also swipe in any direction to move, use a lock-on button to create a small circle around yourself to take opponents out without changing directions, switch between shot and laser weapons, and occasionally boost your power. A flying cat shoots alongside your character, and in one of the game’s two modes, you can select from four characters; the other uses a single character for a new iPhone mode.

Whether you like or love Deathsmiles will depend in part on your appreciation (or tolerance) for two things. First is the concept of “bullet hell,” or shooting and dodging your way through such a staggering collection of moving objects that you may not, at certain moments, know whether you’re about to smash into something or fly safely through it. Cave floods the stages with so many enemies, projectiles, and point bonus items that you have to just get used to the idea of sweeping your way around the screen gathering stuff up, while hoping none of what you touch is going to kill you. To deny the fun factor of this experience would be futile, but it doesn’t have the pure sense of technical satisfaction that precision-focused shooters—basically everything other than bullet hell games—generally provides.

The second element comes from Deathsmiles’ embrace of certain Japanese comic oddities—seemingly nonsequitur storylines, parasol-toting lolita heroines, and boss attackers such as digitized bears, crazy fathers, and a flying dinosaur named “Tyrannosatan,” just to name a few. Even by the standards of Cave’s prior App Store releases, Deathsmiles flashes a lot of crazy on the screen over the course of its levels, and on the easiest difficulty mode, you’ll see them all within an hour or so of starting the game. The aforementioned new iPhone mode adds powerups and a shop to extend the depth a little, and changes up the levels, but the core of the game is basically the same, and nuts.

In a context of a shooting game, nuts isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, this is a fun game, and for the $5 asking price, Deathsmiles is sure to elicit some grins of its own, though some will be of the bemused variety. It’ll be available in the App Store on July 7, and if you’re a fan of vertical shooters, it’s worth checking out despite its brevity. That said, we continue to hope that Cave will do what’s appropriate by 2011 standards, and update this app with proper higher-resolution iPad and Retina Display support. iLounge Rating: B+.

Ducati Challenge HD

It’s not often that we’re so bored to tears by a game that we can’t even contemplate the idea of playing all the way through it, but that’s unfortunately the feeling we were left with after testing the iPad-only game Ducati Challenge HD ($6, version 1.1) by Digital Tales. Technically, this motorcycle racing game has the right general elements to justify its price—fully 3-D tracks and realistic-looking bikes, a rock-ish soundtrack, and plenty of Ducati engine noises that all but drown out the music while you’re racing. But we just couldn’t get into the actual races, which due to a rigid track and bike locking system give players little option but to proceed through a slow-paced championship mode before accessing additional courses and Ducati vehicles.

From a strict technical standpoint, Ducati Challenge checks all the boxes. Tilt-controlled steering is responsive from the get-go, and you’re started with an automatic brake assist mode that lets you do a minimal amount of releasing the on-screen acceleration button to navigate through the twists and turns of the tracks. While the frame rate and camera motion aren’t perfect—turns stutter a little even on the iPad 2—there’s a graphics quality setting that can be throttled down to improve performance, and the overall look and feel of the bikes, bikers, and city-country tracks isn’t bad at all; everything is competent. But even going through two laps on one of the long courses feels labored, as AI opponents have little personality, the background artwork lacks for landmarks, and the experience is largely one of trying to slow down through turns that might otherwise be exciting. Motorcycle fans will find the most to get excited about in this title; other players should consider it an easy pass. iLounge Rating: C+.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing

Given the well-established troubles Sega has had with the Sonic the Hedgehog series, there’s really no way of knowing whether a new release will be good, okay, or bad—and rarely is one really great. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing ($5) is one of the nearly good ones—a cartoony, Mario Kart-inspired racer that lets you control some of the Sonic gang and a few other semi-obscure characters from the Sega universe, including Billy Hatcher, Super Monkey Ball’s Aiai, and Amigo from Samba de Amigo. Fifteen tracks are inspired by each of the aforementioned franchises, as well as House of the Dead (“Curien Mansion”) and Jet Set Radio Future, with a couple of additional characters coming from Crazy Taxi and Shenmue, all harkening back to the company’s Dreamcast halcyon days.

The good news with Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is that developer Sumo Digital has created a universal title that runs smoothly on iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches alike: the backgrounds, race cars/planes, and roadside objects are all relatively simple, but they’re all bona-fide polygonal models inside a fluid, highly competent 3-D engine. Missile weapons leave twisting cartoony smoke trails, and vehicles go a little beyond the human or animal models (say, a running Sonic) that could otherwise have been used for the characters. There’s no lack of smoothness or speed when playing the game on Apple’s most recent devices, and for the most part, the combination of bright backdrops and upbeat music—all keeping at least mostly to Sega’s aforementioned franchise themes—provide reasonably fun environments to drive around in using tilt controls and automatic acceleration, with virtual buttons for brake/reverse, drift/turbo, and limited weapon firing. Boost pads, question mark boxes, and a mix of moving and stationary obstacles on the tracks create the expected Mario Kart-style balance of occasional speed bumps, firepower, and dodging, though without the tight track designs or sputtery pacing of Nintendo’s benchmark series.

It’s ultimately the looseness of the tracks and the less than totally ideal multiplayer responsiveness that did Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing in for us. As just one example, the game’s first ultra-dark House of the Dead-inspired track features twists and chasms that see you falling off the road into oblivion again and again from a bad spawn point, thanks mostly to a lack of guard rails, and other tracks are occasionally ill-marked with turning signs or other indicia to guide your driving. Under the best of circumstances, such as a Sonic Adventure-inspired Whale Lagoon level, the game handles everything well enough to seem considerably more advanced than early iOS racing titles such as Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D, but Sonic & Sega All-Stars still feels like a fruit from the same tree rather than a title that stands on its own innovations.

Additionally, as is altogether too common with racing games these days, so much of this game is locked from the start that you can’t really progress to additional tracks without completing ones that you dislike. Sega and Sumo compensate by letting you earn points that can eventually be used to unlock certain racers and tracks anyway, which takes a while given the speed at which you accumulate points and the huge number of points that are required for some of the unlockable courses. Without having unlocked this content, multiplayer games are limited to a very small number of characters and tracks; worse yet, we noticed that even local area games were subject to players popping in and out of the course, suddenly materializing well ahead of or behind their competitors. Fans of Mario Kart and similar low-impact kart racing games will find this title to be a respectable single-player experience, but like so many other App Store releases, it could really benefit from a little extra post-release polish to improve its levels and performance. iLounge Rating: B.

Street Fighter IV Volt - Battle Protocol

Given how many updates Capcom ultimately offered for last year’s benchmark-class one-on-one fighting game Street Fighter IV, it would be somewhat unfair to criticize the company for releasing Street Fighter IV Volt - Battle Protocol ($7) as a separate game—particularly as the company has put Volt on a brief initial $1 sale to make upgrading painless. But just as was the case with Street Fighter IV, Volt arrives in the App Store feeling unfinished and somewhat underwhelming given what fans of the series would expect at this point; consequently, it’s still a good game, but not a great one.

As a brief primer on the Street Fighter series, Capcom puts you in control of a single selected character who is controlled with a virtual 8-way joystick and four buttons—reduced and somewhat streamlined from the original arcade games’ six—which let you punch, kick, and launch magical special attacks against opponents who are fought one at a time in various arenas. Your joystick primarily moves you left and right, with crouching and jumping moves by pressing down or up, and the charm of the franchise is in the wide variety of things each of the characters can do. Double taps forwards or backwards will make your character dash, combined rotary or back-forth charging joystick motions with button presses will unleash powerful attacks, and so on. Capcom essentially created the one-on-one fighting genre, and despite having pared the original iPod/iPhone version of Street Fighter IV down a lot from the console series, the resulting title is still as close as any developer has come to an arcade-style experience.

Volt is loosely based upon Super Street Fighter IV, the aggressively-priced console update to Street Fighter IV that added 10 new characters and a bunch of new backgrounds to the resurrected franchise. By “loosely,” we mean to say that Capcom hasn’t imported most of Super SSFIV’s content into Volt: it merely borrows the introductory video and character select screen, plus a little of the game content. There are now 17 characters to SFIV’s 14, including the boxer Balrog, Spanish matador Vega, and convicted street tough Cody. SSFIV backgrounds that were added to the iOS version of SFIV after its initial release, including Dhalsim’s street scene in India and the skyscraper under construction, are here too for a total of 11 arenas.

These aren’t major updates, nor is the addition of an occasional motion blur effect during special moves, but they help fill some of the gaps that still existed in the iOS version of Street Fighter IV after Capcom upgraded it. Putting aside the still-diminished move lists of the current fighters, Volt still doesn’t feel as complete as the original console version of SFIV, and it’s not even vaguely close to the roster of SSFIV, yet there are at least enough combatants and backgrounds at this point to make the single-player game fulfilling—a big jump from last year’s meager iOS eight-fighter and six-background roster.

The major problem with Volt at this point is that it was supposed to usher in a new and long-awaited feature, an online multiplayer mode, which would enable gamers in different houses, cities, or even countries to play against one other. In its current form, Volt’s online multiplayer mode is a mess, so frequently slowing down to unplayable levels that matches deteriorate into slide shows. By default, the game is set up to allow challengers to interrupt the single-player mode at any time, so any progress you attempt to make through the standard battles will be repeatedly halted for sluggish battles against more or less anonymous combatants. You’ll want to turn the challenge feature off entirely because it works so poorly, and if you attempt to make direct Game Center matches against friends, you’ll probably have an equally slow and unsatisfying experience—we did. A local Bluetooth mode, added to the original Street Fighter IV after release, remains the only real way to play against another person.

Ultimately, Street Fighter IV Volt - Battle Protocol is easy to judge on its merits today, but like the first release, it will likely grow and improve over time. A better online mode is obviously needed, as is true iPad support—amazingly still missing in this release—and a further increase in the number of characters and backgrounds would help justify the additional purchase here, as well. There are still no real endings or introductions for any of the characters, and the backgrounds remain as flat as they were in the original SFIV release, too. For the time being, this upgrade is only worthy of buying for the three added characters, and as an investment in what will hopefully be a series of nice future additions. Given how much has been added over the past year, this new version is worthy of a B+ rating, though it falls short of the excellence required for our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: B+.

Note: Installing Street Fighter IV Volt causes the original version of Street Fighter IV to unlock its prior paid downloadable content at no charge, including extra character costumes and background music from Street Fighter II. Using the secondary costumes leads to changes in Super Combo close-up cinematics, as shown above. It’s unfortunate that these items do not appear to be included in Volt, particularly as there’s no other reason that a purchaser of the old game would want to go back to it, but as a free gift to owners of both games, it’s not bad.

Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.

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