iPod Gems: Seven New Click Wheel iPod Games, Reviewed
After a relatively slow 2008 for Click Wheel iPod games, Apple and several third-party developers have ended the year with a flurry of new releases. Today, we’re looking briefly at a collection of seven new games, three of which are from Gameloft, and one each from Electronic Arts, Hudson Soft, Sandlot, and even Apple itself. All of these games except for one sell for the standard fixed Click Wheel iPod game price of $5.
We’ve previously reviewed the iPhone version of Gameloft’s racing game Asphalt 4: Elite Racing; this new $5 Click Wheel iPod version has, predictably, been downgraded substantially to run on Apple’s less powerful devices. While it isn’t an exceptionally impressive game by absolute standards, suffering as much from iPod Click Wheel steering controls as anything else, it’s obvious that Gameloft has tried its best to make the most of this platform.
Asphalt’s seven tracks and 10 licensed vehicles—cars and bikes—have been taken from the iPhone title and reduced in complexity for the iPods’ lower-performance processors: the game still uses 3-D background art, and there are still objects and a number of cars on the tracks, but everything uses very limited scaling effects that are perhaps a step or so beyond what Nintendo’s Super NES was capable of doing 17 years ago. The fluidity and graphic detail we saw in the iPhone version isn’t here, though Gameloft has brought over a nice soundtrack, and a number of different racing modes: races, drifting, driving a police car to chase other racers, and others.
It’s because of those types of races and the simple fact that Gameloft has bothered to try and create semi-believable worlds that Asphalt 4 works at all on this platform. As choppy as the frame rate may be, this game is still more interesting to look at, and more fun to play, than Namco’s lifeless iPod update of Pole Position. There are cars to upgrade, buy, and unlock, plus each of the stages opens only after you’ve won a couple of races, earning credibility points to enter better levels. Asphalt 4 has a structure, and though you’re doing little more here than trying to steer, knock other cars off the track, and occasionally hitting a nitro button—acceleration is handled for you—the gameplay works. Generally. If you’re looking for a driving game for the Click Wheel iPod family, this is currently the best choice available. iLounge Rating: B.
We know Lode Runner. We played Lode Runner back in 1983 on our Atari computers. Yet somehow, perhaps impossibly despite similar levels, Hudson Soft’s new iPod version of Lode Runner ($5) just doesn’t feel right. It’s another example of the Click Wheel as mediocre game controller, undone here more by poor implementation than by limitations of the Click Wheel itself.
Lode Runner casts you in the role of an adventurer who wanders through side-scrolling mazes collecting gold and digging holes to stop robotic enemies before they touch you. The original game featured 150 levels to play through, while the iPod version has 130, containing platforms that are joined by ladders and ropes. You and the robots can both move from platform to platform until all of the gold on a given level is collected, and in a twist, the robots can sometimes pick up and move around stray gold. On the iPod, a new Gold Rush mode force you to quickly collect gold as the level auto-scrolls downwards, and a Puzzle mode lets you dig holes in a certain order to collect gold. Stages in puzzle mode are selectable out of order, letting you skip ones that frustrate you, but the stages in each of the Standard, Expert, and Master levels must be completed sequentially.
As much as we used to love Lode Runner, and openly acknowledge that there’s a lot in this version to be played through, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep going through the standard stages or the puzzles. Every one of the levels takes a less than fun approach, either starting you at the beginning after you die—which will be often—or in puzzle mode, sticking you in situations where you just have to restart the levels because you haven’t done them properly. In the classic levels, you’ll die in part because it’s hard to run and dig using the Click Wheel; in the puzzle levels, you’ll screw up because the game’s learning curve is premised on you making mistake after mistake until you learn how to succeed. Skip this one unless your tolerance for learning through failure is high. iLounge Rating: C.
As with Asphalt 4, Gameloft has ported one of its bigger-named iPhone titles—Real Soccer 2009, aka Real Football 2009 ($5)—to the Click Wheel iPod. And once again, while the results aren’t exactly mindblowing, they’re competent enough to entertain given the limited devices this game plays on.
Real Soccer 2009 loses the 3-D character and stadium graphics of the iPhone version, reverting to flat 2-D backgrounds and characters presented from a forced, isometric perspective. One team runs up the field to the right, while the other runs down to the left. Six stadiums are presented, along with 290 soccer clubs and teams from 10 different leagues, and Gameloft has again preserved as much of the earlier game’s audio—including country-specific crowd chants and intermission music—as was practical for this platform. The results are, as with Asphalt, like a Super Nintendo game from the early 1990’s, only with the simplified controls one would expect given the Click Wheel. Its center button has been multi-tasked with handling shooting, passing, long passing, and tackling, sometimes with single- or double-taps, and sometimes with Real Soccer swapping commands automatically as the situation demands.
While we can’t claim to be hugely impressed by Real Soccer 2009, the reality—as demonstrated through Chalkboard Sports Baseball some months ago—is that companies can wreck a simple sport on the iPod through stupid graphics, dumbed down gameplay, and wackiness; Gameloft has taken a higher road, trying to use real players and teams rather than fake ones, a fairly complete rendition of the sport rather than just shootout modes, and enough depth to keep novice to good players happy for a while. There’s a “coaching” option to switch the team’s AI strategy while on the field, as well as a tournament to keep you playing more than just individual matches. This mightn’t be our ideal soccer game, but it’s a fine enough rendition of the sport to recommend to fans looking for something to play on the go. iLounge Rating: B.
Also known as the board game Othello, Apple’s rendition of Reversi ($1) is a simple, budget-priced title that makes good use of the Click Wheel iPods’ 2-D visual hardware. Rather than just tossing out a plain rendition of this title, Apple offers visual customizations aplenty, and a fine audio track as you play.
Reversi places black and white coin-shaped pieces on an 8-by-8 grid, compelling a player to convert as many pieces as possible to his original starting color, This is accomplished by using at least one old piece and one new piece of the same color to form bookends for pieces that will then all flip over to match them. Every turn carries the possibility that your opponent will reverse your gains, and Apple’s version makes the choice of available moves easy to see, as well as allowing either another person or the computer to serve as your opponent.
Frankly, Reversi could have been rendered with only one style of art for the $1 asking price, but Apple exceeds expections. Six versions of the board—wood, glass, grid, stone, metal, and rock—change both the table and the pieces above it, while one of 13 border images adds a small accent to the right side of the screen. The board theme you choose also changes the sound effects for both placement of your newest piece and the consequent flipping of other pieces to match its color. While these aesthetic swaps don’t improve Reversi’s simple gameplay, which scales upwards in difficulty through three user-selectable levels, they certainly make the game more compelling than it might have been; it is a very good value for $1. iLounge Rating: B+.
It’s impossible to count the number of generic, cartoony “rotate the maze to get your character out” games that have emerged since companies such as Namco and Nintendo introduced hardware-supported background rotation effects two decades ago. The iPhone got a decent one called Rock’n'Roll some time ago—we haven’t looked for others since then—and now the iPod has Slyder Adventures ($5) from Sandlot Games, another title made with the same cookie cutter mold.
Both of these games put you in command of a sphere-shaped, bug-eyed character who falls through paths carved through mazes made of blocks, pegs, and other objects; in Slyder Adventures, you use the Click Wheel to rotate the maze until gravity lets your character Slyder move through the surrounding path. Not surprisingly, there are multiple paths, some more difficult or dangerous than others, and there are items to be collected, such as keys to open doors, snacks, and ice cream cones. One mode lets you explore forever, while another puts a timer on its stages and forces you to find clocks to keep yourself alive.
While neither of these titles struck as as fantastic, Slyder Adventures has two things strongly in its favor: first, it has 150 levels versus Rock’n'Roll’s 30, and second, the levels are nowhere near as frustrating as the ones in the earlier title. These factors make Slyder easier to recommend to players of all ages, and certainly more fun to play. As offsets, its characters and icons are far smaller on screen—and thus harder to find—plus, finding items is purely a matter of hunting for them, as there’s no way to get a view of the entire map at once here. Due to its length and better level design, Slyder Adventures rates a little higher than Rock’n'Roll despite its slightly higher asking price, but the cartoony theme and simple rotating gameplay are better for causal gamers than serious ones. iLounge Rating: B.
EA is no stranger to developing on either the iPod or iPhone hardware, but its iPod games have generally fallen strictly into the 2-D category: they haven’t even attempted to create 3-D graphics for their games. That has changed with Tiger Woods PGA Tour ($5), a better than decent rendition of golf with simple polygonal versions of six different real-world golf courses, and flat 2-D renditions of five real golfers. You can also choose your own generically “custom” golfer, and select from three difficulty levels.
Every rendition of golf released thus far for the iPod or iPhone has been a heavily stripped-down experience, so it’s no surprise that Tiger Woods follows in the same mold. Yet EA has done a pretty good job of keeping just enough of the experience—realtime 3-D camera movement after swings, a timing-sensitive swing meter, changing wind speed and direction, and of course, varying clubs—to keep Click Wheel iPod users amused. Though the courses are sparsely populated with simplistic trees, and most of what you see moving is on-course terrain and the user-controlled, protected direction of your swing, the screens you watch most of the time are nicely drawn. EA also gives you an clear sense of how much power your current club will require to land a ball near the hole, which is graphically represented on your swing meter for easier completion of shots.
If PGA Tour falls short in any aesthetic way, it’s in character artwork. The players, from Woods to Singh, Daly, Goosen and Sorenstam, are as flat as paper cutouts, animated cartoonishly and without any sense of apparent care; surely, the iPod could have handled a single bigger, better-looking on-screen golfer model. Audio is given similarly little attention, with intermission screen music but very little in either quality or quantity during the actual game. Yet despite these omissions, Tiger Woods is a much better effort from EA than its previous, hugely mediocre >Mini Golf; this title is definitely a lot more worthy of the $5 price tag. We’ll hope for more from the upcoming iPhone version. iLounge Rating: B.
It would be easy, but inaccurate to sum up Wonder Blocks ($5) as Gameloft’s attempt to rip off Ngmoco’s iPhone game Topple. Wonder Blocks actually came out first—at least, for mobile phones. Both games are heavily focused on the concept of having you stack Tetris-like puzzle pieces precariously on top of each other until they reach a certain height, but while the $1 Topple makes the most of its fewer, simpler levels, Wonder Blocks is at once more ambitious, deeper, and less focused—for better and worse.
Ngmoco went with cartoony, blurry, and abstract background art, focusing your attention on the “personalities” of the block-shaped characters you were assembling into a tower. Gameloft does nothing with the blocks except color them, rewarding you for stacking three of the same color on top of each other, and instead puts time into seven fun backgrounds based on man-made wonders of the world. The Taj Mahal, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Eiffel tower are amongst the backdrops for similar block-stacking pieces and action, which ends more quickly than in Ngmoco’s version: once you reach the goal line in Wonder Blocks, you’re done, with no incentive to keep stacking quickly for bonus points. The classic mode, which comes first, feels looser and less challenging than Topple, which had a real sense of danger—and control—at all times; Gameloft appears to know that it’s not easy to use the Click Wheel to try and rotate blocks, touch-move them into place, and drop them, and doesn’t penalize you as much as Ngmoco did for misaligning blocks. But there is a persistent timer in the form of an ever-rising wave of water; if it reaches the goal line before you do, you lose.
Gameloft also makes up for the lighter in-game challenge with additional unlockable play modes and boss encounters. There’s a tangram mode, similar to the several silhouette shape-matching games we’ve seen for the iPhone, and modes where blocks are thrown, carried, and aimed to reach play objectives. It also includes its own host of cartoony characters, some nearly straight out of Nintendo’s Kirby or Sega’s Puyo Puyo series, and pleasantly upbeat music, too. Overall, thanks to the depth and fun of the theme, we’d call this a very good Click Wheel game overall; if nothing else, it will eventually provide a solid competitor to Topple for the iPhone, or inspiration for a sequel. iLounge Rating: B+.
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