Weird + Small Apps: Curling, Basketball, Gender Changer, Dictionary.com, TalkMail Pro | iLounge Article

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Weird + Small Apps: Curling, Basketball, Gender Changer, Dictionary.com, TalkMail Pro

For a change, this week’s edition of Weird + Small Apps is decidedly more “small” than “weird,” as only one sketchy app—Gender Changer from the aptly-named Japanese company Spookies—arrived for testing. But there were a bunch of interesting mini-games and mini-apps this week, including two simple basketball titles, a curling simulator, a text-to-speech e-mail program, a dictionary, and more.

Our top pick this week is the free dictionary and thesaurus application Dictionary.com. Read on for all the details.

Mini-Games: 3 Point Hoops, Arcade Hoops, Age of Curling, Diffle + Smackarooni

Whereas some companies are trying to develop full-fledged games for the iPhone and iPod touch, Skyworks has become a specialist in mini-games—titles you pick up and play for a few minutes every once in a while. This week, we look at two of its simplified basketball games, each offered in paid and free versions. First up are Arcade Hoops Basketball ($2) and Arcade Hoops Basketball Lite (Free), which challenge you to do three things: grab mini basketballs from a bin at the bottom of the screen, line them up for shots on a stationery basket in the center of the screen, and then flick with the right level of power to take the shots. Both the classic and paid versions include Classic mode, which gives you 45 seconds to take as many 2-point shots as you can, while only the paid version includes Progressive mode, with 99 seconds to take 2-point shots, then 3-point shots after the basket shifts backwards into a stationery position. Backed by a nice audio track, it’s very much like the company’s Skee-Ball-inspired Arcade Bowling title, only with a single on-screen target and more timer pressure than targeting pressure. Both versions are worthy of flat Bs; if you’re a fan of this style of arcade machine, give the free version a try and you’ll see whether it’s worth dropping $2 on the full one. iLounge Ratings (Both): B.

By comparison, the company’s 3 Point Hoops ($2) and 3 Point Hoops Lite (Free) are alternatives to Hoopster, a seriously impressive 3-D title we reviewed last month. Lite gives you access to two on-court positions to sink ten total 3-point shots, while the full version gives you nine positions for 45 shots in your choice of two modes: a do-as-well-as-possible Classic, and a you-miss-you-lose Sudden Death mode. Two music tracks, crowd cheering noises, and shot noises are included to keep things interesting, but ultimately, the graphics engine and gameplay detract a bit from what could be a more exciting and interesting title than Arcade Hoops. Skyworks does its best to approximate a 3-D court with forced perspective 2-D artwork, changing to a zoomed-in camera shot when you’ve taken your shot, but the presentation just isn’t as compelling as in Hoopster; there’s too little animation given the environment, and the controls don’t give you a great degree of confidence when taking shots. On the flip side, 3 Point Hoops is less expensive than Hoopster, and Lite will give you a taste of what’s there; like Arcade Hoops but for different reasons, both 3 Point Hoops titles are worthy of solid Bs. iLounge Ratings (Both): B.

As evidenced by its presence in the Winter Olympics, curling—the art of maneuvering stones from one side of a sheet of ice to a target zone called the “house” on the other—is indeed a real sport, if one that draws a disproportionate share of mockery from some quarters. Regardless of the detractors, Age of Curling ($4) from Blackish provides a surprisingly interesting if not totally awesome simulation of the sport, using a 3-D engine to render the sheet, the stones, and four venues: Blackish includes a Scottish castle, a Winnipeg factory, a Curling Club location in Norway, and a Greek stadium as backdrops.

It’s actually a remarkable amount of work and modeling detail given the sport in question, and you can play either with a human or AI-controlled opponent through 1-8 rounds and 2-16 turns per round. Unfortunately, the title’s impressive setup is offset by less impressive in-game content: there aren’t any men moving on the ice, and other than the sound of rocks hitting each other, there’s an almost complete lack of audio—not even the grunts, calls, and brooming noises of the curling teams can be heard. What Age of Curling delivers is much of the strategy of the sport with fairly easy to understand controls, including brooming, spin, and power adjustments, but too little of the visual and audio indications that would make the game more easy to enjoy watching and playing. This is a pretty good effort, but for the price, it needs some tweaks to achieve its full potential. iLounge Rating: B-.

The last two games today are Diffle ($2) and Smackarooni ($2) from Spinapse. Diffle is a timed card-matching game where you get points for selecting three cards with either different colors, shapes, or backgrounds, and even more points if you can select three cards that differ from each other in two or all three regards—there’s always one set of cards where all three match. While Diffle provides some motivation to continue playing, namely the objectives of making a certain number of matches within a stated time period to move on to the next level, and new card graphics every three levels, there’s an unpleasant tension between really thinking about good matches and making ones quickly to progress to the next level. It’s only modestly fun, and in the absence of any real glitz, it doesn’t feel like it’s worth paying for. iLounge Rating: C+.

Smackarooni is a light rock-paper-scissors-like turn-based strategy game where two kids are snowball fighting with one another and have three button-based options: grab another snowball, dodge, or throw. Your goal is to hit the other kid five times before he can do the same, which means that you need to mostly spend your turns grabbing and throwing snowballs while dodging as little as possible. A Wi-Fi mode is offered to let two players confront each other on separate screens, or you can play against the computer. Shallow and only modestly animated, Smackarooni is cute but doesn’t feel worthy of a $2 asking price, particularly after winter has ended. iLounge Rating: C-.

Mini-Apps: Dictionary.com, Lifeminder, TalkMail Pro

Three of this week’s small applications may be of interest to some users, though “small” should be understood properly: two of these apps are very straightforward, but the functionality they offer is actually pretty big. The first one, Dictionary.com (Free) from Dictionary.com adds the Random House/Dictionary.com Unabridged Dictionary and Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (3rd Ed.) to your iPhone for no charge, complete with a search feature and—amazingly—a voice-aided pronunciation assistant. Look up a word, tap on a speaker icon, and the app tells you how to pronounce the word; multiple definitions and hyperlinks to related words are also included, along with a list of your recently looked up words, and a word of the day feature. The impressive part: the dictionary and thesaurus are both stored locally on your device, with no need for an Internet connection unless you want to hear the word spoken. While it’s not as fancy visually as some of the apps out there, Dictionary.com does more than you’d expect for a free download, and has just become our free word reference app of choice for the iPhone. iLounge Rating: A-.

While price—and anticipated new voice features in iPhone OS 3.0—may deter some users from checking it out, TalkMail Pro ($10/$6) from Apps That Rock is actually a pretty cool little app. The idea is simple: assuming that you have live Internet access, TalkMail Pro connects to your inboxes and reads your mail to you, starting with the sender, then the subject, then the text of the message, skipping obvious web links. There are limitations, such as the requirement that you manually add IMAP-only e-mail accounts that it will check—it can’t check POP or HTTP accounts, or just pull information from the iPhone’s existing Mail app—and the voice isn’t exactly awesome: it’s semi-robotic, and does only a fair job with proper nouns. But in terms of ease of use, the app is incredibly simple, proceeding from the assumption that once you’ve set up your accounts, you’ll just load the app and it’ll start reading your messages to you in chronological order, newest first. For those looking for a near-term way to hear their e-mails while driving, this is a good though pricey solution; however, our gut feeling is that iPhone OS 3.0 will yield tremendous benefits in the way such programs operate, while reducing their cost to users. Since the paid version oddly promises only 12 months of service for its asking price—limited longevity tends to earn our limited recommendation—we’d recommend giving the app a try in its Lite version, which offers two free months of service. iLounge Rating (Lite): B. iLounge Rating (Pro): B-.

The third app is Lifeminder ($2) from PokitLint.com, an app that basically duplicates the functionality of Calendar but changes the interface. Rather than providing you with a Calendar-style day, week, or month view, Lifeminder solely displays future events as a list with countdown timers, letting you specify single-phrase tasks for each event and then check them off as they’ve been completed. Tasks can also be sorted by categories such as Anniversary, Birthday, and Holiday, with the ability to add additional categories if you need them. To be clear—and fair to the developer, which has a good idea here—we like the idea behind Lifeminder, and especially like that it offers a voice- and video-narrated help system, but we’re not totally thrilled that it effectively requires you to maintain two calendars—the one that it holds inside, and the one that’s already on your iPhone, synchronized through iTunes. This is one of those apps that clearly will be worthwhile for event-focused users thanks to its smart main screen, but would really be better as a feature in the Calendar app than as a standalone program. Until and unless Apple incorporates similar functionality, Lifeminder will do the trick for those who are willing to maintain their events within it. iLounge Rating: B.

Weird App of the Week: Gender Changer

The last of this week’s apps is Gender Changer ($2) from Japan’s Spookies. To the possible disappointment of some readers, this app is merely a voice-changer, capable of recording your voice, then changing it either from male to female or female to male, offering pitch, echo, and decay adjustments to help customize the sound to your needs. Not surprisingly, the plausibility of the resulting files is very limited—think semi-robotic Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie rather than RuPaul—though the app does let you save your results as 8, 16, or 44.1kHz WAVs, then extract them using a web browser/Wi-Fi connection to your computer. We can’t tell you exactly what we’d do with such an application, but if it somehow integrated with the phone, which it doesn’t, it would have been amusing at least for novelty purposes. iLounge Rating: C.

Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.

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