Review: Electronic Arts Spore Origins
Amongst computer gamers in particular, Will Wright's Spore is one of the year's most anticipated releases -- a grand scale simulation of evolution, enabling you to create and improve a living being as it progresses from a single cell to a creature, a member of a tribe, a leader of a civilization, and eventually a space colonizer. Electronic Arts' Spore Origins for Click Wheel iPods ($5) is, in essence, a stripped-down version of the first fifth of the full Spore game, initially placing you in control of a single-celled organism, then letting you control its progress to a multi-cellular creature with organic eyes, weapons, and defenses. Updated September 8, 2008: Spore Origins has now been released for the iPhone and iPod touch ($10); we've added pictures and additional details below, along with a separate rating.
Spore Origins for Click Wheel iPods
Origins takes place from a 2-D overhead perspective in water, beginning with a fairly clear and open pool, progressing through icy and murky waters, and concluding on the edge of a beach with nearby sand. We’ve heard the formula described best as “Pac-Man without walls,” and think this is fairly accurate: you continue to pilot your creature around through 18 open-edged stages, collecting enough dot-shaped DNA balls to let you progress to the next level, while enemies alternate between floating around and chasing you. All of your control is handled through touching the Click Wheel, which is used to keep you constantly swimming and rotating in the water, save for the eventual addition of a special ability—electricity—that’s triggered with the press of the center Action button.
Gameplay is simple: avoid touching creatures who are bigger than you, pop bubbles to find more DNA, and eat creatures that are smaller than you. You can also find tiny symbiotic dots that rotate around your character temporarily, adding speed, shields, or the ability to poison nearby enemies. DNA is used during a creature editor phase available after every three stages, providing you with simple tools to customize the length, girth, color, pattern, and mutations of your spore. Depending on your preferences, you can add spikes, mouths, more perceptive eyes, scales, and other abilities to keep yourself safe and gathering up DNA. At the end of the game, Spore Origins gives you the DNA code for your character, enabling you to add it to EA’s Sporepedia.
Coinciding with the display of the creature editor, the background art changes every three stages, representing a transition between bodies of water; stage-specific enemies and simple objectives are occasionally identified by the game to keep things interesting. Sometimes, you’ll be shown a creature that’s deadly if touched under one condition but capable of being eaten if touched in a different situation; at other times, you’ll have no real agenda other than finding more DNA. Throughout the stages, EA’s creature and stage artwork is actually quite good, with colorful characters of various sizes, multi-layered backgrounds, and neat if simple special effects.
Thanks to some smart aesthetic and play mechanic choices, Spore Origins is as close to zen-like gaming as the Click Wheel iPod has ever come. There’s a mode called Aquarium that lets you just listen to music as the spore swims through the water with other creatures, and an unlockable survival mode that gives you one-screen food-gathering challenges as you’re confronted by patterns of enemy attackers. Whether you’re playing these modes or the main game of evolution, you’ll find that you’re actually drawn into the art and the music, as well as the simple and easy to master gameplay. The only hard stage is the last of the 18, and then, mostly because it’s not entirely clear how to fulfill the stated objective. Otherwise, the game is both relaxing and fun.
EA’s only major flaws in Spore Origins are two in number. First, the game’s just too short; a decent player can blow through the 18 stages in three or four hours of dedicated gameplay, and the only incentive to keep playing at that point is to create additional characters or try the demo-like alternate modes. This is the major reason for the game’s good but not great overall rating; with more stages and things to do, this would have been one of the very best Click Wheel iPod games out there. Second, the title as released by EA crashes before fully loading on the iPod classic, and experiences some similar issues on the fifth-generation iPod, all apparently related to Apple’s video-out settings on these devices. However, we played through the entire game on a third-generation iPod nano without any issues, and Apple has pulled the game from the iTunes Store pending bug fixes. Our rating is based on the game as played on the nano; we’ll revise it downward if Apple and EA don’t get the title fixed quickly for users of the other iPod models. It goes without saying that it’s a shame that Spore Origins was released with such serious bugs, but it’s also no surprise given the huge number of problems users are experiencing with other iPod and iPhone software these days.
While we weren’t thrilled with Spore Origins’ longevity—especially after the ‘look for other Spore games coming soon to a planet near you’ suggestion at the end—the quality of its aesthetics and the relaxing, interesting gameplay both make better than average use of the Click Wheel iPod platform; EA has done a good job of making a limited version of Spore fun and compelling for as long as the stages last. We’re looking forward to seeing how Spore Origins looks on the iPhone and iPod touch; hopefully iPod classic and 5G iPod owners will be able to get in on the action as well. Note: EA re-released Spore Origins with bugfixes for the other iPods.
Spore Origins for iPhone and iPod touch
Spore Origins for the iPhone and iPod touch is, in a phrase, a more drawn out version of the Click Wheel iPod title with better graphics. The essential gameplay is identical to that of the previously released title, and the majority of the levels are extremely similar; not surprisingly, the background art and characters have both received upgrades, and there’s now some introductory video in the title, as well. Surprisingly, the game’s not more fun on the touchscreen devices; it’s actually a bit less enjoyable because of the control scheme, which depends upon imprecise accelerometer movements rather than the steering wheel-like controls of the Click Wheel iPods. EA tries to modulate this by letting you set the device’s orientation to something other than its default, but we didn’t have a ton of luck making this work entirely as we’d wanted.
To its credit, EA has tried to do a few things to use the touchscreen devices more impressively than the older iPods. The creature creator lets you choose a photo from your library or take a photo to apply as a texture to the creature’s body. Special effects, including transparent current flow, floating pieces of kelp, and clouds of gas from what look to be coral reefs, have been added on top of the stages found before. And new stages have been added: there are now 30 levels to go through rather than the prior version’s 18, some with new enemies that are bigger and more deadly than the ones found on the iPod’s. Though the sound is similar between the two versions, there’s no doubt that the game looks better on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Unfortunately, the effect of adding the new levels isn’t necessarily a net positive. While the iPod version seemed like it was over too soon, the iPhone version feels like it drags, despite the fact that it requires the same four or so hours to play through. EA’s new stages consist largely of boring mazes, which force you to follow currents to escape from rocky barriers in the water, and there’s still an ultimate, slow-paced confrontation with an oversized fish-like creature to slog through. We also experienced lots of in-game crashes, typically mid-level, though we’re not sure if they’re attributable to screenshot-making, the game itself, or the unstable iPhone OS. In any case, despite its superior graphics, Spore Origins isn’t as worthy of our recommendation as the Click Wheel version thanks to its less appealing control scheme and twice as high price; had the price been lower, and the control a bit better, it would have rated higher.