Welcome to this week’s first edition of iOS Gems! Today, we have a mix of games and apps to share with you—three games, two apps—and they’re all pretty good, though most are regrettably non-universal: all but one of the apps is either iPhone/iPod touch- or iPad-specific.
Our top picks of the week are Draw & Tell HD and Incoboto. Read on for all the details!
Style counts for a lot in game development—arguably at least as much as the gameplay itself—which is why Dejobaan Games’ amusingly-named and -developed AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (Force = Mass x Acceleration) ($3) feels at times like more than the sum of its parts. At its core, this game is little more than a tilt-controlled exercise in moving a cursor at the center of the screen through obstacles that zoom upwards at you in 3-D. But thanks to a nice 3-D engine, solid voice samples, and strong music, you’re transported into what feels somewhat like a collection of base jumping puzzles: you start each stage by falling from the top of a building towards the ground, shatter colored panes of glass for points, “just miss” edges of buildings and objects for additional points, and then activate “parachute fins” to land safely on a platform to end the level. Forty-seven levels are unlocked one at a time, based on the points you earn by successfully completing earlier stages.
Developer Dejobaan makes the levels just tricky enough that you’re unlikely to score as many points as you need on your first attempt; this provides an incentive to explore the colorfully accented gritty skyscraper levels more than once. And over time, you become more likely to survive your first try than to get splatted by an object on the way down. Regardless of how well you score on a given descent, you’re able to go back and revisit the stage endlessly to try and do better, nailing additional targets such as birds for more points, and thereby enabling you to unlock more of the game’s stages.
Though Dejobaan seems to be conflicted at times about the game’s theme—are you falling through outer space? Boston? The Matrix?—it always throws enough 3-D shapes on the screen to sate one’s need for pretty polygons, Sirens, radioed-in voices, applause and occasional bits of music combine for a postmodern game show-like ambience that’s always at least a little amusing, and occasionally more than that. All that’s really missing here, in our view, is the final coat of polish that differentiates true classics from more common releases. If AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! were ideally realized—say, if the glass panes shattered dramatically, the rushing wind around you was more impressively simulated, and the feeling of movement was a little less flat—the game would be a more exciting and nearly unimpeachable “falling for prizes” experience. But even without these things, it’s pretty good. We could very easily picture an update or sequel bringing this game to true greatness; for now, it’s a fun little universal title that charms its way out of obscurity. iLounge Rating: B.
Even though the edutainment app powerhouse Duck Duck Moose still hasn’t embraced universal iOS applications to the extent that we’d hoped, we’re still glad it’s developing new iPad and iPhone/iPod touch software. Its latest release is Draw & Tell HD ($2) for the iPad, a simplified drawing, coloring, and audio recording tool for young children, bringing the company’s signature music and artwork to new pastures. Using Draw & Tell HD, kids can draw pictures, color existing pictures, or customize either with resizable pieces of pre-colored artwork. Following prior Duck Duck Moose releases, beautifully performed nursery rhyme songs play in the background by default, going silent if you press a musical note button on the bottom left of the main screen.
Draw & Tell HD’s first option, Blank Paper, lets you choose a backdrop for freehand drawing and customization—here, you scroll through multiple colors of your current pencil/crayon/paintbrush at the bottom of the screen, select from different tools from the right, and access additional options—stencils, undo, and audio record/playback—at the top. While most of the artwork here will come solely from a child’s hands, Duck Duck Moose includes a large collection of colored objects—largely animals and foods, plus letters, numbers, vehicles, and word bubbles—plus a variety of textures that can be drawn with. A separate Coloring mode begins with one of 18 black and white pages, some inspired by past DDM titles, letting you use the aforementioned textures, paints, pencils, and crayons solely for one-touch filling of existing outlines. And finally, there’s Your Drawings, which preserves each of the pieces of artwork you’ve finished—something that’s impressively handled automatically, without requiring the child to save them.
Though Draw & Tell isn’t fundamentally different from or better than kids’ drawing apps we’ve previously covered—notably Darren Murtha’s still-great Drawing Pad—Duck Duck Moose’s comparative streamlining has led to an experience that’s actually a little more structured, and therefore may be more fun for some kids. If a child chooses Coloring mode, she’ll not only be able to just enjoy filling in the black and white pages with simple taps, but also discover a magic crayon that cycles through different colors, turning colorization into fun exploration of different options. Similarly, though Blank Paper’s inclusion of resizable objects doesn’t permit the gigantic stretching and multi-angle rotation found in Drawing Pad, its more constrained object sizes and simpler controls make the addition of little mustaches and letters easier for kids to understand. In other words, while there are fewer options, kids may be able to do more with them—an example of the old maxim, “less is more.” That said, it wouldn’t hurt for Draw & Tell to offer more coloring book pages or additional tools to draw with, and we’d still like to see it work universally on all iOS devices. Those are the only major issues we have with what’s otherwise a very fun little creative tool for kids. iLounge Rating: B+.
Dystopian poutiness—a glum setup from which a heroic character triumphs—has become a theme of sorts for recent indie adventure games, so it’s not surprising to see that as the backdrop to Fluttermind’s new Incoboto ($3), a cartoony, iPad-only release. Like the 2009 iOS game Soosiz, you take control of a small character who walks on the surfaces of two-dimensional but otherwise Super Mario Galaxy-like rotating planets, jumping on platforms and interacting with objects to solve puzzles. It’s a proven formula, used here with a different style.
In Incoboto, your goal is to help bring sunlight back to a darkened universe, feeding pieces of solar food to a surprisingly chipper, ever-present sun that follows you as you move from planet to planet. Find enough food and the sun will unlock portals to other planets, transporting you back and forth at will; some of the puzzles you encounter can be solved on your first pass through a path, and others can only be unlocked with later skills you receive from Metroid-style power-ups. For instance, you’ll start out walking and jumping, then learn how to grab and throw some items, use two-finger gestures to hunt for hidden objects, fly around, and so on.
The controls are simple and only intermittently frustrating; tapping on the extremely small on-screen objects can be slightly challenging, and then mostly when two objects are for whatever reason overlapping one another. Once you sort out the controls, Incoboto is largely a game of figuring out the layout and timing required from puzzles: one may require you to flip a collection of switches in a certain order, toss a bomb into a gearbox, then position another bomb-like object to harness the energy that results from an explosion. There are no enemies to bop, a la Super Mario or Soosiz, and no timer to worry about apart from whatever a specific puzzle’s mechanisms may require you to do quickly; consequently, this is a game of both strategy and twitch timing, though more in the former category than the latter.
While Incoboto could have eclipsed Soosiz solely on the strength of its deeper gameplay, Fluttermind instead uses its moody theme and plot as a differentiator. In addition to heavily silhouetted stages that rely upon your happy sun friend for a glow, and a somber soundtrack that helps happier sound effects to stand out, there’s a story to read if you want to go through it: the sad parts are told by skeletal remains you pass on the planets, while more upbeat and cynically written dialogue is delivered by computer screens—machines maintained by the powerful but ultimately short-sighted corporation that sapped all the energy. How much you enjoy Incoboto will depend upon your interest in the “lifted up from darkness” theme; fans of Wall-E will be particularly taken by the look and feel of this title. iLounge Rating: B+.
If you’ve ever seen the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster—or one of its now-numerous knockoffs—you’ll probably enjoy the new iPhone/iPod touch app Keep Calm (Free/$1) by Barter Books. Barter’s owners are credited with discovering printed but unused World War II-era posters that subsequently became a phenomenon in the post-September 11 era, and use the app as an opportunity to tell their story, as well as to spread the theme further.
Armed with both a poster generator and a large collection of inspirational quotes that have been formatted for use within the generator, the Keep Calm app enables users to create their own versions, suitable for e-mailing, sharing through Facebook or Twitter, or merely remaining as wallpaper on the iOS device. On a positive note, the app makes it fairly easy to change the text, top crown icon, and background of the classic poster, including a large collection of one-at-a-time icons to flip through, a simple retyping and recoloring tool for the words, and various background options ranging from built-in to user-creatable alternatives. The signature Underground font is preserved throughout, guaranteeing that whatever you create will look as substantially like the original poster as you want.
That said, the app’s iPhone/iPod touch-limited user interface caps poster output at 960×640—the resolution of the original Retina Display screen—and there’s a bit less granular control over the icon, the font sizes, and positioning than some users might want. The inspirational quotes, for instance, wind up looking less like Keep Calm posters than repurposings of the same font, and adjustments to the number of lines do not automatically re-center the remaining elements. As a free app, and as a promotion for the Barter Books shop, this is a nice option; whether it’s worth purchasing if it goes up in price will be entirely up to you. iLounge Rating: B.
When a developer wants to revisit a past gaming franchise, it has the option to port the original game’s contents, redraw them for a new device, or completely re-imagine the game for the latest platform. Although each of these strategies can work under the right circumstances, Ubisoft’s clumsy iOS reworking of the well-respected platforming game Prince of Persia is an example of how an updated port can go bad: Prince of Persia Classic HD ($3) is sort of a mess. While it evokes the polygonal artwork found in later Prince of Persia games—using it for this title’s character artwork—it leaves players stuck with the same flat 2-D gameplay and stilted controls of the original title, then compounds matters with new bugs and instabilities.
The original Prince of Persia was the product of a time when tile-based backgrounds—pieces of art, reused again and again—were common, and the original developer’s reliance upon those repeating tiles enabled players to know precisely what their options were when gingerly moving from one position to another: a ledge that you could grab onto, a floor that might contain pop-up spikes, or a platform that might collapse after you walked over it. Though it may seem punitive to point this out, myriad Prince of Persia titles since then have dispensed with the tile formula, allowing your prince to run on walls, control time, and exercise considerable other freedoms that would have been unthinkable in the original environments.
Consequently, even though this game is properly labeled as “classic,” the return here to a left/right lever-based controller with separate buttons to jump, crouch, and fight now feels stilted and unnatural—the system worked long ago, but feels inappropriate now. Rather than taking direct control of the prince, you instead feel like you’re working with puppet strings, accidentally snaring him on rough edges of the scenery and failing to make him stop or start at the right moment. Running, jumping, and fighting falls distant rather than hands-on, as if it’s from a different and well-forgotten era.
Moreover, though Ubisoft has redrawn the tiles for greater visual diversity, they wind up providing awkward visual clues: a large black box will, for instance, completely obscure the platform you’re supposed to grapple onto, or shadow a surface you’re supposed to be landing on. It’s unclear as to whether this is just a bug in the graphics or intentional, but in any case, it makes the game less fun to play. The audio, which is left sparing, isn’t much better: there is just enough magical twang in the occasional instrument to make you wish there was more. And though Ubisoft could have drawn upon any of the franchise’s many scores, voice tracks, or other elements to fill out this game, it has instead left just enough here to make you wish for more. Our advice, particularly given its non-universal nature, would be to just skip it: there are much better Prince of Persia games available today, even for iOS devices. iLounge Rating: C.