Welcome to what will most likely be the last iOS Gems column of 2012! In today’s collection of app releases, you’ll find app versions of three popular TV networks, quick looks at Google Maps and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, as well as two edutainment titles for kids. We’ve also added a review of Karateka, a classic computer game that has been radically updated for iOS.
With the exception of Karateka, every title in this week’s roundup rated a B+ or higher—a real rarity here—so almost everything’s worth checking out. Read on for all the details.
Developed by Bottle Rocket, A&E’s three new apps A&E, History, and Lifetime aren’t revolutionary or perfect, but they’re exciting nonetheless. Previously available as individual cable television channels, these three apps effectively provide free, on-demand access to a collection of currently airing TV shows and movies—everything from the much-discussed Lindsay Lohan flop Liz & Dick to Top Gear, Cold Case Files, and the popular “reality” shows Storage Wars, American Pickers, and Pawn Stars.
Each of the apps has the same interface, benefits, and limitations. Programs are presented in grids of attractively spinning banners, beginning with prominently Featured videos, comprehensive Shows lists, and recent Just Added content. Individual episodes and parts of current seasons are available for dozens of different franchises; although you don’t get access to every current or past show, what’s here is akin to taking your pick of whatever’s been on the channel in the last week or so. (Notably, the aforementioned movie Liz & Dick disappeared from the Lifetime app after we tested it, suggesting that the churn rate is pretty quick.) Commercial breaks are included in the programs’ scrollable timelines, but for the time being, few actual ads are there, which makes watching some of the shows even faster and better than their televised equivalents.
Apart from deeper catalogs, all that’s missing is proper AirPlay and iPhone/iPod touch video support, which means that you’ll be seeing these shows on your iPad or iPad mini—or with iPad UI elements. Screen mirroring is a workaround, but without widescreen streaming or removal of the iPad’s top-of-screen status bar, you’ll wish for full AirPlay compatibility, which is apparently coming soon. Between these three apps, you’ll have plenty to watch between now and then, and the price is right. iLounge Rating: B+.
While we could write a lengthy review of Google’s new Google Maps app for iPhones and iPod touches, the reality is that the free app was a virtually mandatory download the moment it was released, and little discussion beyond that is really necessary. It effectively repackages the same Google map tiles and point of interest data into a new client that is at once considerably more powerful and deliberately less bottled up than Apple’s iOS 1.0 to 5.0 versions: map art bleeds off the edges of the screen under a translucent status bar, with a floating search text bar and icons above it, settings accessible via an ellipsis icon at bottom right. Restored are Google’s impressive public transit schedules and excellent point of interest details Apple lost in the transition to iOS 6.0’s Maps application; for these reasons alone, Google Maps has immediately replaced Apple’s visually fancier program on our editors’ iPhones.
Turn-by-turn driving directions have also been added, complete with a charming female voice; in speech, speed, and routing, they compare favorably with Apple’s until the point at which you deviate from your originally chosen route. At that point, Google Maps becomes akin to an actor without improvisational skills, quickly and repeatedly attempting to get back on the original script rather than thinking towards a new and better solution. Multiple U-turns will be proposed before the app grudgingly accepts that you’re not returning to the first path—a flaw that the company will hopefully address in an update. Similarly, the POI database that was once stunningly capable of figuring out what you really meant to type is a little duller at this point, but still way better than Apple’s predictive system, and now augmented with both Street View and Inside options that collectively enable you to enjoy inside and outside QuickTime-like 3-D views of many businesses. While there are no polygonal fly-throughs or other fancy thrills, Google Maps succeeds on iOS by merely being highly competent as a navigational solution. We’re anxious to see the iPad version, and whatever other features Google may have in store in the future. iLounge Rating: A-.
Rather than fully reviewing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City ($5)—a decade-old game that has been covered endlessly on earlier platforms, and sequel to last year’s iOS release of Grand Theft Auto III, we’ll keep this short and sweet: if you haven’t played Vice City, and like open world exploration titles, you have almost every reason to try it now for this price. You’re still in control of a single character—here, a hitman named Tommy Vercetti—and given the freedom to run, drive, and fly around the streets of a metropolitan city. Beyond the Scarface-inspired storyline, the differences are in the specifics of the Miami-esque setting and individual properties, the wider variety of vehicles that now include helicopters and motorcycles, and the behaviors of non-player characters.
The iOS version is nearly perfect, running pretty smoothly on the last two generations of iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches while supporting both Retina- and pre-Retina resolutions. While a nasty bug popped up in an update, making a gun-firing button disappear under some memory conditions, users will otherwise be pleased by the otherwise PlayStation 2-caliber artwork, the impressively large soundtrack, quality voice acting, and rich—albeit decidedly adult—storyline. Controls are polished enough to make walking, steering, and other interactions nearly as easy on Apple’s devices as on consoles and computers, while iCloud-based save options let you continue a game regardless of the iOS device you’re using. There’s a lot to enjoy in Vice City; the only reason to wait is for the inevitable bug patching it will receive soon enough. iLounge Rating: A-.
Very close to brilliant in its 1984 personal computer incarnation, Jordan Mechner and Broderbund’s original Karateka was the forerunner of one-on-one fighting games such as the Street Fighter series—a story-driven action game with atypically impressive animation. Twenty-eight years later, Mechner’s company Karateka LLC worked with Liquid Entertainment to re-launch Karateka ($3) in the App Store, and though the aesthetics have radically improved, the gameplay has surprisingly taken a decided step down from the original; the controls were deliberately stripped down to near-nothingness for the iOS version.
The original Karateka was an unforgivingly difficult title, tracking the progress of an unnamed martial artist as he fought his way to a Japanese fortress, confronting the kidnapper of Princess Mariko. Armed with a short life bar and little more than punches and kicks, the hero would routinely collapse on the ground due to a well-aimed gut punch, or get tripped up by an environmental obstacle, ending the quest well before Mariko was saved. In addition to neutering the controls, this version almost entirely strips out the threat of death: you need a total of one button to control everything from movement to attacks and defense, so the action consists merely of tapping the screen to auto-advance down a linear path, alternating taps between blocking and attacking the current foe, and then tapping on flowers to restore lost life. That’s it. You notably never face the risk of falling off a cliff or being smacked by a gate, and so frequently recharge your life bar that only modest skill is necessary to survive to the end. With so many advantages at our disposal, we completed the game on our first play-through, without having touched a Karateka game in nearly three decades.
This isn’t to say the game doesn’t have assets—in fact, there are several big ones. Karateka now gives you three lives to complete the game, each life represented by a different-looking and -fighting warrior: first is a Japanese karateka, second is a bald monk, and third is a top-heavy “brute,” each taking up the Mariko-saving mission in a nicely animated “climbing the mountain” sequence. Collectively, they help to diversify what is otherwise highly repetitive action. There are also numerous though substantially similar male enemies to fight, one at a time, as well as hawk attacks that become comically intense later in the game. Boss encounters, complete with their own intermission sequences, add to the game’s visual appeal even if they barely change the gameplay; occasional glimpses of Mariko awaiting rescue also recall the original game’s story and early cinematographic touches.
Although there’s no iPad Retina support, the game is otherwise universal, and nearly all of the intermissions, animations, and cartoony 3-D artwork elements are really nicely executed. Automatic camera repositioning cinematically follows your character from behind and off to the side, transitioning automatically, and the textured and shaded polygons look pretty close to great, particularly in the Japanese-themed background art. Surprisingly, only the actual punches and kicks aren’t quite as impressively fluid today as the original Karateka’s looked back in 1984. The audio portion is also nice, though more consistently pleasing in the light music than the sound effects, which vary from solid chimes to plain grunt and attack noises. All of this is to say that everything’s pretty solid in Karateka apart from the action itself, which suffers from such oversimplification that the rest of the experience is diminished. We can only hope the game will be patched to improve the gameplay; given that the non-iOS versions are deeper, that dones’t seem like too much to ask. iLounge Rating: B-.
Once again needlessly released in separate iPhone/iPod ($1) and iPad ($2) apps, Duck Duck Moose’s new Kindergarten Reading HD is an otherwise impressive new tool for teaching young children letters, phonics, and basic reading skills. Packed with the longtime iOS developer’s trademarked cartoony artwork—animals as teachers and hosts, with bubbles, balloons, blocks, and leaves holding letters and words—the app challenges kids to identify sounds, letters, and parts of words with gentle but really smart voice and text guidance. Light music plays in the background behind each activity, with activities changing after a handful of interactions; swipe gestures generally are used to move a letter or word into place in response to a question. Of all the DDM apps we’ve tested, Kindergarten Reading strikes us as one of the very best in educational content, depth, and overall execution; kids will love it, apart from needing to switch between two apps on different devices. iLounge Rating: A-.
As the sequel to Rounds: Franklin Frog, Nosy Crow’s new Rounds: Parker Penguin ($5) is an iPad/iPhone/iPod-universal storybook designed to teach kids the lifecycle of a penguin, starting from youth and continuing through adulthood before showing parenthood, then circling back from newborn chick through the other stages. The first penguin shown is Parker, who eventually mates and cares for an egg that hatches into baby Percy, who loses his downy feathers before growing up. Just as with Franklin Frog, Parker Penguin is packed with lightly interactive and charmingly animated storybook sequences, all of which can be enjoyed with or without included voice narration. Unlike the earlier version, the mating part of the lifecycle is handled delicately here—something that may appeal to sensitive parents. Rounds is now a great series, and we’d highly recommend it to any interested parent. iLounge Rating: A.