Welcome to 2011’s final edition of iOS Gems! This week, we’re looking at a scattered collection of apps and games—several edutainment titles for kids, plus a couple of late-in-year game releases that caught our attention for one reason or another.
Four of this week’s selections received identical B+ ratings, albeit for different reasons—Bug Princess, Dora Hops Into Phonics HD, It’s A Small World, and X Is For X-Ray will each appeal heavily to a specific type of iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch user. Read on for all the details!
Japanese developer Cave has released a number of its earlier arcade shoot-em-up titles for the iPhone and iPod touch, most falling into the same “bullet hell” shooter sub-genre: you’re put in control of a flying ship of some sort and forced to blast your way through an overwhelming array of enemies and gunfire, dodging as many as possible whilst occasionally absorbing bullets. The company’s latest release Bug Princess ($5, aka Mushihime-sama) would be easy to dismiss as more of the same with a different visual theme, but it does achieve something its predecessors missed: finally, Cave is offering true iPad support in a universal iPhone/iPod touch/iPad download, though as before, there are visual compromises to consider. Because Bug Princess was originally developed for a lower-resolution platform and ported to iOS devices without updated in-game art, Cave doesn’t fill the entire screen with the actual game; instead, there are substantial static borders on the left, right, and bottom of the game window, serving as a frame for low-resolution arcade artwork. There’s notably a “large” mode hidden in the main options menu, which upscales the art to fill all but a swipable area at the bottom of the display; this noticeably softens the pixel art in the process, an issue most noticeable on the larger iPad screen.
While Bug Princess isn’t the most beautiful or iOS-pushing overhead shooter we’ve seen, it’s plenty of fun, and a good snapshot of where 2-D shooters were as of 2004 when the title was originally released by Taito in Japanese arcades. Bug-themed enemies overlap with continuous, colorful explosions and impressively detailed backgrounds to create a continually engaging—if ultra-saturated—set of environments. Thanks to good use of pre-rendered CG objects, each element looks far more complex in motion than you’d guess from screenshots, and the wide variety of huge boss and mini-boss characters makes an epic experience from what could otherwise be an exercise in simple insect extermination.
Like the artwork, which is impressive for what it is but feels overly pixelated even by the standards of the year it was released, the chiptune-quality music is upbeat and sufficient to keep things exciting, but hardly up to the highest standards of games then or now. The swipable controls and buttons are easy to figure out quickly, enabling you to control your own ship and assistants in a formation, firing through one of a number of continually widening cannons and occasionally dropping area-clearing bombs. Nothing here besides the number of big bosses will come as a surprise to shooter fans, but to the extent that Bug Princess satisfies expectations quite thoroughly at a very reasonable asking price, it’s definitely worth checking out if you like this genre. iLounge Rating: B+.
Peapod Labs has had so many hits in its ABC alphabet series that it’s easy to look past some of the less stellar lightly educational titles it has more recently released; once again, Bugsy Kindergarden Reading ($3) is in the “understructured” category. Starring Bugsy the hamster, this universal iOS title starts kids in a flat 2-D representation of a kindergarten classroom, letting them tap a little to make Bugsy jump around between several different activities. Happy, creativity-inspiring music plays in the background, and kids are supposed to figure out what to do when they’re presented with a beach, a view of the night sky through a telescope, and a chalkboard. Additional screens include a winding road, a farm, a wintery landscape, and a spring or summer scene outdoors, all rendered as flat, cartoony images without animation.
While the chalkboard is respectably designed with a series of multiple-choice letter, word, and object identification puzzles that use voice narration to guide kids through learning, the other screens will initially confuse young children due to unintuitive controls and a coin-gathering system that—while seemingly well-intentioned to teach numbers—feels unnecessary and cumbersome in a reading app for little kids. Adults will need to learn and then teach young players that coins must be earned to buy sticker-like objects to fill the beach, sky, and other scenes; children will be required to figure out some odd swiping controls to look through and select objects since there’s very little in-app guidance. While Bugsy Kindergarten Reading feels in some ways like a step up from the original Bugsy game, our child tester walked away from it in the middle of the first session and never asked to come back, despite the quality of the educational material found at the chalkboard. Extra polish and deeper post-chalkboard experiences would help a lot to make the experience more compelling and intuitive for its audience. iLounge Rating: C.
Nickelodeon’s famously adventurous heroine Dora the Explorer has already had an outing or two on iOS devices, but her widespread appeal to kids easily justifies additional titles—that’s why Dora Hops Into Phonics HD ($3) by Nickelodeon/MTV is, apart from its iPad-only release, a very welcome addition to the App Store. With upbeat background music, animated artwork, and persistent voice guidance to help kids understand what to do, Dora Hops Into Phonics guides young players through a collection of fun, educational activities that will require only brief initial parental involvement.
First, you’ll see the individual letters that create a word (“H U G”) as the game awaits a match with one of several pictures, then you’ll choose from one of a number of letters to change that word to something else matching a second picture (“B U G”). Tapping on the multiple-choice letters or pictures verbalizes the phonetic pronunciation or speaks the word, as appropriate, letting kids hear their options before selecting something. After a couple of matches, frog-themed mini-games are offered to break up the action—moving frogs from lilypad to lilypad, or matching the colors of frogs to flowers—each highlighting a different skill or skills. Unlike the main phonetic sections, these mini-games are optional, but their animation and intuitive activities will entertain kids, and extend what’s otherwise a very quick trip from the start of each game to the Frog Fiesta at the end.
Why Dora Hops Into Phonics HD works in a way that, say, Bugsy does not is that it provides a collection of clearly age-appropriate, fun learning activities within an interface that kids can figure out and enjoy on their own. A parent can steer kids through the activities, but needn’t do so, as the app explains pretty clearly what can and should be done next. While this app doesn’t burst with animation or original music, there’s just enough of each—and plenty of voice work, particularly in the assistive prompting—to prevent the experience from ever becoming dull. If Dora Hope Into Phonics was universal to iOS devices instead of requiring a second purchase, it would have been even easier to recommend, but it’s very good as is. iLounge Rating: B+.
As huge fans of Disney’s Small World theme park rides, we were thrilled to discover the new universal iOS application It’s A Small World ($4) sitting in the App Store shortly after our most recent visit to Disneyland—a ripe opportunity to compare the app to the famously happy “here’s what the world’s civilizations are like, kids” experience. While the app isn’t quite the same as the ride, it delivers enough of the same material with some new frills to be worthy of any fan’s consideration, regardless.
Unlike the ride, which is essentially a slow but engrossingly upbeat and colorful boat trip through a cartoony 3-D world of “small” countries, the app is structured to be used by kids in two ways. The first is called “Play,” and breaks the lyrics of the classic It’s A Small World song into 15 scrolling landscapes that are viewed one concept at a time. Each gently scrolls a landscape from left to right, then upwards into clouds where a hot air balloon waits to take you to the next landscape and lyric. There’s no singing here, but rather gentle background music, a brief spoken recitation of the lyric, and a slow, automatic pan through the scene that can be watched or interacted with as the child desires. “A world of tears,” for instance, scrolls from left to right across an initially rainy British gathering of people with umbrellas to a snowy field, then after a cloudy intermission reveals “a world of hopes” full of Mediterranean imagery. Kids can interact with all of the little people in the scenes, scroll left or right with swipe gestures to continue exploring the background, or tap on a hot air balloon icon to skip between 15 different areas.
While the Play mode is a serious winner thanks to beautiful animation and unexpectedly deep interactivity with its little characters, the second mode is the app’s biggest disappointment. Sing Along mode is the only way you can experience the well-known It’s A Small World song as a song, though it’s set to a fireworks display that is only modestly interactive and equally minimal in artwork. It’s somewhat of a mystery that this portion of the app doesn’t incorporate the otherwise spectacular 2-D cartoony artwork found in the Play mode, but our guess is that the developers found it too difficult to mix the music and ever-changing backgrounds with the same finesse as the ride—or that they felt that the music would become too annoying for parents if it was mandatory in the app’s main mode. Between the so-so Sing Along and a cluttered, kid-confusing Settings screen, there are only a couple of small things that really need fixing in the It’s A Small World app; otherwise, this is a very cool tribute to the ride, and certainly worth seeing for kids. iLounge Rating: B+.
While most developers—including SilverTree Media—have increasingly been integrating separate iPod/iPhone and iPad versions of the same game into universal iOS apps, Sleepy Jack ($1) and Sleepy Jack HD ($3) are standalone versions of the same title for different Apple devices. The good news is that both of these games feature impressive 3-D polygonal artwork much like Cordy, an action-platforming game from SilverTree that seriously wowed us earlier this year. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all the titles have in common, and playing Sleepy Jack actually did make us sleepy.
Seemingly influenced at least a little by Sega’s NiGHTS, this game explores the dreamy adventures of a little boy who flies through forced 3-D perspective tunnels dodging enemies, collecting items, and shooting, using either buttons, swipes, or tilt controls to move. Movement is generally circular—you’re making Jack spin left or right around the edges of the tunnel—though barrel rolls let you dodge, and ramps in the middle of some tunnels let you jump. An energetic soundtrack plays as you manuever Jack from behind, effectively spinning the world around such that he touches collectible items, misses enemy projectiles, and launches small or charged weapon attacks in the direction of obstacles. In some levels, you’re collecting musical notes to keep his rhythm-based jetpack running, and in others, Z-marked bubbles to keep him asleep until he reaches the end of the level. If Jack wakes up before the end of a tunnel, you’ve failed; collecting multiple stars per level across 30-plus stages is your goal.
While Cordy felt like a structured, surprisingly deep adventure title, Sleepy Jack’s tunnelvision gameplay is just another take on a genre that few developers have really gotten right over the years. Since you’re only able to occupy one point on a given donut-shaped portion of the tunnel at a time, SilverTree generally has to create multiple items, jump ramps, and enemies at every junction in order to give you ample opportunity to interact with things—as a result, the levels wind up looking like overly cluttered arrays of objects floating in the air. There are high points, including Jack’s animations, the details in the polygonal models, and occasionally impressive little background touches, all vaguely reminiscent of Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy. SilverTree also tries to break up the levels by changing up the items you’re collecting, weapons you’re using, and the behaviors of enemies you need to dispatch. But none of it really worked for us; consider checking this out only if you like tunnel-themed shooting titles and want to see particularly detailed art used as an offset to familiar gameplay. iLounge Rating: B-.
Theodore Gray’s incredible The Elements: A Visual Exploration was one of the original iPad-defining educational apps, imagining the periodic table as a collection of interactive, rotatable objects with fun details that would help users remember what they were learning. Earlier this month, Touch Press debuted the iPad-only X Is For X-Ray ($8) and an iPhone version (not reviewed) as a similar innovation—a book with 26 different objects that have been photographed at various levels of X-ray imaging, enabling kids to see the inner structures of clocks, motorcycles, robots, and other common objects. Most of the objects can be rotated and gently moved from opacity to translucence using left, right, up, and down swipe gestures, and each has a poetic description off to the left of the screen, complete with optional voice narration if you tap a speaker icon. A longer description of the item is hidden in a page icon at the bottom of the screen, appearing solely as text without narration.
Although X Is For X-Ray isn’t as completely enthralling as The Elements—or as long, as this app restricts itself to one item per letter of the alphabet—it offers plenty for kids to learn about the objects and X-ray technology in general, with light audio samples and sound effects filling occasionally filling what would otherwise be dead air as you peruse each page. The default short and spoken text that accompanies each object is light enough for kids to enjoy, while the fuller text provides adults with something to explain (and possibly learn, themselves) when guiding children through the book, a very smart compromise. Like a couple of the other apps here, our only major issue with X Is For X-Ray is that it’s needlessly separated into iPad-only and iPhone/iPod touch apps, but otherwise, this very unique interactive book justifies its $8 asking price with cool and thought-provoking 3-D photographic content. It’s worth seeing if you’re willing to pay for it. iLounge Rating: B+.