Welcome to this week’s edition of iOS Gems! This week, we started by looking at three recent releases that attempt to capture the magic of classic arcade games: one is a sequel to a very long-running series of arcade shoot-em-ups, the next is a member of a less well-established shooter franchise, and the last aggregates a bunch of classic pinball machines within a single app. On Wednesday, we updated Gems with additional titles: Nickelodeon’s latest SpongeBob SquarePants game, and two new pinball tables for Gameprom’s Pinball HD.
Our top picks of the bunch are Pinball Arcade and both of the new Pinball HD tables, though shooter fans may also want to spring for the pricey but impressive Dariusburst SP, and kids might enjoy SpongeBob’s Super Bouncy Fun Time. Read on for all the details.
Thanks both to arcade game maker Cave and a collection of smaller developers, the App Store has had no shortage of overhead shooting games, but side-scrollers have been less common—truly impressive ones are even rarer. That’s why Taito’s new Dariusburst SP ($11, aka Dariusburst Second Prologue) is a relatively big deal: using polygonal ship and background artwork that’s extremely similar to an earlier PlayStation Portable title, with a price tag that’s not entirely surprising given its console origins, this sequel to the long-running Darius series features all of the robotic fish-themed blasting action fans would expect, along with Retina Display and true iPad compatibility.
Let there be no question: Dariusburst SP feels like a handheld console game. Between the constantly shifting 3-D backgrounds and the fast, smooth animations of various ships and projectiles, the levels of detail on display here handily outstrip most App Store shooters. There’s also a full soundtrack by Taito’s famed Zuntata group, which has a somewhat weird haunted Chinese restaurant-slash-dance club energy, yet works well with the techno-aquatic shooting. As with prior Darius titles, your ship flies through asteroid fields, space ships, and other interstellar levels, shredding small enemies before confronting oversized fish-themed bosses—each impressively animated, often with metallic scales or other details that are individually modeled in 3-D. Dramatic explosions and endless streams of targets keep the screen full of color and motion, regardless of whether you’re playing on a small or large Apple device.
In addition to the traditional straightforward firing and bomb-dropping weapons found in past titles, each upgradeable via numerous floating powerups of various colors, a limited-use “burst” weapon lets you blast a ton of power forwards for a short period of time. Shields and extra lives keep you flying even after you’ve been hit by enemy ships or projectiles. Though side-scrolling titles seem ripe for control issues, Taito has done a great job with the default control mode here, which permits swipes and corner buttons to work extremely well as alternatives to virtual or physical D-pads on all iOS devices. There are also some less than ideally implemented alternative screen size and control options that allow you to shrink the gameplay area and move the buttons, regrettably without relocating them to entirely unused parts of the display. This would be a problem if Dariusburst SP suffered because of overlapping control and display elements, but it doesn’t.
While Dariusburst SP isn’t a brutally challenging game on its default settings—unlimited continues, easy difficulty, and two ships to choose from—you can make it more difficult, unlock two additional ships by completing the game, and explore all sorts of branching levels, a signature element of past Darius titles. There’s enough here to keep hard core players busy just exploring all the alternate stage paths for a day or two, with plenty more time and entertainment for completionists and less systematic casual gamers. Does all of the content here fully justify the $11 price? Not really: though Dariusburst SP is very good, we’ve seen other shooters—overhead, side-scrolling, first-person and third-person alike—that deliver even better value for the dollar. We’d advise waiting until it goes on sale. iLounge Rating: B+.
By comparison with Dariusburst SP, DoDonPachi Blissful Death ($5) feels at least a little stale: based upon a 2002 arcade game, it’s an overhead “bullet hell” shooter with flat 2-D graphics and Japanese developer Cave’s signature bizarre touches. You separately choose a ship and a “doll”—one of three female pilots—to fly through a series of largely industrial stages with guns a blazing, rapidly tearing through fleets of enemies that fly or roll from the top of the screen towards the bottom.
As fits a title that provides a left/right swipe bar at the bottom of the screen for control purposes, you begin the game with so much firepower that you’re largely just sweeping from side to side to dispatch targets, dodging what initially appears to be an underwhelming number of projectiles; frequent weapon power-ups and the ability to switch between straight-firing and arcing guns as needed put you at a decided advantage against your enemies. Only several stages in does the intensity level suddenly jump rapidly—just before or after you’ve discovered that, unlike Dariusburst SP, you have no continues. The challenge here is thus to use your very limited extra ships to keep going.
DoDonPachi Blissful Death’s major issue is that the levels, enemies, and power-ups are seriously generic—they could have appeared in virtually any other overhead shooter—while the user interface is disappointing, promising iPad 2 compatibility without actually including an iPad-specific interface. If you’re unfamiliar with Cave’s earlier idiosyncratic titles, you won’t be shocked by the truly weird doll-and-“blissful-death”-themed intermissions, the slightly better than chiptune music, or the somewhat chunky scaling of the old school pixel art as you switch the game display window from “small” or “medium” to a not-quite-screen-filling “large.” That said, you’d have to be a major fan of Japanese overhead shooters—decade-old ones, at that—to be truly impressed by what’s here. There’s nothing bad about DoDonPachi Blissful Death, but there’s nothing particularly novel or wonderful about it either; it’s just another way for classic arcade fans to occupy their time. Though the price is right, Cave can and really should do better. iLounge Rating: B-.
While Gameprom has utterly dominated the pinball game market in the App Store, FarSight Studios has taken some major steps to shake things up with its newly-released Pinball Arcade (Free/$9); though this is not the most aggressively-priced pinball simulation out there, it’s a very serious contender for “best of breed.” Using a 3-D engine that’s very similar to Gameprom’s Pinball HD, and similarly capable of displaying multi-layer tables in either portrait or landscape orientation, FarSight Studios replicates four different classic pinball machines down to the original labels and scoreboards: Tales of the Arabian Nights is fully free with the initial download, while Black Hole is sold for $2, Theatre of Magic for $3, and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not goes for $4. Unusually, FarSight lets you play each locked game until you reach a pre-set “high score,” at which point your free trial is over; you can purchase the additional tables as a $9 “three pack” or individually as you wish.
The extent to which these classic Bally, Gottlieb, Stern, and Williams titles retain their individual personalities is quite impressive—between its music, sound effects, and moving object animations, Arabian Nights feels even tighter and more engaging than the best of Gameprom’s titles, while the sci-fi-themed Black Hole lets you experience a transparent sub-level below the main table. FarSight starts each ball by letting you see and control the plunger on the outside of the machine, highlighting the dimensionality of the cabinet, then pans within the 3-D-rendered playfield as the ball moves up and down. While the engine and experience both feel a lot like what we’ve previously seen in Gameprom titles, the table designs and camera work feel tighter and less frenetic here—flippers, targets, and unlockable bonuses all feel carefully crafted to work together, and succeed. FarSight even includes historical details, a “call attendant” feature as a failsafe against stuck balls, and multiple camera angle options; it’s obvious that the developers care a lot about recreating and doing justice to these classic pinball games.
Our only concern about Pinball Arcade is the In-App Purchasing system, which unusually starts demanding an App Store password before you’re even getting ready to purchase anything. As it turns out, FarSight leaves most of the content—free or paid—out until you download tables individually, using the download request as an opportunity to inform you of your purchasing or free trial options. While the trials are unusually generous in time and scope, the game’s repeated login requests are annoying—some features are locked unless you also sign in to Facebook—and there will be more “buy now” screens to come in the future. The developer has promised additional releases on a monthly basis, including classic games such as Black Knight, Pin-Bot, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, plus many others. While we can’t wait to see some of these titles, and are glad that Pinball Arcade will aggregate them all within one app rather than leaving them as standalone games, the app needs to be less demanding on the username and password side; with content this great, it doesn’t need to use the hard sell. iLounge Rating: A-.
We originally reviewed Gameprom’s Pinball HD nearly two years ago, appreciating the title’s then-three included pinball tables and incredibly low $3 price. Since then, Gameprom has added the separately released Slayer Pinball Rocks HD as a $3 in-app purchase, and more recently debuted two more pinball games inside: AC/DC Pinball Rocks ($3) and Da Vinci Pinball ($1). The latest tables couldn’t be more different from one another in execution, and they’re both great.
Like Slayer Pinball Rocks before it, AC/DC Pinball Rocks is a tribute to a heavy metal band, this time featuring visual themes, instrumental music, and voice samples from AC/DC. The band’s signature lightning bolts are used for some of the coolest-looking flippers yet in an App Store pinball game, and the table is packed with elements that look like they’re straight from a concert: hitting certain targets triggers Roman candle-like fireworks, while electricity, beaming spotlights, Hell’s bell, a giant Big Gun cannon, and Highway to Hell ramp are scattered throughout the upper portions of the table.
While Gameprom has again stuck largely to realistic pinball table designs and physics for AC/DC Pinball Rocks, avoiding the on-table distractions that might have come from filling up the table with moving targets, each of the in-game elements is pretty cool: bumpers surge with electricity that’s welcome but could use a little more animation, while the Big Gun fires off three shots at targets, and the Highway to Hell leads to an oversized guitar with its own flippers. Several different AC/DC tracks play recognizably in the background, albeit without vocals, as Brian Johnson’s voice is used instead as targets are hit. Fans of the band will love AC/DC Pinball Rocks; even non-fans will find the table, music, and action to be right on target. iLounge Rating: A-.
Not surprisingly, Da Vinci Pinball is a mellower affair—an inexpensive table with intricate steampunk styling, golden hues, and scattered Leonardo Da Vinci-inspired inventions. Rather than filling your ears with rock music, this table overlays Da Vinci quotes atop a more mystical audio track, using more traditional and sometimes subtle sound effects to create a thoughtful, focused experience. Choose the right camera angle in the settings and you’ll see an elaborate background featuring objects and art from the famous Renaissance inventor, though you’ll also miss out on the impressive pixel-level details the board includes in its default close-up views.
Despite its low price, Da Vinci Pinball doesn’t skimp on the gameplay frills of a modern pinball table. Rather than overwhelming you with lights, sparks, and huge bonus areas, this table nestles a small second level beneath a glass panel, letting you figure your way in and just as quickly pitching you out after a miss of the flippers—much easier to screw up if you’re not using a close-up camera to view the action. Additionally, if you hit the right triggers, you’ll see your ball fired into a pachinko-like array of pins in the upper right corner of the screen, or dropped into a sometimes spinning machine in the upper left corner, accompanied by ambient grinding sounds. Fans of traditional pinball machines and classical design will love the experience Gameprom has assembled in Da Vinci’s honor; we are particularly excited to see how this title is evolved for the upcoming iPad-sized Retina Display. iLounge Rating: A-.
Last but not least this week is Nickelodeon’s new SpongeBob’s Super Bouncy Fun Time, a fun game for kids that’s unfortunately being published in separate versions for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch—despite content and art that’s virtually identical from device to device. Super Bouncy Fun Time is a SpongeBob-themed take on PopCap’s famous Peggle, changing up enough of the artwork and gameplay to avoid being deemed a knockoff, while lowering the difficulty level substantially to let kids enjoy the ball and peg action.
Unlike Peggle, you fire balls at a maze of bricks and other objects from the side of the screen rather than the top, and your level-clearing targets are jellyfish rather than pegs: you win if you knock all of the jellyfish out with a very limited supply of balls, and have to start over again if you don’t. To help kids beat tough levels, Nickelodeon has added a coin-based power-up system to Super Bouncy Fun Time, giving you the chance to tap on one coin for each defeated jellyfish, then spend accrued coins for single-level power balls that can clear bricks and jellyfish en masse. Each of the 100 levels appears to have been designed such that one particularly well-aimed, well-timed, and lucky ball could eliminate all of the targets, but even an adult will more likely need several shots—possibly more than one attempt—to beat later levels. Nick spreads the levels over five different worlds, each with its own cartoony set of very similar backdrop themes.
Reactions to SpongeBob’s Super Bouncy Fun Time will be somewhat more polar than with many puzzle-based action games. On one hand, the title is undeniably simple but fun, and the Peggle-inspired action is still compelling enough to give older players a reason to take control of an animated sponge holding a toy rifle. On the other hand, some of the aesthetic choices are a little surprising; for some reason, the music is somewhat grating 8-bit chiptune audio, and the graphics have touches of Japanese manga influence, including comparatively generic, thickly shaded objects rather than the finely detailed art Peggle players came to love and respect. Because the title was supposed to be released today but hasn’t yet appeared in the App Store—with pricing—we’re holding off on rating it for now; this will be updated with final ratings as soon as the game’s available. In any case, it really should have been a universal iOS title rather than split into two apps for no good reason.