Welcome to our latest edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re quickly rounding up eight apps that we wanted to cover before the release of our New iPad Buyers’ Guide. Most of the apps below are recent additions to the App Store, but there were couple of earlier releases that we wanted to share with you, as well.
Our top picks are Farm 123, Facebook Camera, Scribblenauts Remix, and Shoot the Zombirds; tennis fans with third-gen iPads or iPhone 4Ses should also consider Virtua Tennis Challenge a must-see, as well. As a rarity, all of the other titles here also rated at least our general-level recommendation, so there’s plenty of good to great stuff to read about below.
Released before the company’s superb version of Pinocchio, Mundomono’s Bean Bag Kids Present Little Red Riding Hood ($1) offers the same lighthearted rendition of a classic fairy tale—here, with bean bags dressed as Riding Hood characters. Much of the structure is the same as in our prior review, including very nice full voice narration, tappable stars as interactive objects to unlock extra content, and a number of separately illustrated storybook pages and puzzles to enjoy. This particular version of the story is a happier take, minus the gorier details of the classic original, though it ends with the same general lesson.
While the core experience is very similar to Pinocchio, the graphics here are considerably less advanced: the backgrounds and characters alike are boxier and less impressively detailed, despite having only ten pages of text to cover—this lack of detail is particularly obvious on Retina Display iPads. Apart from the brevity of the story, and the tiny text that’s better read aloud than squinted at on the screen, kids won’t mind much, but it’s clear that Pinocchio is the product of lessons learned on this title, and represents the way forward for the Bean Bag Kids. Little Red Riding Hood is a good rather than great entry in the series. iLounge Rating: B.
Peapod Labs has released quite a few titles in recent months; now Bugsy Kindergarten Math ($3) has joined the company’s earlier reading apps that starred Bugsy the Hamster. The structure of Kindergarten Math is identical to prior Bugsy releases we’ve reviewed, letting kids tap on Bugsy in a lightly interactive fridge/freezer backdrop, guiding him down a ladder for quizzes. Multiple-choice questions are both spoken and written on the screen; once again, answering five questions correctly in a row earns a child a choice of objects as a reward to place in Bugsy’s room. Here, the objects are foods Bugsy can eat, with no particular payoff.
Questions vary from pattern recognition—“find the item that comes next” in a sequence—to counting, greater than/less than stacks, addition, and number tracing, most nicely built to teach and entertain children. Only one activity, “find the group that has X,” is a little off, and then only because tapping on only one group doesn’t end the game; kids need to keep tapping on conveyor belt items multiple times. Apart from that, and the absence of a tutorial mode to teach kids what to do on their first time through, the activities are well-designed, easy to figure out, and nicely illustrated. This is a good extension of the Bugsy franchise, if a little threadbare on incentives for continued play. iLounge Rating: B+.
Although we’ll admit to being so concerned about the seemingly rudderless Facebook application that the idea of “yet another standalone Facebook iOS app” was highly unappealing, Facebook deserves credit for the just-released Facebook Camera (Free). Ostensibly compatible with iPads, Facebook Camera is in fact an iPhone/iPod touch application with no iPad-specific interface, and seemingly built to do one thing: grow Facebook’s photo collections by quickly piping iPhone images onto Facebook’s servers. Built with elements from the recently acquired Instagram, Facebook Camera has a seriously ingenious interface, opening with a simultaneous view of your device’s photo library, an icon to snap a new image, and a photos-only view of your Facebook column. You tap on the camera to take pictures, swipe down on the Facebook column to focus on your photo library, or swipe up to look at the images being shared by your friends—as straightforward and quick as such disparate features can get.
Facebook Camera empowers you to upload batches of photos at once—previously a pain on iOS devices—and to do instant, quick Instagram filtering, rotating, and cropping. While the world would seriously appreciate such a well-executed and highly responsive rethinking of the main Facebook app, and we’d prefer to see Facebook Camera’s features within that app rather than alone, this app is as compelling of a demonstration as we’ve yet seen of narrowly-focused software to improve accessibility for a bigger service. We’ll be using it, and often. iLounge Rating: A-.
Having recently renamed itself from Ideal Binary to StoryToys, the Dublin-based developer of memorably cute digital storybooks has done something even more impressive with its latest app, Farm 123 ($2). Using the same basic engine that we’ve previously loved—a virtual 3-D book with pop-up art on all of its pages—Farm123 teaches young children to count using a collection of farm animals in Retina Display-ready, nicely animated sequences: number one is a cow that is counted when tapped, then jumps out of the book and over the moon; four pigs run through mud, and eight cats get chased into hay bales by a dog.
As charming as the company’s prior Grimm’s renditions were, Farm 123 ups the ante with neat camera tricks that make the book-reading experience more cinematic, and a soft rendition of Old MacDonald plays in the background as voices call out the numbers. After the ten numbers have been counted through, a series of seven counting mini-games awaits, adding to the fun. For the $2 asking price, there’s literally nothing more that we’d add to this title, or want to see improved; it’s a thoroughly well-developed edutainment title, and one of the best number-teaching games we’ve yet seen for kids. iLounge Rating: A.
Great idea, underdeveloped user interface—that’s how we’d summarize Morton Subotnick’s Pitch Painter ($3), which allows children to create and manipulate music using a cool drawing interface. Three types of instruments—such as wind, string, and keyboard—can be used to draw separately colored blocks on a grid representing time and pitch, such that a straight horizontal line is 24 beats of the same note, and a straight vertical line would be 15 notes on the same beat. Additional tools enable you to flip the grid horizontally or vertically, change the instruments across four different regional combinations, and erase errant notes to make changes. You can play back the entire grid’s painted composition, or run your finger along a timeline at the bottom to play one beat at a time.
Every part of what’s above is actually really neat, and assuming that your child can make out the tiny, hand-drawn icons, quite fun to compose with as well. To the developer’s credit, there’s an initial title screen that explains all of the instruments with hand-written text, and icons only appear as they become contextually useful—you can only save, for instance, if you have something to save. But the interface screams for an added coat or two of polish, starting with bringing in a graphic designer to make the iconography visible to users without glasses, and continuing with a tutorial to lead young players towards creating great music without trial and error. There’s magic to be found here, particularly when shifting a composition from one region’s instruments to another, but without a little extra work to entice kids into trying and having fun with the features, this genie will remain trapped in its bottle. iLounge Rating: B.
First introduced to iOS in October 2011, Warner Bros. Entertainment’s Scribblenauts Remix ($1) dates back to 2009, when the first Scribblenauts title launched on the Nintendo DS. At the time, the idea was completely novel: using the device’s stylus and onscreen keyboard, write down pretty much any noun you can think of to solve the objectives of the puzzle at hand. Whatever you wrote would appear on the screen and interact with the game’s hero, Maxwell, as well as other objects on the screen. For example, the instructions for a level may instruct you to “Clean up the spill and throw away the trash.” One possibility would be to to write “mop” and “trash can,” and then the onscreen janitor would use those objects to tidy up. “Broom” would also work though, as would “compost bin”. Next came Super Scribblenauts, which added adjectives to the mix. The magic of the games comes from the expansive dictionary of thousands and thousands of words, offering an incredibly high replay value and a lot of fun.
Scribblenauts Remix is a faithful recreation of those two titles, bringing over a combined 40 of their levels, plus ten unique to the iOS-version, and another 20 available as an in-app purchase. The graphics are minimalist and cartoony 2-D, optimized for Retina Displays, while the soundtrack is upbeat electronic instrumental—somewhat generic, but it works. If you’re familiar with the original titles, what’s here is familiar: words are entered using the iPad or iPhone’s onscreen keyboard, and Maxwell can be moved back and forth by holding your finger down on the screen where you’d like him to go.
Our biggest complaint is that the game has been stripped of some of its complexity. Super Scribblenauts offered several gameplay modes, including the ability to be rewarded for beating the same level three different ways. Now, it’s one solution and you’re done. Of course you always have the option of going back and retrying just for fun, but without a reward mechanism, it just feels too easy. With that in mind, you’re still getting a great gaming experience $1. It’s clear that a lot more thought—and heart—went into this title than many of the cheap games in the App Store. Even when not solving levels, you can summon random items in the Playground, just to see how they interact. We’d love to see an update in the future that adds functionality back in, even as a paid upgrade, but in the meantime, we still heavily recommend picking this one up. iLounge Rating: A-.
Coming off of last year’s Shoot the Birds, Infinite Dreams’ new Shoot The Zombirds ($1) can’t help but feel derivative—and it definitely is. The last game placed a pumpkin-headed scarecrow at the bottom of the screen with arrows, taking down as many different birds as possible in a series of escalating challenges. That’s all true here, too.
But whereas the last game took place during daylight and ended at dusk, this one focuses on the flip side, where zombie birds fill the skies at night. In addition to redrawing the graphics, Infinite Dreams has rebalanced the gameplay, adding coin drops that enable weapon upgrades, extended shooting time, and the like, as well as a new system for losing lives: birds kidnap little pumpkins, which you can rescue with properly placed shots. Thanks to Retina Display support that’s universal across devices, and the variety of small improvements made for everything from new music to voice effects, Shoot the Zombirds as as impressive today as its predecessor was a year ago, and highly recommended. That said, an alternate control scheme that wasn’t dependent upon dragging your finger so close to the edge of the screen would be welcome. iLounge Rating: A-.
Virtua Tennis has been amongst Sega’s best franchises for years—a thoroughly Japanese-styled take on a sport that was most famously distilled into Atari’s classic Pong. While every tennis simulation that’s been released for game devices since Pong has been some variation on the same “bounce a ball back and forth over a central net” theme, Sega’s Virtua series has consistently glossed up the sport so much that its games would be easy to confuse with broadcast television, apart from slightly surrealistic character textures that are more mannekin-like than human. Virtua Tennis Challenge ($5) for iOS devices continues the pattern: clay, grass, and hard courts are spread across international venues, each so highly detailed that they could be confused with real stadiums; sound effects and voices are spot-on, and camera work is impressive, providing dynamic player close-ups after each shot, while offering smooth pans during singles or doubles play.
While some players might miss the presence of female athletes—this is an all-male cast—the only serious problem with this release is its inconsistent performance on different iOS devices: the third-generation iPad and iPhone 4S run silky smooth, while earlier devices have frame rate problems. It also default to swipe-based controls, which don’t offer the sort of satisfying precision of joysticks; however, Sega compensates by offering three separate types of virtual joypads, which come much closer to “correct” while overlapping more of the screen. If you’re a tennis fan with a newer iOS device, Virtua Tennis Challenge is a must-see; older iOS device users should pray for optimizations. iLounge Ratings: A- (iPad 3rd-Gen/iPhone 4S) / B- (Other Devices).