By comparison with the “iPod Games” that used to sell for $5 in the iTunes Store, the three games in today’s edition of iOS Gems are nothing short of miraculous—older but full-fledged ports of popular arcade, console, and computer titles that in some cases actually look better than they did when initially released. Once a poster child for botched iOS ports, Capcom has brought one of its best Super NES/Famicom games to iOS devices, as well as a hugely ambitious arcade/Dreamcast/PlayStation 2/Xbox fighting game; Rockstar has similarly ported one of its best-known computer game franchises, as well. Each of these titles sells for $5 or less.
But are these games really worth buying, given that Apple’s iOS devices still suffer from seriously limited controls? We’ll answer that question below, while also taking brief looks at three recent kids’ releases. Our top picks of the bunch are Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Mega Man X.
Though Street Fighter is undoubtably Capcom’s best-known fighting game franchise, its Marvel-franchised titles gave it room to experiment with new concepts and over-the-top gameplay. Picking up where the one-on-one fighters X-Men and Marvel Super Heroes left off, the Marvel vs. Capcom games brought some of Marvel’s most popular heroes and villains to fight against various characters from other Capcom releases, including the techno-ninja Strider, Captain Commando, and cast members from Darkstalkers, Street Fighter, and more obscure games. Since the Marvel fighters arrived with special attacks that were insanely powerful—screen-filling laser blasts and the like—Capcom gave its own characters similarly crazy upgrades, allowing Street Fighter’s Ryu to dispense oversized fireballs, Guile to flash kick with a pulse of flying energy, and Strider to unleash waves of robotic animals, just to name a few. The games were effectively demonstrations of what 32-bit and later platforms could do with hand-drawn graphics, animating so many pieces of character art at once that the backgrounds all but disappeared. Capcom also used the extra memory in later-generation devices to let players swap between three different teammates during a battle, as well as to let the dominant fighter briefly call out a teammate for special attack assistance. This tag-in feature eliminates the need for “rounds,” as the match ends when all three teammates’ life bars are depleted.
Originally developed for Sega’s Dreamcast and its Naomi arcade board version, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 ($5) has largely survived the transition to iOS devices, possessing its full roster of 56 characters—yes, 56 (!)—plus enough of the original character, background, and menu animation that only the most hard-core fans will find anything to complain about visually. Even then, they’ll only gripe about the resolution of the artwork, which has been downgraded to squeeze MvC2 into a mobile-ready, sub-200MB footprint; it’s occasionally amazing how much of the video-like menu transition artwork has been preserved. Similarly, the original 2.5-D backgrounds remain largely intact, including their several texture-mapped polygonal elements, which have been reduced somewhat in complexity; due to the larger screen size, iPad players will notice the changes more quickly than others. iPhone and iPod touch users in particular will be amazed; as ports go, this is truer to the source material than Street Fighter IV Volt, though Street Fighter IV was a harder game to transfer to iOS devices.
The only problems Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has are in the gameplay department. While this franchise was best known for its spastic action and screen-filling attacks, they required tighter control than was initially apparent, as the virtual iOS joypad and buttons suffer from inaccuracies that will initially leave even experienced fighting game fans on the receiving end of more attacks than they deliver—no shock given iOS’s known limitations in the control department. Multiple button settings, including one that shifts from one punch, one kick, and one character select button to two of each, only partially ease these issues while cluttering the screen. Capcom has also locked many of the fighters behind a point-based unlock system, so that fan favorites such as Iron Man can’t be accessed until you’ve played for some arbitrary period of time. Still, there are so many big-named characters in this title that it puts virtually every other fighter in the App Store to shame; there’s also a two-player mode, local, using Bluetooth.
That’s why it’s hard to fault Marvel vs. Capcom 2 too much. Given everything that’s here, say nothing of the limitations of the iOS platform, the very idea of this title appearing on Apple’s portable devices would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and to the extent that it succeeds in being everything but as ideally playable as the arcade and console original, it won’t surprise most App Store customers so much as reinforce the need for a superior alternative input device. There’s a ton of great gameplay, art, and audio to love here; it’s worth dealing with the control issues to enjoy it all. iLounge Rating: A-.
Rockstar Games’ third-person action game Max Payne Mobile ($3) was meant to be jarring when it was released in 2001: your introduction to the controls takes place as the title police officer character witnesses the brutal slaying of his family by what appears to be drug addicts, an act that eventually leads him to go rogue, offing mobsters and criminal conspirators in retaliation. Infused with anti-hero, drug, mafia, and assassination themes, Max Payne served as an introduction to the grittier, plot-heavy storytelling that Rockstar would soon become famous for in Grand Theft Auto 3—but in the context of a less sophisticated action game, which happens to run at respectable resolutions and blazingly fast frame rates on decade-newer Apple devices.
Though it was sophisticated by the standards of its time, Max Payne Mobile’s gameplay is pretty straightforward today: you move the character through 3-D levels, using one virtual joystick for movement and the other for head positioning, while buttons enable you to shoot, jump, and activate slow-motion “bullet time”—the first video game version of the cinematic trick popularized by John Woo movies and The Matrix. With time temporarily slowed down, Max can hurtle through the air with guns blazing, picking off multiple targets while dodging their bullets. Between the people and the environments, Max has plenty to interact with and/or shoot at, with approximately 10 hours of single-person gameplay providing good value for the low asking price. The story is presented in comic-style illustrations with solid voice narration, mixing serious themes with wry jokes. Audio is a particularly strong element in this title; turning the volume off deprives you of a sense of where you’re supposed to go, and what object interactions mean, as well as some chilling content as Max discovers his family’s deaths.
The two key issues with Max Payne are typical for a modestly updated port of an older game. First, there’s no getting around the fact that the game starts out looking very ugly, particularly on the iPad. Max opens with a small-windowed, artifact-filled video, and continues with low-resolution textures that look as if they haven’t been updated in years—both issues are less noticeable on small iPod and iPhone screens, but very obvious on iPads, where Max’s boxy, almost cartoonishly grimacing face is just one of many distracting textures. Similarly, though Max’s resolution is high enough on iOS devices to look surprisingly sharp, the backgrounds feel steps behind more modern action titles that were designed to make use of newer graphics hardware. Second, the virtual controls don’t feel anywhere near as intuitive as joypad-based ones at first, and require adjustment. If you expect both of these things going in—and you probably will, if you’re a frequent iOS gamer or fan of the Max Payne series—you’ll be satisfied by a very smooth, though unambitious port of a true classic. iLounge Rating: B.
After practically defining the side-scrolling run-and-shoot genre on Nintendo’s original NES/Famicom platform, Capcom’s Mega Man series forked off into a new franchise for the Super NES: Mega Man X ($5). Bringing the series forward 100 years, X introduced new characters and a new look for Capcom’s heroic, predictably upgradable boy robot, leveraging the greater power of the 16-bit console to make backgrounds more interactive and enemies much larger than before. Whereas earlier Mega Man games saw the title character facing off against similarly-sized or smaller foes, typically within small but ingeniously designed maze-like levels, even the first level of Mega Man X was filled with vast, crumbling infrastructure to walk through, and oversized mid-level opponents that thankfully couldn’t absorb anywhere near as many bullets as the end-of-level bosses. Later levels returned to similar Mega Man themes, albeit with a greater mix of big and small foes to defeat.
Mega Man X is, at its core, just another Mega Man game. After an introductory level that introduces you to X and his more powerful companion Zero, you’re back at the familiar stage selection screen, choosing from a collection of eight different boss faces that lead you to various types of levels—and the ability to earn a new, more powerful weapon each time you defeat a level’s boss. After trial, experimentation, and error, you learn that there are better orders in which to tackle the bosses, as certain weapons you’ll acquire are much more effective at quickly cutting down their life meters, akin to throwing water rather than rocks at a fire. Once all of the main bosses have been defeated, you get to square off against Sigma, Mega Man X’s replacement for long-time Mega Man foe Dr. Wily. The big changes this time are in upgradeable armor and a couple of new controls, including wall climbing and dashing, which let X pull himself out of pits and quickly speed across the ground.
As ports go, Mega Man X is pretty good. The artwork has received a largely welcome overhaul from the SNES original, with improved resolution and color that looks very nice on portable devices, changes Capcom made to ports before arriving at this iOS version. Animation remains choppy in an SNES-like way, and could have stood to be improved considerably, while controls are not as smooth as on the SNES original, and occasionally even overlap the characters—particularly boss battles—which would be surprising but for the fact that many Capcom ports have suffered from similar issues. Hard-core gamers will find the imprecision maddening, but most others, including casual gamers who have bought fully into the iOS ecosystem, may take the misfired bullets and missed jumps as just part of the compromise of a $5 game, appreciating the bite-sized version’s portability and ability to resume saved levels as advances over earlier, less forgiving Mega Man adventures. The wall-scaling option winds up saving the gameplay experience considerably, as what would otherwise be missed jumps can be recovered somewhat just by gripping walls, making this particular Mega Man adventure fun despite its issues. iLounge Rating: B+.
After releasing some astonishing iOS takes on classic fairy tales last year, Nosy Crow has returned with a new and original title: Pip and Posy: Fun and Games ($1). Based upon characters created by illustrator Axel Scheffler for printed books published by Nosy Crow, the good news is that this app represents a fine value for the low price, though it’s decidedly less ambitious than the company’s earlier titles, and from a gameplay standpoint, feels like it’s mining very familiar territory.
While Pip and Posy opens with the same cut-out, animated character art that distinguished earlier Nosy titles, the app this time is story less, which detracts significantly from the experience: if you’re not already familiar with Scheffler’s characters from the books, there’s nothing here to bring you into them. Instead, the app consists solely of five mini-activities—four if your device lacks a FaceTime camera. There’s a face-making game where you use the camera to make your face match an on-screen cartoon, a simple jigsaw puzzle game, a difference-spotting picture game, a coloring book, and a pair-matching game. Some of these games offer multiple difficulty levels, such as extra puzzle pieces or more cards to match in pairs, while others are just easy or hard. Together, these parts feel like the light interactive elements from a Callaway Digital book or cartoon app, minus the familiar licensed property.
While Nosy Crow has brought all of its formidable development talent to bear here, including the cute voice acting and bouncy animated character art we loved in earlier titles, the lack of a story at the core of this app leaves it feeling hollow. Only the happy audio that plays in the background, and the Coloring Book—complete with a somewhat unintuitive but welcome color shade control system—bring anything modestly new to the genre. Grab this only if you already know the Pip and Posy characters and want to mildly extend their adventures; it’s clear that the big part of what would make an app like this successful has yet to be added to Pip and Posy. iLounge Rating: B-.