Welcome to this week’s edition of iOS Gems! Like last week, we’re focusing most of our attention today on a single new app release, with several other noteworthy titles following suit below. Three of today’s four apps are edutainment titles for kids, while the fourth is a 3-D remake of a classic console game. They’re all worth checking out, but one stands particularly tall.
Our big title this week is Nosy Crow’s new educational title, Rounds: Franklin Frog ($5), which continues the developer’s track record of evolving traditional kids’ books into next-generation interactive experiences. The concept behind the new “Rounds” series is to tell a circular life style story that loops at the point at which it would otherwise end: in this book, kids take light control of a frog named Franklin, who hops, eats flies, swims, and eventually mates. After his partner Felicity produces eggs, one hatches into Fraser the tadpole, who grows to become a full-sized frog, looping the story by meeting a mate named Flora and producing Fletcher.
A combination of polish and breezy confidence sets Rounds: Franklin Frog apart from so many of the iOS childrens’ books we’ve seen. While the book isn’t long—fewer than 15 “pages,” including the cover—each of the pages is deeper than in a traditional book, with characters who talk beyond the scope of the basic story. As with prior Nosy Crow titles, the pages include charming voice narration, sharp artwork, and beautiful camera work with pans and zooms that transcend classical book pages: using seemingly vector-based character and background art, Rounds looks pixel-crisp on new and old iPads alike, playing soothing music while it speaks and presents each stage of the frog’s life in easy-to-read text. And rather than merely requiring page-turning, Rounds allows children to take intuitive control over each frog as he hops, swims, and eats, using soft glowing blue dots to indicate interactive opportunities. It’s obvious that Nosy Crow has tested every page thoroughly, and made the activities as easy for kids to understand as possible.
Parents will need to determine for themselves whether their kids are old enough to learn about frogs mating and producing eggs—content that’s handled gently but not optionally here—but that cultural hurdle aside, Rounds: Franklin Frog is a beautifully assembled educational book. It’s entirely worth the asking price, and another welcome step beyond the prior fairy tale titles that helped Nosy Crow establish itself as a leading App Store developer for kids. We actively look forward to seeing what the company will do with future Rounds titles. iLounge Rating: A.
Other Apps Worth Considering
On track for release later this week, Mask Jumble Animals ($3/Free) is the latest cool title from another leader in edutainment apps for kids, Pi’Ikea Street. Though we’ve seen a few kids’ apps with support for the FaceTime cameras now found in iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, Mask Jumble Animals is the first we’re aware of to add face tracking to the camera, letting kids play simple games with virtual animal masks. Held in portrait orientation, your iOS device shows a realtime view of your child’s face, overlapping several floating pieces of a slightly translucent mask with colored touch points. Children can tap the mask pieces or buttons to change between different animals’ hair, noses, ears and chins; a friendly female voice guides kids to successfully match all four elements to create each of 10 different animals, unlocked one at a time.
While the technology in Mask Jumble Animals is neat—and, in our testing, surprisingly appealing to a child who initially was shy about playing with the camera feature—the activities could use a little more diversity and fun factor. As it stands, the app unlocks a new animal after each successful match, following two steps: once the mask is complete for a target animal, the app snaps a photo of the child with the mask on, and starts a brief “eat the strawberry” game that drops strawberries from the top of the screen, tracking left/right head tilts to position the fruits in the animal mask’s mouth area. Since there’s no animal mouth as a part of the mask, and the mask’s position varies with both the device’s movement and the child’s head, it’s not entirely obvious how “eating” the strawberry works at first. Pi’ikea Street understands that some kids might not understand the play mechanics, and will offer the app in two versions: one will be free, the other will be $1 during the initial launch period before jumping to a $3 regular price. It also plans to offer additional masks in the future. While we have no reservations about recommending the free version, Mask Jumble Animals needs some additional games at least as much as it needs new masks; thankfully, Pi’ikea Street’s development history strongly suggests that it will keep improving the app after release. For the time being, the free app will be worthy of our strong general recommendation, and the paid version is only a small step behind it; our expectation is that both will become great after an update or two. iLounge Rating: (Free) B+ (Paid) B.
Games have evolved so much in the 30 years since Activision originally released David Crane’s Atari VCS/2600 game Pitfall! that it would be hard to merely port the original as an App Store release, so it’s not a huge shock that the universal iOS title Pitfall! ($1) is a substantially different experience from its predecessor. Originally a side-scrolling run-and-jump title with ladders, alligator-filled ponds, and Tarzan-style ropes to swing on, Pitfall! has become a pseudo-3-D endless running game challenging players to jump, dodge left/center/right, duck, and swing a whip at enemies as necessary. Up, down, and left/right swipes are used for most of the action, while taps activate main character Harry’s whip, and at certain points in the game, tilts can be used to steer him left or right, generally to gather treasure.
The star attraction in Pitfall! is the cel-shaded 3-D graphics engine, which lightly references the original title’s flat colored, large-pixeled 2-D artwork before dramatically shifting the action into a modern but similarly cartoony environment. From a visual standpoint, Activision seamlessly shifts between side-scrolling portions and forced behind-character angles as Harry lets out little yells and bits of dialogue; appropriately adventurous, epic music plays in the background as he runs and jumps. On the other hand, the gameplay is a little uneven at first: the visual transitions move from pure touch-based controls to a system that requires you to start tilting left and right to grab bits of floating treasure when the perspective switches to behind Harry’s back. Once you get the hang of it, this makes sense and adds depth to what could otherwise be a shallow running game, but the twin gameplay mechanisms initially feel a little confusing. Putting that aside—and the fact that this title is very different from its classic source material—Pitfall! is surprisingly well-designed, full of objectives, and loaded with unlockable fun items, particularly for a $1 game. You needn’t participate in the in-app purchase system to enjoy the adventure here. iLounge Rating: A-.
As a sequel of sorts to Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book, a title we reviewed two years ago, Disney’s newer Pooh’s Birthday Surprise ($5) is simultaneously more expensive and a lot more impressively developed. Unlike its predecessor, which felt like a very basic story strung together with overly simplistic and similar puzzles, Pooh’s Birthday Surprise is closer to a real book—it actually does a very nice job of telling the deeper story of a birthday party put together by Winnie the Pooh’s friends, with each friend responsible for one piece of the party, such as hats, balloons, a card, and a gift. Complete with voice narration that doesn’t feel or get old, this book includes multiple animated interactive elements on each page, bringing what are otherwise flat, book-like pages to life. Kids still have to think their way through the book, but this time, they answer multiple-choice questions rather than assembling puzzles, and the answers tend to move the story along.
If your kids are—like ours—fans of Winnie the Pooh, Pooh’s Birthday Surprise is certainly worth checking out. From an entertainment perspective, comparing what’s here to the iBookstore version of Winnie the Pooh is like night and day, as this story engages children with both spoken dialogue and interactivity that the classic storybook lack. Happy music plays in the background, looping too quickly, but at least the app isn’t sonically dull or silent. That said, the difference between what’s here and, say, in Rounds: Franklin Frog is profound: whereas Nosy Crow has utterly mastered the art of creating an experience that goes beyond the dimensions of a traditional paper book, Disney still feels like it’s trying to shoehorn extra interactivity into a classical, linear format. This is a big step beyond the company’s old Puzzle Book, and worthy of a higher price, but it’s not as thoroughly iOS-designed as what we’ve seen from other leading developers. iLounge Rating: B.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.