Over the last few weeks, we’ve been playing lots of iPhone and iPod touch games—so many, in fact, that we couldn’t get to all of them in yesterday’s 2-D game roundup, or in today’s 3-D game roundup. They come from a huge variety of different genres, some of which have never before been tapped by iPhone game developers. And some of them are truly excellent.
Though they vary in their approach to 3-D, some using completely 3-D gameplay, others only 3-D graphics, the titles in today’s edition of iPhone Gems demonstrate new and impressive approaches to iPhone OS visuals, gameplay, and controls. Our top picks are Ngmoco’s Dropship, Gameloft’s Hero of Sparta, and Munkyfun’s Ivory Tiles. For a change, each is worth its asking price, though some really great deals in the App Store have made plenty of other options more affordable if you’re looking to fill a virtual stocking this holiday season. Read on for all the details.
Perhaps the single best thing about Ngmoco is the fact that its games are unpredictable, but consistently fun. There’s no common thread running through its previous 2-D game releases, nor do any of them suggest what was to come from Dropship ($2), a polygon-based shooting and flying title. While the graphics engine uses 3-D shapes, they’re intentionally retro—simply shaded, harsh edges—and the gameplay is two dimensional, allowing you to fly north, south, east, and west on scrolling maps, but not into or out of the screen.
Dropship’s gameplay is addictively simple: you control a spaceship tasked with rescuing soldiers and retrieving pods left in the middle of active battlefields. Your left finger steers the ship, while the right finger positionally fires the ship’s weapons at turrets positioned on each map. There aren’t powerups; your weapons improve and change as you survive and scoop up people, regressing in power as you get hit by enemy bullets. Survival requires ever-improving steering, as you need to weave in and out of narrow maze-like channels to retrieve both soldiers and pods, and once you’ve touched a pod, you have only a limited amount of time to get it safely out of the battlefield.
There are too many smart little ideas in Dropship to cite every one, but amongst them are the semi-transparent dual analog steering and shooting controls, the fact that Ngmoco is offering extra downloadable levels past the game’s included 18, and the presentation, which borrows names from your contacts list to identify retrievable soldiers, uses clean, glowing lines and colors, and incorporates full sound—voices, cool music, and nice sound effects—at a reasonable price. If you’re a sci-fi or flying game fan, Dropship is unquestionably a must-see for the price; it misses a flat A only because the retro visual style is more functional than ambitious. iLounge Rating: A-.
This week’s most impressive title overall is Hero of Sparta ($10), a 3-D action game that essentially fulfills the promise of the earlier, disappointing title Kroll, while dramatically pushing the iPhone’s visual and gameplay envelope. You control King Argos, a Spartan warrior who fights through stages that are extremely similar to ones found in Sony’s God of War series, tap-slashing legions of enemies. One finger is placed on a green gemstone control pad-like surface for movement, while another alternates between attack, defense, and occasionally present jump buttons on the bottom right of the screen. Yet another button lets you toggle between multiple weapons found throughout the adventure.
Apart from these controls, which work, but less than ideally overlap the on-screen artwork, and sometimes confuse due to multiple jumping mechanics, the gameplay is actually very impressive, or at least becomes so as you continue on. A shield found early in the game can be flick-gestured to activate a magical attack that destroys enemies and obstacles. Different weapons actually have different attack characteristics. And the slashing action is broken up by occasional “focus kills,” which require you to tap out specific button sequences to dispatch enemies in more cinematic fashion. None of this is original to Hero of Sparta given the obvious inspiration of God of War and other action games, but by iPhone standards, it’s really cool.
Moreso than with several of its other recent titles, Gameloft has done a great job of polishing the Hero of Sparta experience. The game is stable; its eight levels look and feel different from one another, and you have a tangible sense as you’re playing through that you’re finding things, accumulating abilities, and needing to see what’s next. There are flaws, such as the fact that much of the action takes place from a pulled-out camera perspective that lets you see too little of the detail of what’s happening, but they’re compensated for by the fact that there are so many types of enemies, backgrounds, and bosses that you’ll always be looking at something interesting, even if it’s a bit too small.
We haven’t been willing to fully embrace $10 games on the iPhone thus far—given what’s available for $5 and less, we expect a lot for twice or more the price—but frankly, the production value, gameplay, and longevity of Hero of Sparta are as close to fully justifying a premium as we’ve yet seen. This is, finally, a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP-quality title on the iPhone, even coming close to the controls we’d expect from a true handheld gaming device. If you like action games, consider this one a must-see, and soon. iLounge Rating: A-.
We are still waiting—praying, even—that some company will get the iPhone driving game formula completely right. And it is very obvious with each passing 3-D release that developers are struggling to improve their titles towards the same goal, notably developing smarter workarounds for the iPhone and iPod touch’s accelerometer-based steering limitations. This week, we tried two new driving games: Ferrari GT: Evolution ($10) by Gameloft and Fast and Furious Pink Slip 3D ($6) by I-Play. Once again, neither title is worthy of a high recommendation, but it’s interesting to see what these developers have accomplished.
Gameloft is clearly making strides in the control department. Ferrari GT defaults to an accelerometer-less control scheme, eliminating the on-screen steering wheels and other gimmicks of past drivers in favor of a new system. Taps on the left or right of the screen handle steering. Again, by default, the 33 different Ferraris all auto-accelerate. If you need to brake, there are pedals on the bottom of the screen. You get points for drifting and speed, and compete against other cars—or just an instructor with speed or maneuvering objectives—on seven different internationally-themed courses. Elemental effects, such as rain and on-screen raindrops, can also change the courses while you drive.
There’s no doubt that Ferrari GT belongs in the “technical racer” category rather than in the “arcade” one; this game is competent and nicely executed, but not in our view a lot of fun. With acceleration handled for you by default, the game is mostly about trying to safely make turns and pass other cars, all while watching some nice but not stunning scenery. Visually, Ferrari GT is like a 3DO Need for Speed game from a decade ago, and sonically, you’ll only love it if the sound of engine revving is your idea of a thrill. But to the extent that the game’s career mode gives you challenges to achieve, multiple cars to unlock, and a legitimately interesting collection of Ferrari-related facts to digest during intermissions, fans of these Italian sportscars will find it at least competent, if not more. iLounge Rating: B.
Then there’s Fast and Furious, a title which is closer to an arcade racer in execution. Here, I-Play has pulled a neat visual trick by distorting the on-screen perspective depending on the angle you’re holding the iPhone on, an effect that can be turned off by choosing an in-car view. Like Ferrari GT, you don’t need to worry about acceleration, as it’s handled for you. And here, you also don’t need to worry about braking… well, actually, you do need to worry about braking, because there aren’t any brakes. Here, the idea is to achieve top speeds against other cars, using a single, limited use nitrous button to move faster. You try to outrun police cars, wager your current car to win 32 different ones from computer opponents, drift in Japan, and so on—the sort of things you’d expect from a game based on the Fast and Furious movies.
By comparison with Ferrari GT and Gameloft’s other racers, Fast and Furious frankly comes across as amateurish—like a title running on a last-generation, overly simple graphics engine, complete with the same mediocre steering controls and nothing special gameplay we’ve seen in earlier iPhone driving games. We didn’t want to pick it up again after playing it a couple of times, and forced ourselves to do so only for the purpose of finishing this review. It’s weak, and not worthy of a $6 asking price. iLounge Rating: C-.
The three classic genres of arcade-style 3-D games are cars, planes, and boats. Wave Blazer ($5) is PolarBit’s entry into the less crowded third category, a motorboat racing game that takes cues from the many similar titles that appeared on PCs and last-generation game consoles. You control a boat that auto-accelerates, steering using the iPhone’s accelerometer. An auto-pilot button is supposed to let you surrender control for a moment—it doesn’t seem to work—and a respawn button lets you get out of a spot if you’re stuck.
Rather than devoting a lot of time to discussing Wave Blazer, we’re going to leave our review at this: while not the bare minimum that we might expect from a boat racing game, this title lacks for the control, excitement, and feeling of being in the water that we enjoyed in Nintendo’s pioneering watersports game Wave Race 64 a dozen years ago. Yes, there’s a boat on screen. Yes, there are courses with different, fairly primitive background art, and jumps, and box-shaped powerups to be found scattered around. And yes, there are a few other boats on screen, and an online multiplayer mode.
But you could replace the boat with a car and the water with a road texture and have basically the same game. It still wouldn’t be especially fun, visually impressive, or as tight as it needs to be in the control department. It would still have bland music and terrible sound effects. And the frame rate would still be chuggingly poor. Wave Blazer is the sort of title that may interest you solely because of the lack of other motorboat options. Our advice would be to save your money until something significantly better comes along. iLounge Rating: C.
As with driving games, despite the fact that various titles have gotten certain elements pretty close to perfect on the platform, we’re still waiting for an iPhone tennis game that’s completely great. We tried two more titles over the last couple of weeks: Hit Tennis ($2) from Telecom Market Solutions and TouchSports Tennis ‘09 ($5) from Handheld Games Corp. Long story short: we’re still waiting.
TouchSports Tennis ‘09 gets the graphics right, but not the gameplay. Visually, this title is as close as the iPhone has yet come to a real console tennis experience along the lines of Sega’s Virtua Tennis titles: there are two on-screen characters, presented in 3-D on a plausible though polygonally simple tennis court, and as expected, you control one of the characters in an exercise of paddling the ball back and forth over a net. There’s crowd noise, a score announcer, and modest dynamic camera motion as the game is played. The three female characters, augmented in a “holiday only” version, animate pretty realistically, especially during serves. In short, this game looks and sounds just about right.
The problem’s in the gameplay. You’re supposed to tilt the iPhone to move your character before the serve, then tap to serve, then touch the screen to reposition your character, who automatically hits the ball when it’s nearby. Tilting the iPhone directs the ball left or right. Sort of. Once that first serve takes place, you never have a real sense that you’re controlling precisely anything that’s taking place; you may luck out and have your player run to where the ball is and return it, or the player may just stand there. Handheld Games has created the right general environment, but it doesn’t have the control to the point where you can enjoy being inside it. Ultimately, it’s easy to watch, but not fun to play; tweaks to the control could really improve its rating. iLounge Rating: B-.
Hit Tennis is a completely different type of title. There are no on-screen characters, just floating virtual tennis rackets inside of an even simpler, more cartoony 3-D court. Here, the camera slides left and right automatically as the ball moves, and you have no control over the position of your racket, save for swings. Thus, you hit the ball, the game moves the racket to where it needs to be for the return, and you swing, then repeat.
What’s odd about this extremely limited experience is that it’s certainly more fun than playing TouchSports. The developer lets you aim your swing left or right by sliding your finger on a diagonal to represent left or right swinging motions, with plain straight swings using a simple up and down motion. As little as you actually control here, what you do control feels fun, and leads to real volleying. A two-player mode divides the screen in half and lets you people flick the ball back and forth, as well.
As with TouchSports Tennis, Hit Tennis isn’t going to satisfy all comers, and it’s certainly not the type of game that would sell the iPhone. But what it lacks in ambition, it makes up for with a control scheme that’s actually fun, and a reasonable, low price tag. Now if only some developer could put all of these pieces together into one truly excellent tennis game… iLounge Rating: B.
The last game in today’s roundup is a puzzle title called Ivory Tiles ($2) from Munkyfun. It is, in essence, a combination of the ball-and-maze games we’ve played, combined with the Trismology component of Trism. You’re given one or more ivory Mahjong-like tiles on a maze that can be tilted in different directions, and your goal is to move the tile or tiles into a specific final position pre-determined by the computer. As with Trismology, the game counts the number of tilts you require to place the tiles, praising you if you do it in the minimum number necessary to solve the puzzle.
The 80 levels continue to increase in difficulty, offering challenges that Trism players might not predict, such as holes in the surface that cause you to lose your shifting tiles, and progressing through themes from beach to river, mountain to clouds, and then the heavens. Traditional Chinese string music plays gently in the background, matching the mahogany board and ivory Mahjong tile theme.
None of the gameplay, art, or audio in Ivory Tiles feels like it’s quite perfect—there’s a certain roughness in each that would be easy to fix with a little bit of extra polish—but given the $2 price, it’s hard to take deep issue with what is otherwise a unique and challenging little puzzle game. Our single serious concern, namely the game’s control issues when you’re trying to precisely tilt the iPhone, was mostly eliminated by the use of an alternate control scheme that uses swipe touch gestures to move the tiles around instead. If one of these forms of control and the general premise of moving tiles around a maze appeals to you, Ivory Tiles is worth checking out. We predict that a sequel will be even better. iLounge Rating: B+.