Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Without question, the highlight of the past week was the release of Gameloft’s Brothers in Arms 2: Global Front, which we separately reviewed and really liked two days ago. By comparison, the titles below represent three different genres—light platforming action, bizarre collaborative worm-stretching, and rhythm-based music construction—but none was worthy of even our general recommendation. They’re less “Gems” than “titles you might have heard about, and should approach with some trepidation.”
The top pick of this lackluster bunch is Thumpies, which at least has novel gameplay and interesting music on its side. Read on for the details.
Games based on movies, TV shows, and comic books have built-in audiences that enable developers—at least, some developers—to skimp on the sort of polish that differentiates truly great titles from good or average ones; for that reason, it’s rare that a licensed game, such as the recent console release Batman: Arkham Asylum, is ever universally lauded as fantastic. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland – An Adventure Beyond The Mirror ($5) isn’t one of the great ones, or even the good ones. It’s based on the widely anticipated Tim Burton film of the same name, and though it has some of the expected elements—creepy Danny Elfman music, the Cheshire Cat, two rabbits, and the Mad Hatter—it’s ultimately a dull, stilted game with little of the dramatic visual appeal found in the movie’s trailers.
You control Alice, who moves primarily from left to right through flat 2-D worlds, interacting with simple platforming puzzles that require you to switch characters: the March Hare will pull boxes or platforms from one place to another, enabling you to reach heights, the White Rabbit can freeze or unfreeze items in time, the “invisible” Cheshire Cat can make items appear and disappear, and the Mad Hatter can shift items from Wonderland to its darker mirror image world. Mirrors—looking glasses—enable Alice to pass between worlds, and the game repeatedly has you reconstructing broken mirrors from pieces scattered across the stages. Shrinking and enlarging potions are found early on, as well.
But as fun as some of those gameplay concepts may seem, Disney’s implementation manages to make puzzle-solving feel more like a chore than fun. Touch Alice to switch from one rabbit to the other, freeze one box here, move another there, then repeat; make something disappear with the cat, move a platform into its place, switch back to Alice, and hope that you don’t jump wrong; the game’s simple left, right, and jump arrow buttons combine with the frequent character switching to create a stilted experience that’s anything but smooth.
Barely animated character artwork, on-screen riddles that do little to further the game, and detailed but repetitive backgrounds that all feel very similar to one another come together to provide an experience that will be tolerable for some kids, but a drag for teenagers and adults. The developer tries to add some depth by letting you collect various items, but they’re added to a journal that has little purpose, poor art, and simple text descriptions; similarly, the journal lets you take photos, visit GPS destinations (all Disney parks), and use specific calendar dates to unlock more of the tiny, unimpressive art content. Given Tim Burton’s and Lewis Carroll’s vivid source material, Disney could have done so much better with this title; it has half the smarts, little of the mystery, and none of the emotive aesthetics it could easily have offered. The free Alice in Wonderland Lite version gives you two levels to explore the tedium for yourself. iLounge Ratings (Both Versions): C.
One year ago, Namco’s outside-the-box development wunderkind Keita Takahashi released the PlayStation 3 title Noby Noby Boy, an experimental quasi-game that didn’t do especially well on Sony’s expensive, high-end console. Eschewing the 3-D graphics of Takahashi’s earlier successful Katamari Damacy series, which flopped on the iPhone, the $2 App Store version of Noby Noby Boy drops players into a deliberately primitive-looking 2-D environment with black backgrounds and simple, flat polygonal objects, providing one primary goal: use your fingers to stretch out the pink face-like ends of a green worm named Boy until he becomes considerably longer, and then upload your progress to a web server where other people are doing the same thing.
The server is called Girl, and the cumulative length of all of the world’s Boys is used to stretch the similarly worm-shaped Girl over the course of weeks and months until she reaches distances representing planets in our galaxy. When she’s not gobbling up planets, she’s eating hearts that you feed her by stretching Boy.
If this all sounds weird to you, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The iPhone version of Noby Noby Boy itself acknowledges in a text bubble that the PS3 version “received a mixed reaction,” which feels like an awfully positive spin once you’ve tried the portable take. Trying to manually increase Boy’s size through conventional means, such as tugging, spinning, and wrapping him up in objects that the game can generate with a press of one of its icons, offers so little fun or compelling gameplay that one wonders why such a mediocre play mechanic would ever be placed at the heart of an otherwise ambitious piece of software. Moreover, the game’s alternative 22 icon-based controls are found at the bottom of the screen, spread out amongst five scrolling pages, sometimes forcing you to scroll a punch of pages back or forth to rejoin Boy’s sides if he splits while you’re trying to expand him. It’s just not enjoyable.
Yet Namco has tried to make more of the iPhone platform than it did for the PlayStation, including a variety of fascinating iPhone OS 3.0 multitasking features, including a play mode that links Boy’s stretching to your use of Google Maps, a button that lets you browse a collection of web sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google from within the game, and a floating music player that has album art for a torso and control buttons on its hands and feet. Camera modes enable you to take pictures to use as in-game backgrounds, and overlay the game on top of live video from the iPhone 3GS; Noby Noby Boy also leverages social networking services to enable players to share their current progress with friends.
But in our view, it’s not worth bothering. A small group of people have praised the PlayStation 3 version of Noby Noby Boy as imaginative, but from our perspective, this is one of those Emperor’s New Clothes situations where fans of Takahashi’s past work are trying too hard to see this release as important when it’s really pretty junky: an obviously unfocused title with a deliberately bizarre theme, throwing different concepts at the wall to see what will stick. If the act of stretching Boy was either rendered more fun with modestly guided puzzles, or better yet, replaced with a completely different play mechanic, the underlying concept of combining worldwide group efforts to reach into the galaxy would be a real draw and worthy of Twittering or Facebooking over. As-is, however, this game isn’t even worthy of its current $2 asking price. iLounge Rating: C-.
Given that music playback is at the core of both the iPod touch and iPhone, it’s hard to believe that rhythm games haven’t been more numerous or impressive on these devices—with the exception of a few mainstream titles, most of the rhythm games have been quirky, and too few of the best franchises from other platforms have either come to the App Store or been duplicated. Thumpies ($3) is one of the quirky ones, and though developer Big Blue Bubble’s deliberately freaky character art may well prevent it from lighting the world on fire, its unique gameplay and good music both deserve some attention and praise.
Thumpies places you in interesting but two-dimensional forest environments with different drums on the screen, forcing you to tap each drum as fuzzy balls fall first from the sky onto the drums, and then bounce from one drum to another, creating a rhythm. Once you’ve demonstrated that you can follow the rhythm for long enough to fill up a green meter at the top of the screen, the beat and sounds become part of the background, and you’re given additional rhythms until a song has been built, ending the stage and unlocking others. As you progress through the jungle stages, more drums, balls, and complexity are added to the levels, and butterflies begin to flutter around the screen as bonuses, assuming that you can pull yourself away from keeping the rhythm long enough to tap them. You get a brief period—too brief, really—to hear the completed song before moving on to a tree-shaped map of additional stages.
These core gameplay mechanics are pretty smart, and start out fun, but quickly become frustratingly difficult even when the game is played on easy; even serious rhythm game fans will find themselves wondering how to properly tap out beats with two bouncing balls moving quickly across four drum surfaces at once. Even when there are “ah-ha!” moments after figuring out the beat and pacing, the challenge of replicating the beat by hitting the drums with your fingers soon begins to feel like Twister, less fun than tricky, and better when you’re done than when you’re playing. For a game that is so casual in concept, Thumpies feels like it’s built more to satisfy harder-core, challenge-obsessed gamers, and will quickly overwhelm mainstream players.
Similarly, though Big Blue Bubble clearly has plenty of artistic and musical talent, giving the 3-D-rendered balls detailed textures and electrified animations to signal successful beat matching, the monstrous look of the balls and their weird sound effects are off-putting in the sort of way that will scare off potential players. Those who like the game’s look in screenshots will enjoy the rest of it for as long as they have the talent to keep playing, but those who are turned off by the screenshots will never touch the title. Sony had a smarter idea with the approachable Parappa the Rapper for PlayStations, and Paramount was smart enough to bring the Saturday Night Fever license to its reskinned take on Nintendo’s Elite Beat Agents. With a gentler learning curve, Thumpies would be half way towards a really great new type of rhythm game; more appealing artwork would complete the picture. iLounge Rating: B-.