iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug

After weeks of racing and shooting games, this week’s two gaming editions of iPhone Gems thankfully bring changes of theme. Today’s previously-published Gems on zen games is available from this link; this part continues with a similarly Eastern-themed word puzzler and two related competitors, as well as a downhill snowboarding and skiing title, and a novel platform game.

iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 2

Our top picks of this bunch are Sway and Word Fu. Read on for the full story.

Alpine Racer

iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 3

Is Namco hell bent on destroying the great reputation it developed as Sony’s premier PlayStation development partner 15 years ago? After poor Pac-Man, Pole Position, and Katamari Damacy releases for the iPod and iPhone, it rebounded a bit with Star Trigon, wavered with Time Crisis Strike, and now has sunk once more with Alpine Racer ($6) and its free version Alpine Racer Lite. What should have been a gimme—a port of a simple, 14-year-old PlayStation 1-vintage downhill skiing game or its 13-year-old sequel—instead has been muddled to the point of near worthlessness, though there are sparks of intelligence to be found in this title.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 4

For one, Namco has added snowboarding to the prior title’s skiing theme, placing you by default in the shoes of Shogo Saga, who zips down mountainous courses on a snowboard; he’s the only available character in the one-course Lite version. In the full three-course version, you can also select Rina Saga, his skiing sister, and go through a “Story Mode” with solo “trial” levels and single-opponent CPU races, to unlock another outfit and character, Genji Saga, as well as minor upgrades for four types of skills—speed, acceleration, power, and style.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 5

What really kills Alpine Racer isn’t the control, which actually works decently either in touch-based or tilt-based turning modes; it’s the choppy, low-detail graphics engine, the unimpressive music, and the terrible sound effects. Once known for some of the smoothest and best-looking racing games in the world, Namco seems to be having real 3-D graphics engine problems on the iPhone: between the awkward jogs this one takes when you steer, to the primitive-looking objects and surroundings you’re in, Alpine Racer feels like a step back to early iPhone gaming days—perhaps earlier. Your ears might be okay with the repetitive audio tracks, but they’re overlaid with a loud shhhhhhhh sound that’s supposed to sound like snow sports, but doesn’t. It just seems like amateur hour, in no way worthy of this company’s once impressive heritage.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 6

Add to this the game’s shocking, several-course brevity and you’ll wonder why even Namco thinks it can charge $6 for a title like this; it’ll only take a few minutes with the Lite version before most people will conclude that it isn’t worth paying for. As much as we’d hoped that Star Trigon marked the beginning of a new phase of development for Namco, the company clearly seems to need a few good coders and a bit more common sense before it has a chance of doing a bang-up job on this platform. Instead, with titles like Alpine Racer, gamers are the ones walking away feeling bruised. iLounge Ratings (Both): C-.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 7

No matter how much some vocal gamers—including us—may get excited about truly original games, it’s been shown time and time again that originality doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality or popularity, and that unique games therefore aren’t necessarily the ones that satisfy gamers the most. That said, thanks mostly to its lack of a traditional game controller, the iPhone has had more than its fair share of titles that are either semi-original or intriguingly experimental in the control department. Sway ($5) from Illusion Labs is one of those titles—essentially, an overhead-perspective platform game where you swing from platform to platform rather than jumping, and need to keep hanging on to a platform at all times to keep from falling off the map.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 8

iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 9

Mimicking Sony’s LittleBigPlanet, you control a saggy, puppet-like character—at first, a frog-like lizard, then a monkey, a ninja and four others—whose inherent cuteness and ragdoll-like physical motions will be enough by themselves to win some people over. Unlike LittleBigPlanet, however, the level designs have all been turned around: gravity still pulls you down, with “down” meaning off the bottom of the screen rather than into it, yet what seem like grassy, metal, brick, and sandy platforms are all actually walls. One of your fingers controls the left arm of your character, the other the right, and you touch the screen to grip the wall, then move your finger to and fro to sway, letting go to move where gravity takes you, and using the other finger to grab the wall again, sway, and repeat. There are stars and keys to collect, friends—the other characters—to rescue, and ultimately, goals to touch to escape from the levels.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 10

iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 11

Even though Sway’s gameplay borrows from Nintendo’s Donkey Kong: King of Swing title, that title’s obscurity combines with Sway’s nice 3-D character and background presentation to create what feels like a novel experience—one that originality-starved gamers will enjoy, after they get used to the controls. Having to alternate between touching the screen’s left and right sides without benefit of even transparent persistent on-screen control pads is a major challenge at first, aided only by occasional green and red opaque circles that pop up to remind you which of your on-screen character’s colored hands you’re controlling. Those who persist and learn will enjoy the relatively short stages while they last—not long enough, and with too much of the same so-so music. Added length, a better control scheme for beginners, and better audio would definitely help this title to become more than a nice footnote in the maturing of the iPhone as a gaming platform; additional content might well help Sway to actually justify its asking price. iLounge Rating: B+.

Three Word Games

Last month, we did a roundup of 15 interesting word games for the iPhone, some of which were more impressively executed than others. This week, we’re looking at three more—Ngmoco’s Word Fu ($1), 99 Games Online’s WordsWorth ($2), and Portable Zoo’s Letter Bug ($2), which all belong to the “tap letters, make words” genre.

iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 12

As with all of Ngmoco’s games to date, Word Fu is a smart little game that more than delivers on the expectations we had for the price. Comically, the game uses drums, fading bells, and martial arts-style sound effects to evoke the sense that you’re in a word-making fight to the death. You’re given nine six-sided dice with letters on their sides, 20 seconds to turn each die to create the mix of letters you prefer, and then 45 seconds to make as many words as possible from the letters. You shake the iPhone after each word to register it, collect your points, and move on to the next word. You can use any letter more than once per word, so if you have two dice with the same letter, that’s your mistake; you get more points for longer words.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 13

While Word Fu is the simplest and probably shallowest game we’ve yet seen from Ngmoco, it’s also a ton of fun—the fast paced thinking, the audio, and the input mechanism all combine to make the game legitimately enjoyable. As you play, if you’re skillful, you’ll unlock time-freezing cubes, the ability to turn one of your dice over, and a point bonus mechanism, but that’s pretty much it for the game; lacking a deeper structure, the only challenge is to keep playing to better your score, and if you know someone else with the game, to play against them on the same Wi-Fi network. That’s it. But for a dollar, and given the cool dice-spinning and audio effects, this is another very solid title to pick up for a short period of fun. iLounge Rating: B+.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 14

WordsWorth isn’t as flashy, but it’s also a nice little title. Here, you’re given a flat hexagonal grid with letters that are laid out more or less randomly, giving you the opportunity to make words by tracing a path through the letters. Helpfully, the top of the screen shows the currently selected letters, whether they make a word, and if so, how many points you’ll earn; after a certain number of matches are made, you move on to the next “level,” which is just like the prior one, continuing the same letters on the board. You can choose from five-by-five, six-by-six, or seven-by-seven grids if you prefer more tiles to work with; optional challenge words are sometimes put on the bottom of the board to make you find a way to assemble them from the letters you’ve been given.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 15

What’s nice about WordsWorth is that the game is straightforward, backed by pleasant if repetitive music, and provides a nice little challenge. In the classic mode, you can keep playing until a red timer icon appears on an on-screen letter, and you fail to use that letter before its timer runs out; a timed mode puts you on a strict, challenging timer from the very beginning. Less impressive is the way that junk letters continue to accumulate on the screen, all but unusable unless a wildcard icon—the silhouetted man’s profile—appears along with some other lucky letters. How many X’s, V’s, or W’s are really going to be used in a game, particularly when they’re all clustered together without nearby vowels? Additionally, the game is single-player only, with an online wall to compare scores. Small issues aside, WordsWorth is a nice little word game, and backed by a great official Scrabble word list to make sure you’re fairly scored. It’s worth considering if you’re looking for something smart and fun. iLounge Rating: B.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 16

The last of the bunch is Letter Bug, which comes across as comparatively overambitious and a little underdeveloped. This one provides you with two minutes to work your way through several layers of stacked letters that are arranged in sheets of 4×5 or 3×4 letters, apparently randomly. You have two minutes to make enough words to get 350 points, and you uncover letters from the layer below by removing all of the letters that sit on top of them. Keep playing like this, and you’ll quickly run out of letters to work with, and the game will end; unmentioned in the game’s brief initial instruction is the fact that you can shake the iPhone to scramble the letters currently on the screen, giving you the building blocks you need to actually complete a stage.


iPhone Gems: Alpine Racer, Sway, Word Fu, WordsWorth, and Letter Bug 17

With very little audio accompaniment besides a keyboard-like letter selection tap and chimes for making or failing to make words, Letter Bug is sonically plain, and the only interesting thing about its visuals is the gentle pulsing of the letters as they hover atop one another. The fact that some letters, like Q—presented without the u, as wisely done in both of the other titles above—clutter the levels with unplayable parts seems not to have bothered the developer; perhaps an update will eventually remedy this. For now, there’s little sense of satisfaction in completing a level, too little difference in looks between the levels, and too little of a sense of deliberately planned, fun structure to the gameplay. Word Fu in particular puts this to shame for a lower price; we’d call this one a pass by contrast. iLounge Rating: C.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.

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