We make no excuses for this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems: after a very eventful last few weeks, this week’s four featured titles could be summed up collectively as slim pickings. Two of them are apps that we’ve been trying for weeks but couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to fully review, while the other two are very recent big-name releases that are underwhelming in execution. We’re expecting something big tomorrow, but couldn’t feature it in this edition due to timing.
If you’re looking for more noteworthy games to check out until then, see our full reviews of Electronic Arts’ Need For Speed Undercover, Gameloft’s Terminator Salvation, and Paramount’s Top Gun. Continue on for this week’s four-Gem roundup.
We’ve watched American Idol, bought some of the artists’ albums, and still tune in on occasion to witness its annual crew of unknown singers working their way up to something approaching stardom. So when we say that we went into American Idol: The Game ($5) by Electronic Arts with an open mind, trust us, we did; if this had been a really good game, we’d have been glad to play it.
But it’s really not, and though that’s not surprising from an Idol-licensed title, it does fall below the standards we’ve come to expect from Electronic Arts—AI: The Game is essentially just a choose your own adventure with a mediocre, Flash-quality “singing” game at the core. You start out by choosing to play as a male or female character, then interact via multiple-choice answers with fellow AI contestants as you work your way from the cattle call initial lineup at a stadium to on-stage performances at the finals. To keep fans of the series amused between the “game” segments, EA includes numerous video clips from the show, including plenty of Ryan Seacrest, plus judging sessions with Simon, Randy, and Paula—no Kara. You’ve probably seen these clips or ones virtually identical to them before, as they’re based upon previously aired material, and that material is mostly the same in dialogue and look from season to season.
Ultimately, what sinks American Idol: The Game is how shallow the play mechanics are. Most of the game is spent choosing from obvious paths—practice the song, hang out at the pool, or go shopping—and accruing “style,” “fame,” and “talent” points that do little more than suggest how far you are through the game. You’re also forced to converse with loons, like the delusional line-waiter who thinks she’s going to win the competition, and the annoying roommate who snores and wants you to hang out with him, plus go through the questionable “excitement” of the results show in text and bar chart format. While an American Idol game mightn’t seem the same without these well-known elements of the show, they’re not the parts people love, and there are better ways to sneak them into an interactive game than forcing you to deal with them again and again in a short period of time.
All of this unspectacular role-playing is interrupted by the simple Flash-class action game, which consists of two things: tilt the iPhone to steer a star through a warbling path of notes that need to be hit, each triggering a second of playback of a pre-recorded vocal track, then occasionally tap the screen for percussion when stars appear. The challenge is simple—hit too few stars and you get fewer votes, subjecting yourself to a higher risk of elimination—and as the game goes on, it’s harder to hit all the notes. You get to pick each song from a list of three choices, including the incongruous “guy singing Material Girl” track, and if you practice, you get to hear the songs twice.
While EA may have been in a difficult situation with the American Idol license—how do you make a great game about a singing competition when the player can’t actually sing, and you’re practically limited to a $5 asking price for the game?—the end result here is far from satisfying. People watch American Idol not for the bad song performances, but in hopes of hearing great ones and discovering one or more promising new artists. AI: The Game is filled with way too much of the annoying, amateurish filler that has made people turn away from the show, and far too little great singing. We’d pass. iLounge Rating: C-.
At one point in Namco’s history, Dig Dug was one of the company’s best-known arcade games, and even today, there isn’t anything exactly like it. You controlled a character who looked like a spaceman as he moved through underground tunnels filled with weird enemies—dragons and walking mutant tomatoes—and your mission was to use an air pump to snag and then explode enough enemies to clear the screen. Your character could and typically had to dig new tunnels to reach the enemies, who paced back and forth waiting for your arrival, but if you waited too long, they’d find ways to get over to you first. If you succeeded in popping or occasionally dropping rocks on most of the enemies, sometimes others would make their way to the surface at the top of the screen and just run away.
Dig Dug REMIX ($6) offers you access to the original Dig Dug game, presented vertically on screen with your choice of a fake joypad or swipe controls, plus a remixed version with much-enhanced widescreen graphics and additional power-ups. Though the core gameplay remains the same, the remixed title has you grab boots, pump extenders, and other items to increase your power and speed, while facing a more complex array of enemies and boss characters. The new graphics aren’t great, nor is the music, but they’re more interesting than the ones that came before. Control in both of the titles is either swipe-based with a pump-firing button—the better version—or dependent upon a small on-screen D-pad. Neither is as precise as a game like this deserves, but either is workable.
Ultimately, Dig Dug REMIX would have been fine but somewhat underwhelming even as a $5 Click Wheel iPod release, and doesn’t fare much better as a $6 iPhone title. It’s a title for Dig Dug fans only, and like so many of Namco’s other arcade classics would do much better as one small piece of a larger, value-priced compilation than a standalone game. iLounge Rating: C.
For the past month, we’ve tried to get into Glyder ($1) by GLU Mobile, one of several games that have attempted to capture the fun of 3-D flying with the same spirit as Nintendo’s Pilotwings titles. Here, you control a girl named Eryn who has dragon-like wings mounted on her back, and you’re supposed to fly within open levels collecting a certain number of colored crystals that have been left around. Six stages are available, all connected through a map that lets you start at any stage once you’ve found a way to unlock it.
Glyder is simultaneously rendered challenging and less than fully thrilling by its eponymous design trait: Eryn glides, which is to say that she depends on wind currents to climb, and proper management of her altitude and speed to remain aloft. The actual process of flying is relatively straightforward, as you just tilt the iPhone left, right, up and down to move Eryn around, but once you’re flying, virtually all that you’re doing is collecting colored crystals so that you can leave one area and explore others. Some of the crystals are easy to get, while others are near walls and objects you can crash into, requiring more precise turns, occasional reapproaches, and multiple resurrections. It’s not exciting—relaxing would be a better word, if untimed flying is something that relaxes you. We spent weeks turning the game on, playing a bit, and not quite getting why we were supposed to be enthusiastic about playing more.
Eventually, we came to understand what was going on: the game just wasn’t providing the sort of explanation and structure that it really needed. You can land on certain platforms, but not most of them, so you shouldn’t try to stop when you see an interesting looking perch or flat surface. There is a quota for collecting enough crystals to see another level, but you’re not taken to the level or given simple map screen access to it—you need to fly outside the borders of the initial area, and then you’ll discover various other levels on its periphery. At that point, you actually need to fly all the way over there, and once you’ve done that, you can use the map screen to return at any time. Other than when the iPhone is in need of a memory-related restart, the game looks pretty nice, with a reasonable frame rate and nicely detailed levels; dreamy music loops repeatedly as you fly around, and chimes go off as you collect items.
If you’re actually willing to sit down with it and figure out everything for yourself, Glyder turns out to have a lot to do for its $1 asking price, and some very nice scenery to explore. But it feels like it was designed without enough internal structure to really make the most of its levels, to excite players about going from one to another, and even to keep the action within a given area thrilling. One month after its release, it still hasn’t received the sort of polish-focused update that it really needs, and at this point, we’re done waiting for it to become more than just a forgettable flying game. For now, it’s an interesting diversion, nothing more. iLounge Rating: B-.
Calling Pocket God ($1) a “game” might be a modest stretch, but it’s interesting for one reason: developer Bolt Creative has taken what could have been a throwaway screensaver of a title and grown it through episodic content into something that increasingly resembles a full-fledged game. Every week or so, Bolt releases an update that it calls an “Episode,” adding additional features that make the title more interesting, and it updates its App Store page with “possible future additions,” as well.
Since the first iteration, Pocket God has presented players with the image of an island in the middle of the ocean, clouds and sun in the background, and natives on the island who can be grabbed and tossed around. These days, there are both a shark and a fish in the foreground, and you get to drop additional items onto the island and interact with them. A magnifying glass can be picked up and held at an angle to start natives or ants on fire, a fishing pole can be used to grab fish from the water, and natives can be pitched into the ocean to feed the shark. A storm can be summoned, complete with cool visual effects, and you can flip the island from day to night time by pulling the sun down below the horizon. The latest twist—courtesy Episode 16—is that one of the game’s now two islands has a nest-like spot for a large dinosaur egg, which can be picked up and dropped three times to call a huge T-Rex onto the island for amusement.
Other than the music, which seems to have been criminally neglected by comparison with the smooth, colorful graphics, all that’s missing from Pocket God is a point. This title feels like an experiment that the developers have been trying for months now, working their way up from nothing to little to something, but the “something” is now an increasing collection of minor amusements that are each worth a half minute to a minute of time to experiment with. While the $1 asking price and the cute cartoony art are hard to argue with, Pocket God is one of those apps that could be so much more, and it’s obvious from the many fan comments that everyone wants to see it continue to evolve into something more than a time-waster. Based on the developers’ obvious artistic talent and drive, our guess is that by version 2.0, Pocket God will be considerably more divine. iLounge Rating: B-.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.