It’s an animal-themed edition of iPhone Gems this week, as we take a look at four recent games filled with feathery, furry, and—uh—weird, customizable creatures. From the bird-slingshot titles Angry Birds and Bird Strike to the latest sporting adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and the new edition of the animal-creating game Spore, there’s plenty to see inside, with prices ranging from a mere dollar all the way up to $7.
Our top pick of the week is the budget title Angry Birds, but we also liked Bird Strike. Read on for all the details.
Of all of the titles featured in this edition of Gems, we were most impressed by Clickgamer’s Angry Birds ($1), a small but very cool game that uses cartoony art and physics to great effect. Each of the 63 levels sees you take control of a slingshot with birds as projectiles and pigs as targets—the pigs have swiped the birds’ eggs, and the birds want revenge. You need to swipe on the slingshot to choose the angle and strength of your limited number of shots, typically causing protective structures around the pigs to collapse and crush them. Only when all of the pigs have been squashed—or all of your birds have been expended—does the level end.
Besides the level designs, which continue to evolve and improve as you keep playing, Clickgamer changes things up with the variety of birds: you’re not just slingshotting plain bird after bird, but rather different types of birds that have different abilities; one can be triggered to split into three birds in mid-flight. And Angry Birds also includes a simple but smart interface trick: you can pinch to see the detailed, funny little characters or zoom out to see both your slingshot and its targets at once—a compromise that lets you enjoy the comic details of the birds and pigs or just keep launching attacks. There’s no music, but enough ambient bird and pig noises to keep you amused, with little snorts to suggest you haven’t shot well enough yet to eliminate all the pigs. Even if the underlying slingshot gameplay seems familiar, you’ll want to keep playing far longer than you might initially expect; Angry Birds offers very good value for the $1 asking price, and is worthy of our strong general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B+.
An entire genre of “keep the character in the air” games has emerged on the iPhone, and Bird Strike ($4/$2) from PikPok/Prodigy Design is the latest member of the pack. In Bird Strike, a bird is launched into the air through backdrops that scroll upwards for screen after screen, and you need to tilt the iPhone or iPod touch in order to keep it aloft. Rockets make the bird fly upwards, and obstacles of various sorts—balloons, girders, and so on—stop it in mid-air, causing gravity to pull it down. You only have a few chances to hit the right rockets to keep the bird climbing upwards, and if you don’t accrue enough points before it falls to the ground, you can’t move on to the next level. Like Angry Birds, the game has no music and uses cartoony artwork and sound effects to provide amusement; we’d call the aesthetics a step under Clickgamer’s, but still good enough for the asking price.
There are moments of genius in Bird Strike that take the levels from being iffy to actually pretty smart: if you pay attention when you’re initially launching your bird, you can see a hole in the ground that lets you grab additional bonus points when you’re on the way down, and while you’re in the air, grabbing a protective helmet and strategically using the rockets can help you bust through objects that would otherwise deflect you. At the top of each level is an alien ship that transforms you into a meteoric fireball, sending you crashing through all of the remaining obstacles as you hurtle downwards towards the planet. Though the gameplay in Bird Strike isn’t as deep as Angry Birds, and there are far too few levels—10—to justify the game’s regular $4 price, the 50% off $2 pricing makes enough sense to recommend a purchase. It’s a time waster, and a simple one, but cute and fun enough to stand out from the crowd. iLounge Rating: B.
Sega hasn’t been shy about disappointing gamers with Sonic the Hedgehog-themed games over the past fifteen years, so it’s no surprise that Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games ($5) is yet another sad little title that has little more than the Sonic crew going for it. As a collection of four mini-games, emphasis on the “mini,” this title weakly uses events from the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver as inspiration, allowing you to ride a luge-like ramp in the Skeleton, enjoy—loose use of the word there—Curling, tap and trace on the screen for Figure Skating, and ride a board in Snowboard Cross. Two- and four-player wireless modes are included, seemingly as an incentive to get more than one person to buy the game.
To the extent that each of the events is legitimately different, we’ll give Sega partial credit for actually coming up with four different sets of things for Sonic, Tails, and eight more obscure characters to do, but the game’s 3-D performance in the action-intense Skeleton and Snowboard Cross stages is so choppy that these sports are largely unpleasant to play. In each of these stages, you steer by tilting the device; the goal is to hit speed boosts and outrace three opponents in Skeleton, successfully tilting to make jumps and beat three opponents in Snowboard Cross. Between the awkward steering and the less than totally fluid 3-D renditions of the courses, you’ll wind up hitting the walls or just not moving smoothly, and if you’re like us, you won’t even want to keep playing.
Curling is a more or less accurate rendition of the sport, seeing you toss a rock and then brush the ice in front of the rock to keep it moving towards a target zone, and Figure Skating knocks off Elite Beat Agents and similar rhythm games to have you tap on the screen in sync with shrinking circles, then tracing shapes on the screen to execute big turns and jumps. It says something that the Figure Skating portion is actually one of the best parts of the game, though it’s little more than watching your chosen character skate around in a rink doing dance moves to some quasi-classical music. Rings are offered as bonuses to help you unlock items—including two of the 10 total characters—but we’d be surprised if you’ll want to play long enough to bother. Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is yet another Sonic title that has little more than its license going for it, and can safely be relegated to footnote status in the history of this ever-declining franchise. iLounge Rating: C.
We liked but didn’t love Spore Origins for the iPod, then found the iPhone version to be prettier but more of a bore. Now Electronic Arts has released Spore Creatures ($7), a sequel that picks up where Origins left off: previously, you evolved from an amoeba to a complex water-based creature, and here, your evolution starts you as a simple slug-like creature on land and lets you grow up the food chain into a more intelligent and complex animal. You tilt the iPhone or iPod touch to steer your creature around, tapping on the screen to attack, communicate with, or grab things in the shoreline, desert, forest, and mountain environments.
To EA’s credit, Spore Creatures looks even better than Spore Origins: you continue to view the 20 levels from an overhead perspective, but most of the objects have a little 3-D depth, and the land-based levels are populated with trees and other items that provide a greater level of realism and plausibility than the watery ones that preceded them in the prior Spore title. You’re given a great deal of versatility in customizing your creature, eventually adding 45 different body parts, numerous textures and colors to its lump-like initial shape, and the constant pursuit of evolution-enhancing DNA by eating creatures has been bolstered by boss encounters and big maps with discoverable and unlockable additional sections. It’s fair to say that people who enjoyed the prior Spore game will find that this one offers even more to do.
But in all candor, we found Spore Creatures so boring that we didn’t want to keep playing it after an hour or so, and had to keep forcing ourselves to re-open it and tinker some more. The customization engine was more than occasionally confusing, with some of the body parts adding little or not attaching to the creature at all, and the tiny little icons offering too little in the way of explanation as to what changes we were supposed to be seeing in the creature after adding new parts or subtracting old ones. Stages dragged on with only modestly interesting objectives—go fetch some stones for the snails, for instance—and rather than a soundtrack, only bland sound effects provided audio accompaniment. A year and a half ago, Spore Origins seemed like a good enough evolution of the old iPod games to merit a limited recommendation; these days, gamers can get far more thrills for their $7. Only fans of the last version need consider this one. iLounge Rating: C+.