Welcome to this week’s second gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today, we’re looking at three new and relatively high profile puzzle and maze games: two are sequels to games we’ve previously reviewed, and the third is a port of a title previously released for PCs and Macs. The names should all be at least a little familiar: Aqua Forest 2 from Hudson, Chuzzle from PopCap Games, and Pac-Man Championship Edition from Namco.
None of the titles in this roundup merited a rating of B+ or higher, but of the three, Pac-Man Championship Edition is the strongest pick—a legitimately worthwhile one if you’re willing to live with less than ideal controls and pay for additional downloadable content. Read on for all the details.
Hudson’s original Aqua Forest was one of our favorite early iPhone games, a demonstration of how touch-based controls and a cartoony fluid dynamics simulator could work together to create a cool and novel gameplay experience. By comparison, Aqua Forest 2 – Morning Dew ($5) is comparatively tame and uninspired, a puzzle game based on a simpler premise: guide a droplet or two of water from point A to point B on a single-screen maze. Accelerometer-based control requires you to hold the iPhone or iPod touch flat and then tilt it gently to move the droplets around.
If the idea sounds familiar, it is: Labyrinth 2 and any number of other games have done the same thing with metal balls rather than water droplets, and the only major difference in Aqua Forest 2 is the background art. In keeping with the Aqua Forest theme, most of the 50 levels see you guiding the water through natural backdrops, starting with tree leaves and graduating to hot volcanic rocks, oddly interrupted by stages that replicate the wooden labyrinth games that inspired this sequel. Though the backdrops are nice enough and generally photorealistic, they’re flat rather than 3-D modeled, and the only cool visual effect is the distortion of the art by the droplets as they move. Gentle music plays in the background, with an occasional flush-like sound when you’ve lost all the water.
There is, of course, a small twist that differentiates Aqua Forest 2’s gameplay from typical labyrinth games: in addition to the water’s ability to split into multiple droplets when it hits a sharp edge of the maze, there can be multiple goal points on the screen, and you have to hit them all. This is a challenge in that most stages are designed with open edges, so a tiny tilt in the wrong direction leads your water droplet to lose part or most of its body off the side of a leaf or flat surface. Hudson lessens the challenge by setting very low standards for success, namely that only the smallest dot of water needs to make it into each goal, so it’s possible to complete a level by merely rescuing 1% of the original water and losing the rest. On a positive note, this lets you move through the levels rather quickly, but it’s hard to feel any measure of accomplishment when you’ve achieved so little. With every passing stage, it’s obvious that original Aqua Forest was a completely different game, and frankly much smarter; Aqua Forest 2 seems downright easy until it hits stage 20, at which point the challenge becomes brutally unfun, and there’s no way to skip the level or calibrate the controls to increase their precision.
Given the excellence of Labyrinth 2’s engine, the similarity of its gameplay, and the endless number of levels it offers—all things that could be said about the original Labyrinth and other, similar titles—it’s hard not to see Aqua Forest 2 as a comparatively weak imitator with little more than natural charm to recommend it. An update focused on improving the controls and adding more stages would go a long way to making it worth buying for the asking price; in its current form, it’s not worthy of the same name as its more impressive predecessor. iLounge Rating: C+.
PopCap has been on such a roll with its Mac and PC releases in recent years that it’s hard to imagine the company releasing anything less than awesome—or at least, polished to a point where something awesome makes up for whatever might be missing. The latest PopCap release Chuzzle ($5) possesses such polish, and is consequently a far better piece of software than its core gameplay seems to deserve—a very good port of a pretty mediocre puzzle game that has plenty of cuteness on its side but relatively simple gameplay.
In the game’s main modes, you’re presented with 6×6 grids filled with fuzzy little colored balls that need to be matched in quantities of three or more in order to disappear, with each match contributing to a potion-shaped completion meter. Swipe gestures move the horizontal and vertical lines of balls into different positions—one line at a time—and any three directly adjacent balls, whether in a line or an L shape, will disappear. As the stages progress, lines can be locked into place by one ball, huge balls can appear and force two lines to be moved at once, and bomb-like balls can show up to clear out larger squares on the grid. There’s also a puzzle mode that challenges you to replicate grids using lines of balls that don’t disappear as they’re moved; you might have to make an X from red balls against a green backdrop, create a square, or something similar.
Aesthetically, Chuzzle is pretty solid. PopCap has gifted the game with retro music and fonts, using the charm of the 1970’s and an amusingly phallic level transition animation to add sparkle. While the fuzzy little balls aren’t as detailed or interesting to look at as they are in the computer versions, that’s not a huge surprise given the confines of the iPhone screen, which PopCap has maximized by shifting the completion meter off to the bottom—a smart decision that makes the swipe-based controls more reliable by increasing the size of the grid and balls. This isn’t the best-looking or -sounding puzzler we’ve seen on the iPhone, but most companies would kill to have the level of visual polish and semi-funky music that’s found here.
Where Chuzzle slips is in the gameplay. Try and play the main game thoughtfully to make matches and it quickly starts to feel like labored hunting and pecking, as there are too many colors in the grid from the start. One quickly learns that the iPhone equivalent of button-mashing—random swiping on lines—has a better chance of making matches and achieving big combos quickly. The game’s later lock, big ball, and multi-colored ball additions all increase the challenge without being offset by enough power-ups to upscale the fun factor, a counter-balance that might have rewarded continued play, and the game’s time-pressured speed mode only accentuates the issue. Rare bomb blocks become a blessing, but aren’t enough to make the game feel quite right. PopCap’s Bejeweled 2 may be more difficult in some ways, but its use of power ups as rewards for big matches offers a more satisfying experience for continued play; Chuzzle feels like an older title that could really benefit from the smarter gameplay innovations PopCap has incorporated into more recent games, particularly Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies. We’d recommend Chuzzle to fans of PopCap’s other titles, and to match-three fans in general, though with the caveat that this particular game has more to offer in the audio-visual departments than in play mechanics. iLounge Rating: B-.
Namco, you’re killing us. In the last month, you’ve released two of the very best games—technically—in the history of your iPod and iPhone development, and you’ve hobbled both of them by trying to squeeze the last dollar out of players with In-App Purchases. This time, the victim is Pac-Man Championship Edition (limited time pricing of $3), a port of the Xbox Live arcade game that all but reinvented the classic Pac-Man arcade game two and a half years ago, adding trippy blur effects, a pulsing soundtrack, and more vicious ghosts to the old formula.
To be clear, Pac-Man Championship Edition isn’t your daddy’s Pac-Man, and it’s better for the upgrade. Mazes show up barely populated with dots to eat, and only evolve new dot patterns as you eat bonus fruits and icons to unlock them. Each maze starts out slow, with easily chased and eaten ghosts, but quickly ramps up such that the ghosts become determined, efficient hunters who are barely vulnerable to the effects of power pellets, and you need to stay alive for a set number of minutes while eating and being chased. Every maze is thus a test of survival, and the core game arrives with five main mazes plus 20 “missions”—a $4 “downloadable” pack, really a key, expands the numbers to 30 mazes and 120 missions, and unlocks a third “Challenge” mode of play. It appears that Championship Edition will normally sell for $5, bringing the total cost of unlocking the whole game to $9—$1 less than the original Xbox game.
Aesthetically, Pac-Man Championship Edition is a couple of steps down from the Xbox original, but it’s surely an improvement on the weathered classic arcade game ports Namco has released in the past. Beyond the presence of the Xbox version’s neat but limited audio track as you play, the mazes glow a little, with hazy color sweeps accompanying the unlocking of additional dots when you eat bonus items, and most of the little dramatic special effects of the Xbox title—fading ghost light trails, sparks as you turn, and pop-up point tallies—appear here, as well. Other details, such as the glow around Pac-Man and the more detailed, edge-enhanced icons, are there but hard to see on the tiny iPhone and iPod touch screen, and the overall brightness, maze depth, and excitement of seeing the game on a big screen is diminished at least a little here. This is unmistakably a pocket version of a full-sized game, and it’s less engrossing for that reason.
As has been the case in too many iPhone and iPod touch ports to count, including the prior Pac-Man titles, control is an issue—the single biggest pain point for Pac-Man Championship Edition, in our view. Namco obviously knows this, and in the absence of a physical iPhone or iPod touch joypad instead offers four different on-screen control schemes such as dual D-pads, dual virtual joysticks, a single virtual joystick, and twin touch pads. None of them approaches the precision of either the analog or digital Xbox controls. With the increase in ghost aggressiveness comes a commensurate need for tighter turning, and though this version of Pac-Man does more than its predecessors to provide options, they’re not enough to save you from making mistakes that you’d never encounter in a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS version of this game.
But there isn’t a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS version of this game, and Namco would surely suggest that iPhone and iPod touch gamers should be thankful just to have the ability to play this title in any way, shape, or form on their devices. The same logic might extend to Namco’s decision to segment Pac-Man Championship Edition into a two-stage download with most of its content initially locked: on the Xbox, you have the choice to either pay $10 and get the whole game, or $0 for a trial version that ends after three minutes. iPhone and iPod touch owners can pay part up front and get part of the game, then come back for the rest. No matter how you slice it, in our view, this feels like nickel and diming. Apart from the controls, the iPhone game is a fine port, but due more to the platform’s limitations than any fault of Namco’s, it’s neither as impressive nor as fun as the Xbox version, and shouldn’t be nearly as expensive: it’s the paradigmatic $5 game that Apple envisioned when it first started to publish Click Wheel iPod titles. On the basis of its novelty and new challenges, we’d recommend it to Pac-Man addicts—strongly, even, to those who didn’t mind the prior titles’ controls on the iPhone—but between the pricing and the imprecise turning, what’s here isn’t going to win either Namco or the series any new fans. iLounge Rating: B.