Thanks to the huge number of mediocre games that appear every week in the App Store, our past iPhone Gems columns have occasionally led readers to ask us where the “gems” are—in response, we’ve been pretty clear in pointing out that we wind up testing a lot of garbage along with the good stuff, and sometimes feature some not-so-good stuff just to let you know what’s out there.
We’re happy to report that the games this week in Gems are all at least good, though how good you’ll find them will depend a lot on your personal tastes. Rather than focus on a narrow category, we’ve selected a bunch of high-profile titles from different genres, spotlighting noteworthy jetskiing, flying, shooting, and puzzle games, each a little different or better than anything ever covered in iPhone Gems before. Our top pick is Aqua Moto Racing, found immediately below. Enjoy.
While it might initially seem unfair to compare every jetski racing game to Nintendo’s Wave Race, there’s little doubt that this particular title was profoundly influential on the genre, and on water-based vehicle titles in general. Aqua Moto Racing ($3) and its free Lite version from Resolution Interactive are unquestionably the closest the iPhone has yet come to that great title: it offers players the ability to maneuver a jetski through watery race courses, gently swaying to the left or right of colored buoys, hitting ramps, and occasionally speed boosting to stay ahead of competing racers.
Thanks to the iPhone’s limited controls, Aqua Moto doesn’t—thankfully—attempt to emulate the entirety of Wave Race’s gameplay, significantly limiting for instance the on-jetski tricks that required crafty use of the Nintendo 64’s analog stick. But what it does do, it does extremely well: unlike so many of the accelerometer-based steering experiences we’ve had on the iPhone, Aqua Moto is a cinch to precisely control, and gently introduces players to buoy dodging, ramp jumping, and speed boosting over the first several levels, gradually increasing the challenge as stages progress. The graphics engine is wonderfully smooth, taking great advantage of the iPhone’s 3-D capabilities.
There are a few flaws. Resolution has included only three different environments in which the game’s many stages take place, and rather than mixing them up, you proceed through a dozen same-looking levels in a row, wondering at points whether you’re ever moving on. Despite changing buoy arrangements, the levels do tend to feel more alike than different, and though the game does became challenging, it doesn’t really feel deep. Music is similarly repetitive. But if you’re looking for a racing game that actually feels fun to control, has nice graphics, and offers enough challenge to keep you playing for a few days, Aqua Moto Racing (iLounge Rating: B+) is a strong pick. The Lite version (iLounge Rating: B) gives you a chance to try a few races to see if you like it, and does a good enough job of giving you the flavor of the full title.
Ask most classic Nintendo fans to name the company’s holy trinity of post-Mario and -Zelda 3-D games, and Pilotwings—one of the first fun-focused 3-D flying games—will likely be named. Visually, GameResort’s Biplane ($2)—aka Biplane Wings of Raccoon—is as much a doppleganger for the Pilotwings titles as Aqua Moto is for Wave Race, but from a gameplay perspective, it falls short. The reasons are simple: control and depth.
Biplane presents you with two types of missions: arcade mode drops you into an open 3-D environment filled with ships, flying balloons, and other targets, challenging you to blow up the ships, shoot down or hit the balloons, and retrieve crates released by the ships, dropping them on your own target zone for points. A racing mode gives you hoops to fly through in the fastest possible time, along with targets to shoot if you want to earn extra points. GameResort’s graphics engine is very smooth, colorful, and interestingly populated with cartoony 3-D objects, no matter which mode you’re in—Biplane has the looks of a great flying game so down pat that screenshots alone are able to almost sell the game.
However, while both of the game modes are conceptually smart ways to give airplane fans a chance to have fun, unlike the precision controls in Aqua Moto, steering in Biplane is too often an exercise in frustration, as objectives can be high above or below you, and significantly off to the left or right. If you miss one, you need to turn around and go back to it—a major, less than fun challenge given the plane’s turning radius and steering characteristics. Imagine trying to tell a horse in the middle of a race to turn around and go back; that’s the way Biplane feels whenever the plane misses its objective, which happens often.
Ultimately, your satisfaction with Biplane will be as much a reflection of your expectations going in as it will be your willingness to adapt to the game’s steering. Expect a $2 gaming experience with less than completely thrilling controls and you may well find more than enough fun here for the low price, which is somewhat damning praise as this title could have been a must-buy at a higher one. We’d urge GameResort to keep working on this title, add more types of levels a la Pilotwings, improve the controls, and then charge reasonably for the improved package; while the current version of Biplane is a good start, it’s not yet the great game that it could be. iLounge Rating: B-.
Though the most famous Dracula-related video games involve whips, knives, and magic—thanks, Konami, for Castlevania—gamers love to shoot monsters, and Hollywood’s most recent vampire villains have been more frequently attacked by gunfire than by medieval weaponry. Thus, MoreGames and Chillingo bring us iDracula – Undead Awakening ($3/$1), a simple but fun monster-shooting game presented from an isometric overhead 2-D perspective. In the spirit of classic arcade games Robotron and Smash TV, you use two joypads—one on the left, one on the right—to move and shoot, respectively, such that you can be firing your weapon forwards while moving backwards, left while moving right, and so on.
Action takes place on a nicely drawn but little-animated level that looks like a beat up European courtyard, with statuary, lampposts, and stairways that serve little purpose other than to break up what otherwise would be a grassy field; the lights aren’t animated and the stairways don’t lead anywhere. All of the animation is devoted to your character and the hordes of monsters that appear to attack him, which turns out to be just fine: in “rush mode,” which arms you with a machine gun, there are quickly so many monsters on screen at once that you merely are trying to clear a path for yourself to keep moving without dying; you won’t have time to look much at the background art. In “survival mode,” however, the game starts slow, arming your character with a pistol, then a shotgun, a crossbow, and more futuristic bazooka-like ammo, amongst other weapons with limited rounds. Keep slaying and you’ll find more food and ammo to keep yourself alive; get surrounded and your health bar will be eaten up. Various types of monsters join the fray as you continue to play; killing slightly larger, boss-like characters gives you the chance to earn “omens,” as well.
Though the action is intense and the control is fine—it’s a little too easy to move your fingers off the on-screen joypads in an attempt to see what’s going on, or shoot better—it’s obvious at this stage that iDracula is still a work in progress. The developer is currently offering the game for only $1, promising to add two additional levels and a new weapon, then boost the price to $3; this sounds like a nice idea, but what would really be great is to see the levels gain some Smash T.V.-like structure and perhaps a zooming camera so that players could have a better view of the slaying action. As we like what we’ve seen so far, but aren’t enthusiastic enough about the game’s depth to provide a high recommendation quite yet, we may revisit iDracula when the full version comes out to see how it is. Right now, this is a simple run-and-gun affair with a catchy name and a popular theme, and while we enjoyed playing what’s here, it’s easy to picture iDracula becoming even better. iLounge Rating: B.
As the most unique titles we look at this week, Monospace ($2) and its free demo version Monospace Lite by Nonverbal are interesting new takes on the puzzle genre—hybrid 2-D and 3-D puzzle games with 64 levels, 10 of which are playable in the Lite version. You’re presented with a grid-divided 3-D cube that initially starts out with two types of blocks: one blue, the rest white. You have to rotate the cube repeatedly to keep giving the blue block a single path that eliminates all the white dots, tapping the cube twice to flatten it into a 2-D surface that the blue block can travel on. You can then tap the flat surface twice to turn it back into a cube, rotate it on a different angle, and remove more blocks. You succeed when the blue block is all that’s left inside the cube.
As levels progress, black cubes are added to prevent you from moving in certain directions, and red cubes are added as additional goals, with 16 stages of white blocks, 16 more with white and black, 16 more with white, black, and red, and then 16 more in the “expert” category. It starts out simple, and steps up gradually to more thought-provoking stages, with the ones in advanced and expert stages falling into the literally difficult category. Nonverbal wisely lets Lite players sample certain levels from the first three clusters of 16, but hides the final 16 away as a tease—interestingly, it doesn’t let full version players sample those other levels, and instead unlocks stages only as you play through the other difficulty levels in order. Multiple stages are opened to give stumped players a chance to see what’s there.
By $2 puzzle game standards, Monospace is pretty cool. While the graphics aren’t exceptionally dynamic and there’s almost no audio to speak of—reasons we wouldn’t put it in our A category—the gameplay is smart, the puzzles are a challenge, and the theme is novel. It’s a solid two-buck puzzler; like many of the titles in today’s roundup, it could easily be the basis for something bigger and better. iLounge Ratings (Full and Lite): B.
Virtually every hard core gamer knows at least something about Sega’s famed 3-D shooter Rez, an intentionally retro-looking, deconstructed take on shooting games that combined locking on to targets and music making into a thoroughly unforgettable game experience. Studio Radiolaris has very obviously seen Rez; its Radio Flare ($3) and free demo Radio Flare Lite are attempts to capture the same gameplay concept on the iPhone—in 2-D. While the results aren’t wholly satisfying, they’re interesting enough to share with you in Gems today.
Like Rez, the idea in Radio Flare is to lock on to a number of enemies at once, blowing them up to create a beat that goes along with the song that’s playing. You steer your ship by touching it and moving it around, initially apparently pointless relative to your other task—touching multiple enemies at once to destroy them—until you realize that destroyed enemies leave red dot power ups and, much less frequently, smart bomb icons that destroy everything on screen at once. Rather than just staying in one place and shooting everything, then, you move around to scoop up the red power ups, eventually creating a “Flare Up” to your lifebar. Though it starts out pretty easy, this gameplay actually becomes a bit more compelling as the game progresses.
Unlike Rez, which was renowned for its music, its trippy stages, and its increasingly amazing boss encounters, Radio Flare is samey, its stages all looking mostly alike and the volume of enemies constituting its only major change. By around the 10th or 12th level—there are over 20—you finally get to the point where dodging bullets, collecting red power ups, and destroying enemy ships is actually a bit difficult. Around this point, the types of enemies have diversified such that some move quickly, others shoot straight, others shoot on angles, and still others stay put as land mines while the screen continues to scroll. There’s a boss at the end of the game, as well; assuming you proceed through the other levels, you’ll wish for more boss encounters rather than just more types of enemies.
Whiie there’s no doubt that Radio Flare is inspired by Rez, we wouldn’t quite be willing to call this a fully worthy 2-D version of one of the most influential and intriguing shooters of all time. Rez got away with plain backgrounds because its enemies, music, and evolving main character were so compelling, and here, you get the same plain backgrounds with plain enemies and a plain main character; only the music, a legitimately nice techno soundtrack, partially compensates. With bolder enemies, richer backgrounds, more bosses, and more interesting power-ups, Studio Radiolaris could make this as impressive in 2-D as Rez was in 3-D, but for now, the full version (iLounge Rating: B-) still feels like a half-complete shooter with nearly divine ancestry; the Lite version (iLounge Rating: B) is a fun enough free peek at the title that gives you a taste of what the title is about.
What would Ngmoco’s Topple be with more sophisticated artwork, a bit of added depth, and a bit less randomness? The answer is Digital Chocolate’s Tower Bloxx Deluxe 3D ($6), also available in demo form as Tower Bloxx Deluxe 3D Free. This long-named title is a highly interesting example of what a powerful gaming platform the iPhone will one day become, as well as the challenges that established developers face in competing effectively on it.
Though Tower Bloxx came before Topple on other platforms, Topple and other titles started Tower Bloxx’s party on the iPhone before Digital Chocolate could get there—and arguably redefined the genre. Here, you try to drop piece after piece of a tower into place in an effort to build a huge, fairly stable skyscraper and attract people to live inside. The more pieces of the tower you connect together, the more people float down from the sky to occupy the building. All that’s stopping you is an unsteady crane, which makes block dropping less than precise unless you release pieces of the tower at exactly the right second. Since the blocks fall flat on to each other, rather than on Topple-like angles, it’s easy to build a tower, but tough to get it to be perfectly straight and entirely stable. You progress from level to level doing the same thing with different colored towers in an attempt to fill a map with new buildings.
So what’s so interesting here? We became excited about the game when we saw its artwork, which looks even better on the iPhone than it does in screenshots, using nice 3-D-animated blocks and animated 2-D backgrounds to great effect in creating a cartoony world for building towers. A split-screen mode lets two people play at once in widescreen orientation, sharing the game iPhone. There’s also a gentle, relaxing soundtrack that has clearly been professionally composed, and really works nicely—if not energetically—with the game. Unfortunately, the 3-D effects here aren’t anywhere near as impressive as on the pre-iPhone Tower Bloxx, which featured more interesting camera angles in addition to similar polygonal artwork, and the stages are very similar to one another.
As a $6 game, Tower Bloxx Deluxe may have lots of stages to keep players going, but there’s ultimately not enough here to motivate you to actually do so, and given that other, similar options start at a price of $0, this one will be a hard sell for iPhone users. Our feeling is that Ngmoco’s Topple offers more of a challenge due to its unusually shaped blocks, and between its quirky artwork and music does way more to remain memorable than this title; that said, if you really like tower-stacking games, try the Lite version (iLounge Rating: B) and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the paid one (iLounge Rating: B-). Our guess is that the price will drop sooner or later.
Our final title for this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems is Vector Tanks – Blow Stuff Up! ($3) by Peter Hirschberg and Chillingo. Basically, Vector Tanks is a remake of Atari’s 1980 vector-based arcade game Battlezone, which placed you in command of a tank in the middle of a virtual battlefield, using dual joysticks to move the tank and a single button to fire.
Vector Tanks preserves the vector-style, line-drawn artwork, but ups the ante with more colorful lines and power ups. There’s no music here, but you do hear your tank’s movement, guns being fired, and the occasional explosion if you hit something or are hit by something else. Icons scattered around the play area range from shields to a nuclear missile, the former dangerous if used too close to a target, and there are land mines, enemy tanks, jeeps, and other dangers to beware of.
Control requires you to slide your fingers up and down on both sides of the screen, with two fingers up moving you forward, two down moving you back, and one up on a given side turning your tank in a certain direction. To fire, tap on the center of the screen near a rotating radar map of your enemies.
While Vector Tanks isn’t for everyone—like the original, the game doesn’t have a lot of structure save to blow stuff up and avoid being blown up—the retro-styled graphics are cool, and the gameplay continues to be fun nearly three decades after it was introduced. This is a neat little game at a decent price; based on comments from the developer, we expect it to become even more compelling in the future. iLounge Rating: B.