Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone Gems! In a separate earlier review today, we covered the impressive Plants vs. Zombies from PopCap Games, but we still had four other titles we wanted to share with you in this roundup. One’s an overhead shooter, another’s a puzzler, the third is a cooking game, and the fourth is a snowboarding title.
Our top picks of the bunch are Cogs and X2 Snowboarding, but all four of the titles rated at least our limited recommendation, if not higher. Read on for all the details!
Dual-joystick overhead shooters seem to be uniquely well-suited to the iPhone and iPod touch, as placing thumbs on the bottom two corners of the devices’ screens barely limits your visibility, and touch-based analog steering and shooting just works as a concept. Since Mobile Force’s Arodius ($3/$1, aka Arudius) uses this formula, it arrives on the scene with the advantage of a proven basic gameplay concept, leaving the developer to create cool artwork, power-ups, and audio to make the title compelling. To some extent, Mobile Force succeeds, but it also cuts some corners along the way. Unusually, the title and cut scenes are loaded with artwork of scantily clad, voluptuous women—enough to get the game a 17-or-older rating without anything similar within the actual gameplay—and this actually turns out to be one of the game’s two most distinctive features.
The other is its enemy design, which isn’t impressive in an absolute sense—small enemies drop in from the sky, then bob around and rotate rather than really animating as they come closer to you. All you need to do is wipe out successive waves of dropped-in foes by shooting and moving around to dodge; there are no melee attacks, jumps, or other major elements of gameplay depth. Yet as you progress through the stages moving towards a big end-of-round boss attack, you see the smaller enemies merge together into bigger, scarier opponents that require considerably more firepower to destroy. The lack of enemy lifebars is a miss here, but your ability to pick up and temporarily upgrade several different types of weapons—a widening pea-shooter, a flame-like energy weapon, and a narrow blue beam—gives you a good shot at fighting off the advancing hordes as they appear in waves. You also have a rechargeable big blast attack that half-fills the screen with character artwork, releasing a collection of damaging sparkles. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, the player too rarely can power up a given weapon by collecting sequential drops of the same icon—after the first stages, the game dispenses different weapon icons so you can switch, rather than beef up your current attack, detracting a bit from the action. By comparison, shields and rear attack power-ups appear with reasonable frequency.
Ultimately, Arodius is one of those budget-priced games that neither thrills nor seriously disappoints: nice but overly repetitive audio and flat illustrated but underanimated backgrounds don’t really impress, and the odd juxtaposition of the aforementioned pinup art with an overhead shooter theme seems more like a marketing ploy than a meaningful attempt to make you care about the characters or understand what’s going on in the levels. The title feels like it really needed an extra few months of development time, but in its current form, it’s not a bad way to spend a buck or three. iLounge Rating: B-.
Previously covered in our editorial on The Challenges of In-App Purchasing, Lazy8 Studios’ and Chillingo’s Cogs is a very sharp little puzzler—but one that has met with controversy due to its unfortunate pricing scheme. Though it’s nominally sold for $1, Cogs subsequently requires four additional In-App Purchases to unlock all of its levels, bringing its real price to $5. We rate it based on the higher actual price, rather than the seemingly low initial one, which as noted in our editorial will leave some gamers disappointed.
Cogs is based on a classic tile game, starting with a flat grid puzzle containing mixed up square pieces, leaving you to shift the tiles around using one empty space on the grid as a buffer. The first twist here is that the “correct” reassembly of the tile pieces generally creates a network of gears and/or pipes, bringing a machine to life or stopping it from moving. Another twist: the puzzles can span multiple surfaces of a boxy or rounded shape, which you can turn with two-finger swipes. Lazy8 starts the puzzles out gently, but soon begins to ramp up to challenges that require either faster, smarter thinking or more than one retry in order to succeed.
Even if the crux of the game is merely tile-shifting on grids, the 3-D models are impressive—fully realized polygonal steampunk art with believable wood, copper, and other metal textures—and the fact that the puzzles often require you to think about more than one surface at a time makes the game more complex and interesting than the primitive toys it was inspired by. Fine music and fittingly old, gear-and-crank sound effects help create the right mood, as well.
That’s all good news, so here’s the bad part: unless you plunk down the full $5 amount, the game feels way, way too short. A decent player can blow through the first ten levels in an hour, and by providing the first of four “ten more puzzles are available” buttons when you’ve finished them, Cogs lets you know that it’s cutting you off mid-game for another $1 just as it’s warming up. Then it repeats this exercise three more times, telling you to cough up another buck thereafter for until you’ve paid $5 for 50 levels, achieved through five separate transactions. Lazy8’s PC version of the game more wisely offered the first 8 levels for free in a demo, then the full 50 levels for a single purchase price. Players who are willing to go through the annoyance of unlocking the game with repeated cash infusions will find it to be as impressively designed as it is visually unique; even if Cogs is not strictly brilliant, it’s very well executed, and as a full game, certainly worth $5. iLounge Rating: B+.
When Gameloft sees a competitor’s game that’s popular on another platform, you can be sure that it’ll be working on a version for the App Store, and Pocket Chef ($5) is its ode to Cooking Mama, Taito’s Nintendo DS and iPhone title that turns recipe preparation into a game. Both titles have you use touch-based controls to slice, mix, and cook ingredients, but Gameloft evolves the original 2-D cartoony concept by using 3-D kitchens and digitized textures for the food. The resulting game isn’t exactly awesome, but it’s semi-novel, and may appeal to parents who want to teach their kids about cooking.
Each of the recipes is divided into brief exercises: fried chicken, for instance, starts with cutting pink breast meat using downward slicing gestures with a knife, swiping the meat off of the cutting board to move on to the next piece; next, you crack eggs with swipes of a power meter, whisk them at a proper pace with spinning gestures, dip the chicken pieces with arc-shaped gestures into eggs and breading, then deep fry them—oddly using your fingers to pull them from the oil. There are five recipes per kitchen, each segmented into these different stages for roughly five total minutes of gameplay, and five kitchens: American, Ethnic, Veggie, European, and Sweet Tooth, sequentially unlocked in that order as you complete all of the recipes in a given kitchen.
Though the action in Pocket Chef isn’t exactly exciting—chopping tomatoes, onions, and meat with a virtual knife is unfortunately not satisfying or as precise as one might hope given the wizardry of cooking TV shows—the game’s educational content is nice enough, providing not only the walkthroughs of the recipes but also cooking pointers for replicating them in real life, including Curry Kebabs, Banana Flambes a la Mode, and Cheeseburgers: each is in a recipe book that serves as a convenient shortcut for quickly replaying stages you’ve completed. And though the in-game audio is somewhat limited, consisting only of voices and sound effects as you’re prepping the food, jazzy intro music ties the kitchens together, and you can pick iPod music if you’d like to hear it while you’re cooking. For the $5 asking price, Pocket Chef offers enough to satisfy younger players; more compelling gameplay and music would have made it a better pick for older or more sophisticated gamers. iLounge Rating: B.
After Namco dropped the ball with the amazingly dodgy Alpine Racer for the iPhone, virtually any snowboarding or skiing game with a decent 3-D engine would look better. That having been said, Exient and X2 Games’ X2 Snowboarding ($7) might be a little expensive given current App Store pricing standards, but it’s impressively developed by comparison with other snow sports games we’ve tried on this platform, rivaling the overall experience of Nintendo’s since-discontinued 1080 Snowboarding series.
What shocked us in X2 Snowboarding was the fact that the game felt legitimately complete by Sony PSP or Nintendo DS standards within minutes of picking it up: not only has X2 Games made some unusual and smart interface choices that get you right into playing the game, but it also brings you quickly into smoothly-rendered 3-D courses with legitimately cool licensed music, creating an atmosphere that just feels “right” for snowboarding. Using cel-shaded artwork and funky dance tracks, X2 evokes the edgy look, sound, and feel of Sega’s Jet Set Radio series, minus only the graffiti and fisticuffs. If anything’s missing, it’s the feel of particle-based falling and shifting snow, which is left out here in favor of simpler overlay and smoke trail-like special effects.
X2 has also mostly figured out the right way to make snowboarding fun on Apple’s devices, from the initial interface through the actual gameplay. Using a minimal number of obvious buttons, the game presents you with a choice of six characters, lets you swipe the screen to choose between six courses—four initially locked—and then offers multiple boards for the characters, also unlockable. If you just want to start the game without changing anything, that’s a button press away, but you can tap on characters, stages, or boards to make changes if you want. You earn stars by doing lots of tricks in freestyle mode or coming in ahead of the pack in races; the game’s only interface weakness is in making the freestyle/race mode selection a little too oblique with a far-right-of-screen pointing finger.
And as with everything else in the title, the action during the races and freestyle events is satisfying—designed to be fun rather than completely realistic, and challenging rather than as brutally stop-and-start as in some snowboarding titles we’ve played. The mountain courses provide you with multiple routes to explore, bonuses for climbing higher using rails, and numerous opportunities to jump, flip, and grind for points. During a jump, on-screen icons appear just long enough to let you grab your board and do tricks, allowing you to focus on accelerometer-aided steering and edging out opponents. Fine AI enables them to provide a real challenge, and between the rarity of game-stopping smashes into the scenery and the star-based unlocking system, there’s plenty to play and enjoy. At a lower price, X2 Snowboarding would be a must-see for most iPhone and iPod touch owners; even for $7, it’s an impressive little title that fans of the sport will really enjoy. iLounge Rating: B+.