It’s another week of quality over quantity, as our gaming edition of iPhone Gems looks at four eye-catching titles, 75% of which actually earn at least our general-level recommendation, and one of which rates our exceedingly rare flat A high recommendation. Two of the titles are sports games: one a clone of Nintendo’s famous boxing game Punch-Out!!, and the other an officially licensed Major League Baseball game. The other two titles are a puzzle game and a futuristic 3-D tank strategy game.
Which one of these games rates a flat A? And which are worthy of attention from fans of their respective genres? Read on for all the details!
If there’s anything that should convince you to ignore the fact that you’ve already seen a crazy number of tile-matching games on the iPhone and iPod touch, consider our high recommendation proof positive that you have to see Azkend ($5, currently $3) from MythPeople. As one of the most impressively executed puzzle titles yet for this platform, Azkend presents players with a hexagon-based grid full of icons and a familiar enough concept—match three or more icons by swiping through them in sequence—then adds enough twists and sparkle to make every level completely addictive.
Initially, each grid is merely there to have you make enough matches to turn every tile’s background blue—the contents of tiles disappear when matched, only to be replaced by gravity-dropped additional tiles. After all of the tiles are blue, then a piece of a talisman is dropped into a tile at the top of the board, and all of the tiles beneath it need to be removed in order to finish the level. Assembling each talisman requires you to complete five levels, and once a talisman’s created, it begins to appear as a new, powerful piece on the next several levels: matching four or more talisman icons sets off a tile-clearing bomb, a tile-smashing hammer, or other effects. From level to level,earning new talismans, clearing increasing varieties of tiles—including frozen and locked ones—and trying to create even bigger chains of tiles is purely fun. Purely. Unlike so many iPhone OS titles, there’s nothing aggravating or screwed up about this game design; it just works. Bonus levels between some stages have you hunt for clues in a picture to earn additional time to complete the puzzles.
MythPeople has also nailed this game’s aesthetics, using a “Far East” theme that’s spiced up by mystical visual shimmers, lighting bolts, fading and flipping icons, and explosions as you play, all animated flawlessly; similarly, vaguely spooky background audio and constantly interesting sound effects make the levels interesting to hear, as well. In addition to the talismans and stages, which are unlocked with continued play, achievements can be earned for especially impressive matching feats and continued use of your talismanic powers, and an additional game mode appears, as well. Azkend is without question one of the very best puzzle games on the iPhone and iPod touch, a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP-quality title that’s fully worthy of its asking price. iLounge Rating: A.
As impossible as it may have been for companies to come up with the original formula for Nintendo’s classic boxing game Punch-Out!! way back when, they’ve somehow failed to duplicate it properly even after twenty years. Many companies have good excuses: they’ve focused on making their graphics or gameplay engines more interesting, or brought on licensed boxers to let players feel like they were playing as or against legendary pugilists. But when a company out and out tries to knock off the 1987 original game and fails, we can’t offer either sympathy or praise, and that’s what Fist of Fury Boxing ($3) by Subrb does.
Equipped with the classic Nintendo NES controller, players of Punch-Out!! could throw multiple types of punches, dodge left and right, and put up their arms to block. Subrb clones the exact visual style of Punch-Out, complete with the flat, boring ring backdrop, on-screen meters, and bodies of the characters, redrawing the original fighters but replacing their heads and limiting their moves. You tilt your iPhone to the left or to the right to dodge, and hit two on-screen buttons to throw “left punch” or “right punch.” That’s it. Everything that wasn’t compatible with this simplified control scheme—Little Mac’s knockout punch, blocking, and so on—is gone, leaving the game virtually bankrupt on play mechanics. And the audio? “Borrowed” from Punch-Out!!, too.
At some point—probably when this happened to Duck Hunt—we ceased to be amazed by “developers” who were actually doing little more than copying Nintendo games and charging for them, or Apple, which appears to be taking a “collect cash, look other way” approach to approving titles that are clearly knock-offs of earlier games. In its current form, Fist of Fury Boxing is nothing but a mediocre rip-off of Punch-Out with neither gameplay not longevity on its side, as Subrb has included only five samey opponents with the promise of adding more in future updates. Perhaps the developer can be convinced to add some creativity, original art, and real music to the title, as well. iLounge Rating: D-.
Last year, we reviewed and liked a simple, free 2-D game called Cannon Challenge that was released by the Discovery Channel to promote a TV show about artillery of the future. PolarBit has taken this title and created an advanced, impressive 3-D version called Iron Sight ($1), allowing you to control a similar rocket-firing tank—actually, more than one—in a futuristic, turn-based battle against enemy tanks located elsewhere in eight different levels.
What’s impressive about Iron Sight is the intuitiveness of the interface and control scheme. You’re presented with a map, an on-screen four-direction joypad, and a fire button that is held down to determine the power of your shot, then released to fire off your rocket. Different types of rockets are available, some unlimited but most limited in number, varying in power and spread. Firing one type of rocket may take out an opponent in a single, well-placed shot, while another will spread out into a line or a cube of rockets to do less damage in a wider swath; additional items are dropped into the level for a limited number of turns in the middle of the action. You move one tank and take a shot, your enemy does the same, and then you move another tank and repeat the process. Whoever’s left standing with at least one tank wins.
While Iron Sight’s graphics and sounds aren’t spectacular, they’re pretty good: the 3-D engine has a very smooth frame rate but coarse textures, and though there’s no in-game music, the pre-game music and in-game sound effects are well-suited to the theme and the mostly strategic gameplay. The inclusion of factors such as wind impacts on projectiles, different terrain elevations, and changing tank positions are all cool in one-player mode—limited only by the game’s lack of targeting guidance after a first practice level—while a multi-player mode provides players the chance to hand off the iPhone or iPod touch to a friend on each turn, or play over the Internet in an online game room. Nothing came up when we tried to find an active room online, but when we created one ourselves, we found an opponent within a couple of minutes, complete with text chat capabilities. For now, Polarbit is offering a fun, solid little 3-D tank strategy game at a reasonable price; it will be fascinating to watch how and whether this title evolves over time. iLounge Rating: B+.
Also developed by Polarbit, MLB World Series ‘09 ($8) is an MLB.com release, and the first “real” 3-D baseball game for the iPhone OS platform. Cutting some corners, Polarbit has managed to create simple polygonal players, mostly flat but different stadiums, and basic touchscreen and accelerometer-based controls—all of which do just enough to check off the boxes players would expect to see at a bare minimum in a real iPhone baseball game, without doing anything so spectacularly well that people should or will be genuinely thrilled.
Initially, it looks like MLB World Series has adopted a batting and pitching only approach to rendering the sport, having players hit an on-screen button to throw or swing, and then tilt the device to aim either for the catcher’s mitt or for the oncoming ball. This mechanism is simple, but works very well to make both pitches and swings interesting—all that’s missing is the follow-through. Once the ball’s in play, fielding is all handled automatically, and the batter does little more than occasionally hit an on-screen “slide” button. But dive into the options and you’ll find a manual setting for fielding, letting you take some control over what happens after the ball is retrieved by someone on the field: you can then tap on a map of the bases to throw it from plate to plate. This isn’t exactly console-quality action, but then, the iPhone still lacks for a console-quality controller.
Hard-core fans of the sport will find the MLB’s approach to realism here to be interesting, but incomplete. On the plus side, there’s a season mode, a World Series mode with 3-, 6-, and 9-inning settings to make things proceed faster, and a simple exhibition game mode if you’re not looking to play many games in a row. On the negative side, since there’s no MLBPA license, you get renditions of 30 team names, logos, and jerseys, but no player names, so you’ll see stats alongside characters such as “Starting Pitcher” and “Left Fielder.” Additionally, there are only four MLB stadiums to vary in graphics, with different pitching and batting backgrounds depending on where you’re playing, and fields that have only the slightest hints of 3-D depth; the sounds are consistently disappointing, with little more than plain crowd noise and the occasional crack of a bat to appeal to your ears. It’s not hard to imagine better versions of this sport appearing for the iPhone, but by comparison with what’s out there right now, MLB World Series is a pretty good alternative, albeit at a price that seems high given the overall quality of the experience. iLounge Rating: B.