Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems, which follows our full review of Electronic Arts’ Sim City, and precedes a separate article we’ll be publishing shortly on new iPhone flight simulators. Once again, there’s no unifying theme to this week’s Gems, as we’ve picked six titles from a number of genres that have grabbed our attention—Beer Pong Challenge, Gemmed, Pachinko, Payback, Pinball Dreams, and Time Crisis Strike.
This week’s top picks on value are the puzzle game Gemmed and the pinball game Pinball Dreams, with Namco’s arcade and console shooting adaptation Time Crisis Strike standing out as the company’s most reasonably priced iPhone game to date. Read on for all the details.
After seeing Beer Bounce, which managed to realistically simulate the bar sport of pitching a quarter into a beer mug—complete with a realistic-looking bar environment and drunken head-swaying motions—it’s hard to be impressed with the graphics of any similar title. But Beer Pong Challenge by Jeremy Lazarus tries to and succeeds at going in a different direction: it simulates a similar bar game, tossing a ping-pong ball into beer cups, with greater diversity. Beer Bounce had you repeat the same challenge over and over again as your character became progressively more tipsy; Beer Pong Challenge has you aim at different patterns of beer cups, adding the tipsiness factor to increase the challenge. This—a reason to keep playing—was the one major thing missing from Bounce.
From an interface standpoint, Beer Pong is decent. It gives you a moving red bullseye to use in sinking shots, and a button to launch your ball, with a ball-tracking 3-D perspective if you hold down the button rather than just letting it go. This is a smart trick, and a nice way to let faster players keep eliminating multiple cups while slower-paced ones enjoy the view. Unfortunately, the view’s not much to write home about. The cups and environment are boring, as are the sound effects and the absence of music; since it’s free, Beer Pong Challenge also interrupts occasionally for advertisements. This is a fair trade to keep the price down, but we wish the in-game content was more aesthetically compelling. For now, we’d call it on par with Beer Bounce; the ideal bar game would combine the strengths of both titles. iLounge Rating: B-.
Bejeweled is certainly the best known of the “match 3” genre of puzzle games, and though we’ve reviewed the iPhone version of Bejeweled 2, we occasionally see other, similar games that might be of interest to fans of the genre. In short, Gemmed ($3) by Wasted Pixel is a better but uglier alternative. You’re still presented with an 8-by-8 board full of colored gems and need to use swipe gestures to match three or more gems of the same color.
The basics of the genre remain intact. There are still match-assisting bonus items that appear under certain conditions, including multi-matching rainbow gems, bomb gems, and clouds that rain more gems down of the same color into the playfield. The new twist is the presence of colored “monsters” that need to be removed from the board by steering them—with gem matches—towards specific exits on the edges of the board. You keep playing through 50 levels with varying numbers of monsters, gem colors, and power-ups. It’s no exaggeration to say that the gameplay is twice as engaging as Bejeweled 2’s.
But the AV isn’t. The gems, monsters, and board don’t look hot, there aren’t any post-stage special effects, and the music is repetitive and forgettable. While Gemmed isn’t painful to look at or hear, it’s no exaggeration to say that this game could easily be called Bejeweled Monsters and sell in the millions with better aesthetics; as-is, it’s a budget-priced alternative that fans of the genre will unquestionably appreciate for its novelty. iLounge Rating: B+.
In Japan, the mob controls massive and popular legalized gambling parlors filled with “pachinko” machines: think pinball machines, only completely vertical in orientation, with balls following a semi-random course through tiny metal pegs once they’re dropped from the top of the board by the player. If the player’s good, he sinks the balls into little baskets and earns more balls to keep playing, then trades the balls in for prizes, then—thanks to the mob—swaps the prizes for cash. As with pinball tables, there are thousands of types of pachinko machines with varying degrees of flashiness, and many people go into Japanese parlors and play for hours in hopes of winning some cash.
In the iPhone game Pachinko ($1, aka Classic Pachinko) from On-Core, you’re given a single, old-fashioned table with a small collection of balls to start. A lever on the bottom right of the screen is pulled, gently or harshly, to launch balls onto the table. They fall from the top of the screen into either little or big baskets, generating jackpots. Once you win enough balls, the game ends, regardless of how many balls you have left. Like many of the gambling games released thus far for the iPhone, the lack of any real stakes is ultimately not very satisfying; you’re basically playing for the sake of keeping yourself occupied, with the reward of seeing the word “victory” on screen after a certain amount of play.
On-Core’s rendition is decent, not great. There are few sound effects, no music, and nothing flashy whatsoever about the graphics—the machine simulated here is “classic” in that it lacks for most of the modern video screen, audio, and special effects that pachinko machines have been including for decades now. The play mechanics, pulling the lever and watching what happens, are fairly dull and aided only by the fact that you can launch multiple balls at a time and change the settings to make it easier or harder to win. Ultimately, a title of this sort will work best if there’s a leaderboard, a wider selection of modern pachinko boards, and a little big more excitement to keep people playing. If real pachinko was like this, the mob would have been out of business years ago. iLounge Rating: C-.
We’re not going to review Apex Designs’ Payback ($7) at this point, but we felt that it was worth spotlighting in iPhone Gems this week anyway. It is a clone of the original, comparatively unambitious Grand Theft Auto—not GTA’s fully 3-D, behind-the-player blockbuster sequels—placing you in control of a character who runs, guns, and carjacks his way through missions dispensed from payphones in levels that are presented from an overhead perspective. One mission teaches you how to go from using your fists to carrying a shotgun and grenades; another has you learn to drive a limousine as a getaway car. It’s the same amoral, player-as-unrepentant gangster content people have grown to love in the GTA games, now on the iPhone.
The reason we’re not reviewing Payback fully today is that it’s a mess. Apex Designs has come up with a surprisingly ambitious piece of software that’s packed with voice samples, polygonal worlds that use surprisingly smooth lighting, special effects, and animated vehicles, and plenty of missions to keep you occupied. But it hasn’t gotten the control scheme right. On-screen buttons move your foot-based character or car forward or backward, while turning the iPhone spins the world around—frequently out of control. Other on-screen buttons change contextually to let you throw a punch, shoot a gun, honk a horn, or get in and out of vehicles. Presses aren’t always met with appropriate results. It’s imprecise and occasionally frustrating, compounded by the camera’s position above the action: it’s occasionally so far above that you’re looking at a screen full of rooftop rather than any people or vehicles.
So why bother talking about Payback? At a whopping 221 Megabytes, there is so much to see and do in this game that we want to like it. Apex Designs just needs to get the interface and control worked out to make it worth paying anything for. For now, this is a title only for that group of serious gamers who are willing to put up with crazy controls; we’re going to give it a week or two and rate it when the developers have had a chance to make the gameplay catch up with the rest of the content.
Despite a couple of high-profile ZEN Pinball releases from Publisher X, the iPhone has not in our view come close to touching its pinball potential: we’re not excited about paying $5 to play a single, simple pinball machine, even if—like the ZEN titles—the machine is fully rendered in 3-D. Thus, we are legitimately enthusiastic about the idea that a company called Cowboy Rodeo came up with: it licensed a four-machine 1992 Commodore Amiga pinball collection called Pinball Dreaming: Pinball Dreams, and is selling it for $6 on the App Store.
First, the positives. Pinball Dreams does in fact have four distinctive pinball tables, each with two physical levels—a main board and a set of elevated ramps. They range in theme from the sci-fi Ignition to the country-western Steel Wheel, the DJ-music-themed Beat Box, and the horror-inspired Nightmare. Each of the boards has its own art, its own different challenges, unique music, and special sound effects. We really liked the music and appreciated the sound effects, which thanks to the glories of 1990’s Amiga audio chips go beyond virtually all of the iPhone titles we’ve heard to date. There’s a little bit of sadness in that statement, but generally, Pinball Dreams is fun to listen to.
The negatives are in the graphics and interface. Despite some visual upgrades to the original titles—the classic art can be toggled on if you wish—the pinball machines are fairly boring by comparison with ones we’ve seen in many other console and portable titles over the last 20 years; they don’t have much flash, and besides truly modest light and bumper animations, there’s not much going on here. Still, there are times when the otherwise smooth ball motion stutters a little. Similarly, though Cowboy Rodeo has made the gameplay fairly intuitive: tap the left or right sides of the screen for flippers, tilt to shake the machine, and so on, the game doesn’t make it easy to switch tables, or even offer an in-game reference screen for the controls. Instead, you need to figure out them out from a fast-moving, flashing display at the top of a given board, or tap the game’s logo on the initial splash screen. For the dollar, Pinball Dreams is a good value, but it doesn’t take much to imagine more exciting pinball action on this platform. iLounge Rating: B.
We’ve previously knocked Namco for a series of mediocre cash-in titles for both Click Wheel iPods and the iPhone, but today, we’re ready to offer some praise—only slightly qualified—for its latest title. As an arcade alternative to Sega’s series of Virtua Cop first-person shooting games, Time Crisis was generally superior: you were given a gun and a foot pedal, using the pedal to make your character pop up from behind walls and strategically placed boxes to fire bullets at gun-toting enemies. Now the iPhone has Time Crisis Strike ($6), a three-level mini version of the game with the same type of gameplay, enabling you to traverse a set path through 3-D levels, popping up to take out villains.
The good news: this is an entirely competent, if not particularly ambitious version of Time Crisis. You get to shoot down multiple polygonal enemies, mostly humans, some in vehicles, as well as destroying portions of the scenery by firing bullets into explosive objects. Namco’s core gameplay mechanics—ducking to reload your bullets, popping up while avoiding circular red danger markers from attackers, and occasional confrontations with enemies with big life bars—are all here, too. The first level has you shooting and then ducking to avoid getting hit by the turret of a tank, the last level puts you in a showdown with cool guy villain Wild Dog. Additional challenge micro-stages let you try to take out a certain number of vehicles in a given allotment of time. The graphics aren’t stunning, but they’re acceptable, and the audio is exactly what we’d expect from prior Time Crisis titles: good, energetic music and appropriate sound effects.
What ultimately sinks Time Crisis Strike somewhat is its limited scope. Namco hasn’t preserved the multi-path, multi-weapon, extended levels of this game’s console predecessors, making this rendition of Time Crisis feel more like an upgraded mobile phone game than a slightly cut-down console or handheld title. Apart from having to master the less than ideal mechanism of tilting the iPhone to make yourself pop out of your protective hiding spot, beating the first two levels shouldn’t prove much of a challenge for most players—tapping to shoot is really straightforward and generally responsive—and there isn’t much left to do at that point. Consider this a cheap, brief version of a really good game, and you won’t be disappointed; Namco could easily get away with charging more for an extended version. iLounge Rating: B.