The latest edition of iPhone Gems focuses mostly on five noteworthy games from the past week, but we also look at a couple of unusual new applications that aren’t easy to categorize.
What’s worth your attention? Check out Aki Mahjong and Break Classic, then skip over to Koi Pond unless the other titles really grab your attention.
Aki Mahjong, Revisited
Though we’re not going to do this often, or even more than once in a great while, we decided to take another look at Ambrosia Software’s Aki Mahjong ($5) after the company released updated version 1.0.2. Back when we originally reviewed Aki, the game was rigidly structured, selling for $10, and suffering from graphics that didn’t look as if they’d been especially well-optimized for the iPhone’s screen. Part of this was the developer’s artistic choice. The other part was, well, subject to improvement.
The revised version of Aki Mahjong is unquestionably better than its predecessor. Like some of our other favorites on the iPhone, you can select immediately from a collection of 25 different table layouts with unique backgrounds. Ambrosia’s tiles, which previously looked blocky and dithered on the screen, have been updated with cleaner, sharper versions. And you now have the ability to use pinch and expand gestures to zoom in and out of portions of the board. Consequently, the game looks better, offers an immediately expanded collection of art and layouts to play with, and gives you a little more control over your view of each board.
This isn’t to say that the game has been radically improved over what came before; the background artwork, which we previously described as suited to the walls of an old Chinese restaurant, continues to use muted tones that aren’t quite as exciting as what we’ve seen in Shanghai Mahjong. Your perspective on the board, while improved a bit with zoom, sometimes leaves layer-deep tiles a bit obscured. And the crux of the game, a level-based progression through various scenes from Japan, is the same. But there is a lot to like about Aki Mahjong, including the music, so for the $5 asking price, we think it’s worthy of a higher rating. iLounge Rating: B+.
We only half understand iPod and iPhone game designers’ obsession with Breakout. Yes, it’s a classic arcade game. Yes, Steve Jobs worked on it way back when as an employee of Atari. And yes, a version of it was hidden in early iPods as an example of the device’s gaming potential, then formally added as a game to subsequent versions of the device. But seriously, does the world really need another Breakout game?
Apart from Taito’s Arkanoid, which we think did a great job of evolving the formula, we might have said no, but we actually enjoyed playing Break Classic ($3) by Bootant. It is unashamedly Breakout in a classic form—you have a stick-shaped paddle at the bottom of a well, reflecting back a ball to smash bricks at the top of the screen—but the combination of translucent 3-D blocks, frequent multi-balls, and interesting, changing backgrounds and patterns keep the game interesting from level to level. At least in the version we played, you can’t get lasers, paddle-wideners, or other power ups a la Arkanoid and Apple’s similar iPod follow-up Vortex, but items drop down from the blocks for bonus points, providing an incentive to move away from the obvious trajectory of each incoming ball.
What we really liked about Break Classic was the $3 price. As a visually improved update of a very old game, Break Classic doesn’t seem like it’s worth $5 or $10, but this waypoint seemed fair to us—enough to compensate the developer for his effort but not a ransom. We look forward to seeing how Break Classic evolves with continued point releases, as the developer keeps adding new levels and other tweaks to improve the title. iLounge Rating: B+.
We enjoy checking out free apps. We especially enjoy trying free games. So there’s no reason that you shouldn’t take a look at Andy Qua’s Cube Runner (Free), a title that has spent significant time in the App Store’s Top 10 and is now in the top 15.
However, don’t expect to be especially impressed. There’s nothing deceptive or in any way wrong with how this game is named or presented: it presents a flat blue sky, a flat gray ground, and a bunch of 3-D cubes that move towards you. You, by the way, are an arrow, and if you touch the cubes, you disintegrate into a collection of square dots. Several difficulty levels make the motion slower or faster, depending on how intense you want your cube-running action to be. We can’t claim to be enthusiastic enough about the action or presentation here to ever want to pick up this title again, but as our standards for free, demo-class iPhone games are lower than they are for paid ones, we’d call this one average overall, and worthy of its price. iLounge Rating: C.
Our review of Konami’s remake of the 1981 arcade game Frogger ($10) could consist of two pithy words: “skip it.” But that wouldn’t be fair: we’ve said so much more about other bad iPhone games that this one really deserves an equivalent explanation. To date ourselves a little, we’ll note that we used to play and enjoy both Frogger and its early home clones, and have since tried a few of the official sequels. Few of these titles would be worth paying $10 for on the iPhone, but some of the 3-D versions—or compilation—might be worth seeing.
Konami’s iPhone Frogger is the original game with a new coat of paint. There’s a single screen divided into two halves, one with cars, the other with logs. You need to cross the highway full of cars starting at the bottom, jump on the logs, and land on one of several spaces at the top of the screen. After five successful crosses, you move on to the next, almost identical level, but now there will be faster cars, snakes on the logs, and so on. The graphics stay the same, the action stays the same, and there’s some weak music that’s more annoying than enjoyable to keep you awake.
One gets the sense that Bootant put more effort into coding a single level of Break Classic than Konami did in the entire game engine for Frogger. The redrawn graphics aren’t attractive or interesting—they’re just more detailed versions of the 25+ year old originals, which weren’t great to begin with. All that’s really new is your ability to move with touch motions or tilts of the iPhone, the latter feature worthless in our view. Frogger in this form wouldn’t even be good as a giveaway title; for $10, it deserves to be squashed on the App Store’s superhighway. iLounge rating: D.
GTS World Racing
We love 3-D racing games—so much so that our first iPhone Gems roundup was focused on them. You can now add to that list Handmark’s GTS World Racing ($8), a title which unfortunately feels underdeveloped relative to the others we’ve previously reviewed. It starts on promising notes: you can choose from traditional or Formula One cars, 16 different countries, and 4 difficulty levels. The steering, despite being accelerometer-based and imperfect, does not suck. There’s decent rock music in the background. And almost everything’s in 3-D, from the cars to the backgrounds. This is all good.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t comparable to the best Sony, Sega, or Namco racers people have enjoyed over the past 10 years; rather, it’s about as advanced as Namco’s disappointing Pole Position: Remix for the iPod. Unlike any of the other titles we’ve looked at for the iPhone, the different countries consist basically of a different flat piece of background art and small changes to the roadside scenery. One country will have palm trees, another cactuses. They all have drab-looking tunnels, and none have any elevated surfaces. And while the engine provides a solid frame rate, even with a few cars on screen at once, nothing ever approaches the detail or visual interest level of Cro-Mag Racing, Wingnuts Moto Racer, or Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart. It’s just stage after stage of bland driving on tracks that are highly samey—steps behind first-generation PlayStation and PlayStation Portable Namco titles such as the Ridge Racers.
None of this is to say that GTS World Racing is a bad game; it’s not. But for $8, a driving game needs more than just simple texture swaps and differences in curves to be interesting. To Handmark’s credit, GTS World Racing is about as exciting as Pole Position: Remix from a gameplay perspective, and better graphically, but its higher price drops it down a little in our view. iLounge Rating: C.
The iPhone really needs its own version of After Dark, a set of Macintosh screensavers that famously included “Flying Toasters,” a collection of winged, chrome toasters that flew across the screen with pieces of toast. It’s not that the aggressively power-managed iPhone desperately needs a screensaver, but that Apple’s products have long been known for inspiring developers to put out quirky, funny little pieces of software, and as weird as it sounds, the Flying Toaster screensaver was symbolic of the Mac’s old development community: charming, practical, and memorably different.
A new app called Koi Pond ($1) from The Blimp Pilots is not going to be the iPhone’s After Dark or Flying Toasters, but in a world where Apple’s devices didn’t have to shut off their screens to conserve energy, one could easily imagine the company including it with every iPhone. You’re presented with the classically zen combination of water, lily pads, and Koi fish—oversized goldfish in different colors. They swim around on the screen as you watch, and you can touch the water to make it ripple. That’s it; settings let you adjust the number of fish or lily pads, change the background color modestly, and nothing else.
The Blimp Pilots have the right general idea, the right look and feel, and the right price for this application. It’s slightly charming and different from what else is out there. But there’s no hook to make you keep coming back to it, no practical need to run it independently, and not enough color or other visual customization to let you get it exactly the way you want it—you can tweak the pond, but not really improve it, or radically change it. Is it as pointless to hope for more from a zen application as it would be from a zen garden? Ideally, Koi Pond could be made so “right” that we’d open it just to relax; right now, it’s close enough that we lose relaxation thinking about how we’d fix it. Not a bad start, though: iLounge Rating: B.
There’s one and only one reason we’re featuring Pour1out (Free) in iPhone Gems, and then, we should note up front that it’s the first “Rated 17+” title we’ve ever covered on iLounge. The reason: it is an amusing, if not especially well-executed demonstration of how a free iPhone app can be used as a promotional tool for companies. We picked it so that other developers might be inspired by the concept.
We actually laughed at the application description found in the App Store for Pour1out: “Do you ever wish you could pour one out for a homie, but don’t have a 40oz nearby? Wait, you just bought a $200 phone, do you even know what a 40 of malt liquor is?” Well, for those who haven’t heard of 40’s, malt liquor, or pouring one out, the idea is to honor a dead friend by spilling some of a beer or another alcoholic drink on the ground—a tribute sometimes offered to dead rappers and the like. Pour1out uses a digitized bottle of malt liquor, animated like a movie to show the motion of pouring its contents out, all triggered by your tilting of the device’s accelerometer. It’s nothing fancy, and not necessarily as impressive as iBeer, but yeah, it works.
What’s interesting about Pour1out is that unlike iBeer, it’s free. And it’s actually a promotion for the developer’s web site, 40Cozy, which sells decorative temperature wraps (“cozies”) for 40s and other drinks—you can even put a cozy of your choice on the iPhone’s animated bottle. The idea of selling “cozies” for 40s, traditionally wrapped in brown paper bags, is laughable on its face, but the concept of promoting a product with an iPhone app is really smart. Clicking on the i icon within Pour1out provides links to the company’s web site to order the cozies, as well as to Google Maps to locate a nearby liquor store, again sort of stupid but funny. When you’re done chuckling, just imagine how many of these apps will be showing up over the next year or two—some may actually be good. iLounge Rating: C-.
Earlier iPhone Gems can be found here.