After months that saw a steady stream of major new game releases for the iPhone and iPod touch, the last couple of weeks have offered slim pickings for our iPhone Gems column, as developers have been working to add iPhone OS 3.0 feature support and iPhone 3GS hardware improvements to their apps. This week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems looks at three relatively “small” titles that have nonetheless made a splash in the App Store: Bionic Surfer, GloBall, and Zombies & Me.
Our top pick of the week is the inexpensive, impressive accelerometer-based brick-busting game GloBall. Read on for the details.
Bionic Surfer ($3) by Robert Casperson is one of the most surprising iPhone action-platformers we’ve seen—a side-scrolling run, jump, and shoot game that could be understood as Konami’s Contra for kids. You control a seemingly teenaged guy dressed in board shorts as he runs through five planets filled with aliens, using various guns to take them down. Every stage requires you to find at least 10 crystals to activate a “global transporter” that takes you to the next of 20 stages.
The “for kids” part is important, as Bionic Surfer doesn’t offer the intensity or the impressiveness of the classic Konami shooter series, but it manages to remain compelling based on its light puzzle content. One of the first guns you get is actually a gravity-bending laser that grabs certain items and drags them around on screen to your chosen position; you can sometimes use this to grab barrels to stack as steps, or pull glowing crystals down from unreachable platforms to your level. Then there are the various types of platforms, including teleporters, bouncers, activators, and checkpoints, and the guns, which increase in power and capabilities over time. Aiming is mostly automatic, leaving you to run, jump, and choose when to shoot, but you can manually aim under certain circumstances as well.
By individual developer standards, Bionic Surfer is a cool little title, teaching you its various play mechanics at a fair pace, and moving you through varying types of alien encounters in circumstances that range from dead serious—huge, screen-filling bosses—to amusing, such as when certain enemies bounce up and down on trampoline-like platforms as you shoot them. It’s obvious that the game is tightly scripted, but it also benefits from a simple ragdoll physics engine: when you ride a surfboard-like platform down a hill, momentum glides it into a hole in the ground, and enemies crumble into piles of limbs rather than just disappearing. Casperson includes fine music, a half-tutorial storyline that is accessed in bite-sized chunks of text during the levels, and a complete save system that actually works well. There’s a lot to like here for $3; more impressive special effects and audio would make the game even better. A version called Bionic Surfer Free is available for those who want to sample the action. iLounge Rating: B.
There are few titles that really show the value of the iPhone OS’s accelerometer-based controls, but GloBall ($1) from Robot Super Brain is one of them. The idea is simple: think Atari’s Breakout without the paddle, where the ball can float freely through mazes with bricks and other obstacles inside, and you need to tilt the iPhone or iPod touch to make sure that it takes out all of the bricks. Then, GloBall adds its Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. elements, such as ghost-like monsters that change color when you can kill them, coins that can be collected to rack up extra men, and spinning pillars of danger that you need to time your movements to pass.
In a phrase, GloBall is pure fun—the sort of simple game that won’t scare anyone off, yet from level to level keeps introducing little things that make you appreciate the design a little more. Power-ups enhance your ball’s ability to destroy multiple bricks or enemies at once, secret chambers appear in the mazes to give you extra coins, and as each level ends, your ball glows in a Rez-like, white light fashion that signals a transition to the next stage. Even where the game isn’t as stylish as it could easily be, it pulls off neat effects and manages to remain compelling. It would be very easy to imagine this title completely blowing people away with a little extra visual design work.
But the developer appears to be going in a different direction that will also work well: already blessed with 43 levels, GloBall is going to get an update with more content, which has us in an anxious waiting pattern. At the time of press, the game is selling for a dollar, with the free version GloBall Lite available as a teaser. If you can get it for a dollar, don’t hesitate; otherwise, if a substantial amount of extra content or additional visual work is added, a higher price could surely be justified. iLounge Rating: A-.
Whether it’s an experiment or a cynical commentary on what sort of game Electronic Arts thinks is worthy of a $1 asking price, Zombies & Me is an odd and shallow little piece of software: a nicely drawn but plain game in which you tap or drag your finger on the iPhone screen to move a character across a landscape as he’s chased by masses of zombies. For whatever reason, EA is publishing this under the “8 lb. Gorilla” label.
Your goal is to make the zombies walk towards bullseyes that appear on the ground, indicating where missiles are about to strike the area. Linger for just the right amount of time and the zombies get hit by the big missiles, causing explosions, a point that EA dwells on in its App Store page: “endless zombies to explode! Explosions!! More explosions!!!” and so on. The idea is to just keep killing as many zombies as you can, while listening to either your iPod music or a pipe organ track that’s included with the game.
Other than the fact that you can get grabbed by the zombies and chewed up, requiring taps to free yourself, or get hit by a missile, causing your death, there’s little to concentrate on here other than a “kills” tally that continues to mount as you succeed in luring zombies to their death, and a lifebar for a house that sits in the center of the property with a grandmother inside. Stupid little phrases appear from inside the house as you play, as a jokey way to try and make the game more interesting. It doesn’t work; all EA demonstrates with Zombies & Me is that it too can come up with a nothing special game for $1, which would be no surprise to anyone who’s purchased many of its competitors’ products, but a big surprise to anyone who makes a purchase based on EA’s reputation for games with depth and extended longevity. Sticking to better-developed titles and charging a little more for them would be just fine by us. iLounge Rating: C-.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.