Over the past couple of months, three different space shooting titles have lingered on the home screens of our iPhones and iPod touches. Though we’ve been playing them, we wanted to wait until we could fully explore their ins and outs before reviewing and rating them.
Two of these titles—Blue Attack! and Blue Defense!—are the highlight of this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems, with the Lite version of Blue Defense! serving as a nice teaser for the full game. Another hard to forget shooter, Zero Chance, is also featured, alongside two new racing games called Big Fun Racing and Days of Thunder. All of the titles this week are a little quirky, but each has a feature or two that will appeal to a certain niche of gamers.
As much as we enjoy seeing developers flex the iPhone’s 3-D graphics hardware, we definitely appreciate both modern and retro takes on the 2-D shooter genre, as well. John Kooistra’s recent Blue Defense! ($2) and Blue Defense! Lite (Free) are textbook examples of how to make a compelling retro 2-D shooter for Apple’s devices. Players can select from 45 single-screen levels or progress through a campaign-style mode from level to level, and the objective is simple: defend your blue planet from red attackers using a single but powerful gun. Your planet’s life is represented with a population number at the top of the screen, and you can only take so many hits before everyone’s dead and the game ends.
Blue Defense’s gameplay is utterly straightforward: there are no buttons to press, and the only way to control the game is to rotate the iPhone or iPod touch. As each level begins, the location and screen orientation of your planet and its attackers changes, sometimes placing you in the center, and more often at the bottom of the screen, but with the device’s top, bottom, or sides redefined to be the bottom. It’s fun to have to spin the device around to figure out where you’re going to be shooting from, and easy to control the flow of bullets as they need to be directed towards your enemies. The challenge is in managing the flow such that big, dangerous spaceships are destroyed alongside the many missiles they launch, as well as the dozens of smaller ships on screen. One level may just have you shooting down hundreds of missiles, while another may hurtle a huge, missile-loaded mothership on a collision course towards your planet.
Most of the time, we advise readers to download the trial version of a game before committing their cash to a purchase, and there’s no reason to skip this step with Blue Defense!—the free Lite version offers 7 easy levels to let you see if the full game is worthwhile. That having been said, the full Blue Defense! strikes us as a truly excellent little game for the $2 asking price, and we’d suggest that trying the demo first will merely be a formality for fans of retro shooters. While we’d love to see an upgraded sequel with more special effects, power-ups, and music tracks, Blue Defense! is an extremely strong demonstration of what the iPhone’s independent developers can bring to the table at low prices. iLounge Ratings (Both): A-.
John Kooistra’s other game, Blue Attack!, preserves Blue Defense’s visual style while trading the simple gameplay for something more ambitious. Once again, the theme is “blue shooting you versus red bad guys,” but here, you’re on offense rather than defense. Your mothership drops you—the blue outline of a spaceship with matching wingmen—in the middle of space with a collection of large red enemies, each made from many small parts.
You fly around a multi-screen black space environment, hunting down enemies who appear initially as arrows on your overhead-view heads up display, then as ships with cores that can be exploded to stop their progress. As with Blue Defense, your ship keeps firing endlessly, so if you can point it at a ship’s core, you’ll either shoot it until it blows up, or crash into it if you don’t turn around. Clear all the red guys from a level and you move on to the next one; there’s always a bigger, badder boss character to destroy as well. Notably, you can be destroyed if you take too many hits, and your mothership sits in the center of the play area awaiting destruction, as well, so you need to move quickly or risk losing the battle.
The good news in Blue Attack is the level of ambition: Kooistra clearly knows how to keep a shooter interesting, offering both varied stages and a surprising degree of ship customization as an incentive to keep playing. After each level, you can use credits to change your ship’s handling characteristics, replentish its screen-clearing smartbombs, and update its weapons, while on-screen buttons can be re-customized to provide you with access to your preferred gear, wingman formations, and so on. There are 12 stages, some unlocked just by surviving an earlier level, and others by completing the prior level in a certain timeframe. These are all very strong positives, and wise ideas for a shooter—especially one that sells for only $2.
With all of the positives, however, comes a fairly significant negative: the control. For weeks, we tried to teach ourselves to like the touch input scheme, which suggests that you touch the center of the screen and swipe outwards to steer the ship, then release the swipe to continue moving in the same direction, tapping the buttons littering the left and right sides of the screen to change your attacks, formations, and settings. We never quite got used to it; once again, having to place your finger in an obscuring position on a screen where all the shooting action is happening seems backwards to us. An accelerometer-based control alternative worked better, at least letting us see everything on the display, but required some tricky user calibration and in the end, still didn’t feel quite as precise as we’d prefer. It goes without saying that Blue Attack would really benefit from an external controller. But then, so would a thousand or two other iPhone games.
Rating Blue Attack isn’t easy. While there’s more to be done and a comparatively huge degree of user customization in this title, we found ourselves enjoying the more streamlined shooting experience in Blue Defense even more. It’s tough for us to rate Attack lower than Defense given how much additional work appears to have gone into Attack, but the reality is that fun is king in retro-style games, and the trickier controls made Attack less fun for us than Defense. In our view, should the developer keep polishing this title—better controls, more music or different backgrounds, etc.—it could easily graduate into the “great” category. For now, we’d recommend it to hard core overhead shooter fans, no one else; those willing to adapt to the controls will very much appreciate its depth. iLounge Rating: B+.
The third space shooter we look at today is Zero Chance ($4) by Philipp Luftentsteiner, a 3-D title that places you in control of a ship that flies through 10 stages dodging and shooting at obstacles. We’ve spent weeks trying to get into this game, and have found it so thoroughly obtuse that we’ve decided not to bother further; we wanted to review it anyway so that other potential players could know to avoid it, or—if they’re masochists—try it.
Two decades ago, console gamers were divided on whether developers should or shouldn’t make games so difficult that some players would toss their controllers at the wall in frustration: certain gamers lived for this sort of “challenge,” and others hated it. Eventually, the haters won out, as an increasing number of titles adopted friendlier, more gradual learning curves, and gameplay techniques such as the “one hit kill,” “off-screen enemy,” and “leap of faith platform” began to fade away. Zero Chance is, essentially, a rebuke to this movement: it is so unrepentantly, stupidly difficult that some players will wonder whether the developer is a mad genius—our view is that it takes far more genius (read: Shigeru Miyamoto) to make a game fun than it does to make a game brutally hard.
The idea in Zero Chance is that you’re on a forced-progress flight through tunnel-like stages that are made up of walls, still objects, and moving objects; touching the screen moves your ship up, down, left, or right, and an accelerator on the left of the screen lets you speed up the pace if you think you can move faster. The only other button is a laser button that can be held down to destroy certain targets directly in front of you. Very little can be destroyed; most of a stage is spent avoiding collisions. This is complicated by the game’s camera concept: you need to tilt the iPhone or iPod touch into different orientations to see openings in the walls and judge the likelihood of collisions, or else, you’ll smash up. Hit something and you die. Start the whole level over. And try not to make the same mistake again.
And thus, in large part because of the camera, what could have been a really excellent game—one that already has nice 3-D background and ship artwork, ambient audio effects rather than a soundtrack, and the basic ideas for decent control—goes completely to crap, and the developer seems to be completely fine with this. The awful, crash-into-things-and-die challenge level is suggested to be an asset, part of the fun of the game. But this isn’t Ghouls’n Ghosts, Contra, or even Dragon’s Lair, the sorts of classic games that drew players back in despite how harsh they were; Zero Chance is a title that taunts you to come back but offers very little incentive, save the potential to see more of its interesting 3-D stages, to do so.
Over the past few months, we’ve tried to take a “wait and see” attitude towards several games that appeared to have tremendous potential but weren’t quite where they could or should have been in gameplay; our hope was that they’d improve after initial release. Zero Chance was one of them, and unfortunately, it hasn’t improved enough to merit a good rating. Our advice to the developer is very simple: keep your core game engine intact, offer an automatic, dynamic camera, and get some testers to help you adjust these stages until they have greater emphasis on fun rather than just challenge. This could be a great iPhone game with improved game mechanics, but as it is, it’s an unpleasant, highly stylized mess of a title. iLounge Rating: C+.
Every once in a while, an iPhone game comes along that is just so poor in the control department that we can’t believe that it was actually tested before release. Decane’s Big Fun Racing ($2) is one of those titles. The idea isn’t terribly original—you control a toy car racing in “big object” indoor levels—but the basic concept of driving around, collecting coins and doing stunts, is one that could be a winner if it was implemented properly.
Here, it isn’t. There are 50 levels, plus the option to download additional “Internet levels,” of which there were two as of today. The Internet levels are just as bad as the ones built into the game: boring open spaces blocked off by mediocre-looking objects and only modestly littered with coins to collect. Pick up all the coins in a level and you move on; miss the target number and you need to repeat the stage. We couldn’t bring ourselves to keep playing after more than six levels.
Blame the controls. You’re given an accelerator button, a reverse button, and the ability to steer by tilting the iPhone; between the awful steering and the bizarre tendency of the camera to tilt in ways that don’t help you see what’s ahead, actually trying to drive your car is the opposite of fun. The only thing that helps a little is the decent soundtrack, but in all honesty, we wouldn’t consider paying even a dollar to hear it given how insufferable the underlying game is. It blows our mind that anyone would be willing to offer praise for such a game; even for the price, it’s quite literally the worst iPhone racing game we’ve yet played. iLounge Rating: D.
Similarly budget-priced, Days of Thunder ($2) by Freeverse is a stripped-down NASCAR-style racing experience, borrowing its name from the 1990 Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman movie. You start the game as Cole Trickle, Cruise’s character, and continue through a series of loop-style races with several simple objectives: hold the accelerator down, tilt the iPhone to move left or right on the track, and occasionally brake or tilt sharply if you’re worried about getting damaged by another car. As you play, you unlock 14 different cars, as well as 12 total tracks that are spread out across six circuits, including the Days of Thunder Cup in Daytona, Florida; cartoony intermission sequences between races introduce some of the movie’s other characters, as well.
The steering has—probably wisely—been dumbed down to the point where you’re basically just trying to stay on the inside edge of the track to achieve top speeds, avoiding going on the grass or into the concrete barrier wall, which will slow you down. Most of the action is in the car collisions, which see you and your rivals smashing into each other to hopefully narrow the initial field of eight cars down to three or four. Should you “die” by running out of car “life,” indicated by a weathered stripe at the top of the screen, you come back with a time penalty, and see incapacitated rivals rise from the grave, as well. An in-game pit will fix whatever’s wrong with your car, again with a significant time penalty, which you will hope to erase with fast driving and rival take-downs.
And that’s pretty much it. Freeverse has done a fine job with the graphics engine, creating good-looking if not particularly fluid cars and tracks from 3-D polygons, and between similarly fine sound effects and music, you’d have no clue—except for the gameplay—that this was a $2 game. But that gameplay is only a few steps better than dull, robbed of the magic the typical racing game has by virtue of its limited interactivity and more cerebral approach to driving: this is a game for people who get as excited about strategizing when to pull into a pit for repairs as they do about actually driving a car.
Ultimately, Days of Thunder is a fine game, but not a standout on gameplay, graphics, or music relative to other racers we’ve reviewed for the iPhone. Fans of Sega’s classic NASCAR-inspired arcade game Daytona USA will find the pacing and action here to be only a little bit better than okay, but users who like either stripped-down racers or games with cartoony narration and intermissions will find Days of Thunder to be right up their alley. It falls short of our general recommendation, but not for lack of trying. iLounge Rating: B-.
Our earlier iPhone Gems roundups are available here.