As the world prepares for the introduction of new and improved iPod models, major new releases in both the accessory and app worlds have slowed down significantly—thus, this week’s small initial gaming edition of iPhone Gems. We initially looked at Electronic Arts’ Boggle and Disney’s Breakspin, then subsequently added the third title Battle Bears from SkyVu after first publication.
Our top picks of the week are Disney’s Breakspin and SkyVu’s Battle Bears. Read on for all the details.
Grid-based, word-making letter puzzle games are at this point so common on the iPhone that we’re beginning to get that “played one, played ‘em all” feeling, so Electronic Arts’ release of the classic Parker Brothers game Boggle ($3) is more of a “okay, so?” event than anything else. If you’ve played Wurdle, Worthsworth, Bookworm, or any of the other titles where you touch a series of scrambled letters to assemble as many words as possible, you already know most of what Boggle offers—minus its competitors’ gameplay frills.
Unlike some of the more complex variations that have been released over the years, the iPhone and iPod touch version of Boggle presents you with two types of gameplay. First is the standard 4-by-4 grid mode, which gives you one shake to flip around 16 six-sided dice, fixing their letters in a set position for 3 minutes of word matching; then there’s the “advanced” version that is also 4-by-4, but a “Portal Cubes” feature automatically switches the positions of the first and last letter of any word you match, and a “Panic Flip” feature scrambles the letters during the last minute of play. You can turn both of these features on or off independently, set the timer for between 1 and 10 minutes, and choose your own iPod music to play in the background.
Apart from a single cool visual effect—the 3-D animation of the letter cubes as you shake them at the start of the game—Boggle is about as low in audiovisual appeal as any game EA has released in the App Store. It’s silent except for a jazzy pre-game song and some bland in-game effects to signal successful and unsuccessful matches, and visually about as uninteresting as looking at a collection of letters sounds. One gets the sense that EA realized before this release that it had plenty of competition at low prices in the App Store, and did next to the bare minimum of work necessary to get its own title in there and make a little money in the process. As such, what the game ultimately offers is only a little bit more compelling than the original Boggle title, and not as exciting as the aforementioned variants, which introduce interesting time pressures, larger collections of letters, and various powerups into the action. Consider this only if you’re a serious enough fan of Boggle not to need the extras its competitors offer. iLounge Rating: C+.
As with Boggle, Disney’s Breakspin ($3) enters the App Store with a large crowd of competitors already firmly in place: brick-busting Breakout clones are numerous at this point, and even ones that transform the well full of bricks into circular shapes are common enough—see Radial 50 and Vortex as just two examples. Yet unlike Boggle, Breakspin differentiates itself enough from earlier releases to be worthy of consideration for something other than its name.
The first difference: controls. You’re provided with twin sliders—one left, one right—to control twin paddles that wrap around the edges of the circular well, enabling you to have two different surfaces to bounce the ball against. Another difference: targets. There aren’t blocks in the well, per se, but rather dots and other organic shapes, glowing with energy and pulsing with electricity, all rendered with bright colors and lighting against pitch-black backdrops. “Creatures” are introduced later in the game, floating around to help or make trouble for you. And then there’s the unique power-up system, which includes items that just float in the levels, and a “Biohazard” meter that charges up to let you release different destructive forces as you play. This may be “just another game where you paddle a ball towards targets,” but it’s certainly different enough from prior titles that it doesn’t feel stale.
It also doesn’t feel totally perfect, though it’s not bad, either. Disney’s dual paddles are huge to compensate somewhat for the swipe-based controls, which fingers will likely fall off of at one or more points during the game; the extra length of the paddles makes it less likely that you’ll miss at least some type of shot, even if you don’t hit the ball at quite the angle you were hoping for. This is just one of the compensations for the less than totally perfect tuning of the controls—the game is also generous, unlimited really, with its continues, and rather than giving you a set number of paddles, it just presents you with a countdown timer and the challenge of removing all of the elements on screen. If you miss the ball, your timer gets significantly docked, and you need to start making successful hits to keep yourself alive.
Breakspin’s most significant draws are its combination of dreamy, looping music, its bright, neo-retro-styled graphics, and its low price. Though we preferred the gameplay in Radial 50, Vortex, and non-circular brick-busters such as Brick Breaker Deluxe, Breakspin is a good enough title to hook fans of the genre for a day or two, and a solid value for the $3. iLounge Rating: B.
At some point, the price of an application is so low relative to its amusement factor that we feel compelled to recommend checking it out regardless of its depth. Battle Bears ($1) from SkyVu Pictures/StoryBoy is an example, a game with such a crazy sense of humor and design that we actually kept playing it straight through to see what would happen next. The concept, presented in a cut scene with amusing seriousness: heroic Oliver the Bear is riding a unicorn-pulled cart full of treasure through a field, and then there’s an accident. His unicorns have been torn to shreds and the cart’s destroyed. Now he’s surrounded by hordes of zombie-like pink, orange, and blue teddy bears who are advancing on his sandbagged position, attempting to hug him to death. So what does he do? He grabs a gun and starts shooting the teddy bears down, literally using the pieces of his dead unicorns as defensive and offensive weapons.
Battle Bears is, at its core, a very simple third-person shooter. You see Oliver from the back as he fires upon an ever-increasing number of teddy bears, cutting them down before they get close enough to kill him. This is accomplished by using one finger to move the targeting reticule, and the other to tap out shots from your unlimited gun, which requires reloading after every 20 shots; more powerful, limited-use weapons are also unlocked as you play. In a comical nod to blood sprays, his bullets cause splashes of rainbow colors and laser-like rainbow beams to shoot into the heavens; a good single head shot stops most bears, save for the infrequently appearing huge blue ones, right in their tracks. Orange bears are the second most common, moving faster than the pink ones, who are dangerous mostly due to the sheer number that begin to appear as you get further into the levels.
While Battle Bears’ 3-D graphics engine is solid enough that the polygonal models of Oliver and the advancing bears look good against the simple 3-D backdrops, and the militaristic, serious music helps, they’re not the stars of this show. Rather, what takes Battle Bears to the next level are the post-level cartoons, which are filled with the sort of bizarre little touches that make a game worth talking about: an odd little megaphone weapon, a rescue vehicle crash, and the moment that Oliver dips into the unicorns’ blood, just to name a few. No matter how simple and formulaic the stages may be—breaking them up with power ups and more types of attackers would have been more interesting—Battle Bears is actually worth playing just to see what happens next in the story. The single biggest bummer is that you need to start the entire game over if you don’t make it all the way through, but therein lies the challenge.
As contrasted with Enviro-Bear 2010, a similarly insane $1 title that was amusing to see but not fun to play, Battle Bears offers more engaging gameplay and a funnier story—a assuming the idea of zombie bear attacks strikes you as being funny. If you’re on the fence, a free demo version called Battle Bears Free will let you sample the title’s first level for 60 seconds, and get a sense of what’s featured later on. Rarely has the promise of future weapon and character updates been so intriguing. iLounge Ratings (Both): B+.