Quality software is the key to OS X iPhone becoming a great gaming platform rather than just a popular one, and in recent weeks, we’ve started to see signs that such software might one day become the rule rather than the exception. By borrowing from earlier, successful games and by creating their own unique concepts, iPhone game developers are starting to churn out titles that are closer to what we’d expect from a dedicated portable gaming device.
This week, we look at four full games, as well as one free demo that we thought was worthy of some attention. Our pick of the week is the derivative but impressive Saturday Night Fever: Dance!, with Downhill Bowling meriting significant praise for its originality.
Of all of the titles we review today, Saturday Night Fever: Dance! (presently $1) by Paramount Digital Entertainment was the easiest for us to get excited about. As the name thoroughly indicates, the theme here is disco dancing, so not everyone is going to like it as much as we did. But if you enjoy rhythm games—particularly Nintendo’s Elite Beat Agents—and either tolerate or love 1970’s disco music, this title is an absolute must-see, even though the music featured inside overlaps only in genre with the classic movie of the same name.
We were very excited when the Nintendo DS versions of Elite Beat Agents and its Japanese predecessor Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! were released, as developer iNiS had clearly figured out a cool formula for touchscreen rhythm games, then exploited it with a cool combination of two-dimensional Japanese anime-style artwork and animated 3-D dancing characters. Saturday Night Fever: Dance! basically lifts the formula, placing numbered dots on screen and challenging you to touch one of them each time a shrinking concentric circle touches a given dot’s edges. The touches come at roughly the same pace as the beat of a given song, so if you touch along with the beat, all you need to do is move your finger in sequence with the numbers. Like the earlier Nintendo titles, there are other tricks—swiping along a path at certain points, and occasional double-taps on the same spot—that will earn you additional points. Unlike these titles, a string of missed taps doesn’t stop the game; there’s less pressure to succeed or fail. Multi-player modes let you play against another person with the same device, or use a Wi-Fi hosted mode to play together on separate devices.
The biggest difference between Saturday Night Fever: Dance! and its predecessors is the level of ambition, offset of course by the price. Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents were $30 games, and Saturday Night Fever sells—at least for now—for $1. So while you’d expect that Fever would be lacking for much of the polish found in the other titles, and you’d be correct, it’s easy to be impressed by how much Paramount has preserved: strong, licensed music and compelling dancing. Unlike the Nintendo titles, which used cover band versions of a bunch of songs, this title includes the original versions of the songs Carwash, Y.M.C.A, Shake Your Groove Thing, and Love Machine, two in both short and extended versions. For visual accompaniment, you can choose to watch one of two dancing characters named Tony or Tyrus. While there’s no narrative and nothing special happening in the background artwork, your eyes will be plenty busy anyway: you just tap and watch one of the two dancers gyrate as you play.
As simple as this formula may be, it completely works because Paramount’s 3-D character models are detailed, and the dance animations are phenomenal: silky smooth and true to the disco phenomenon, the dancing matches up wonderfully with the music. Whereas the aforementioned Nintendo games tried to simultaneously keep you interested with a comic book-style story and the simple, coordinated dance moves of a group of three guys, it’s almost enough here just to watch either of these characters do their thing as you’re playing; the only rhythm game we’ve seen that did the same concept better was the PlayStation’s Bust-a-Groove, which included great 3-D backdrops along with its stylish dancing characters.
While we wait for more complex rhythm games to appear for the iPhone and iPod touch, hopefully with more diverse types of music and animated dancing, Saturday Night Fever: Dance! is an excellent place to start for the low asking price. There’s no doubt that iNiS touch and swipe rhythm formula is a winner, albeit executed here with a bit less precision than the original titles, and though the disco theme won’t appeal to every player, this is one of those titles that we can’t wait to see enhanced and made deeper by the developer. It’ll be worth paying a bit more if something of Bust-a-Groove’s or Elite Beat Agents’ caliber is released, but this will definitely do for now. iLounge Rating: A-.
Everyone wants to see iPhone versions of previously-released, great games, but new and creative titles are equally desirable. Those looking for something different and smart will, like us, be impressed by GameResort’s Downhill Bowling ($5). While it’s a little too expensive given its present level of polish—music, for instance, needs some real work—it’s one of those bright ideas that can’t help but impress people: what if you could toss a bowling ball down a mountain, and simultaneously guide it through 3-D action game-like mazes and also knock down pins? The result is more compelling than most of the bowling and 3-D action titles released thus far for the iPhone.
There are 10 stages with various types of themes—summer hills, wintery ice, and volcanic terrain—each with 10 sets of pins and various obstacles scattered throughout. You try to get the best possible score by collecting coins, coming as close as possible to strikes, and avoiding obstacles on the ground. Once the stage starts, the ball remains constantly moving forward, so you only get one chance in most cases to knock down each set of pins; if you miss them entirely due to taking the wrong fork in the stage, you move on to the next ones. It’s an interestingly relaxed, different take on a classic game, sticking neither to the traditional rules of the sport nor the conventions of the 3-D platform genre. You don’t need to worry about a jump button, or a clock—unless you want to play timed mode—you just keep rolling.
GameResort tosses in a few little twists that make the game even more interesting. There are power ups that change your ball’s size and handling, as well as power downs and rough patches in the courses that temporarily slow you; you’ll sometimes find jump pads and cannons to fire yourself quickly off into the distance. While its possible to die by falling off the course, something that happens more in later levels, the experience isn’t frustrating or game-ending. Since the developer has focused more on the game’s speed and frame rate than any detail in its objects, our screenshots really don’t do justice to the action, but suffice to say that it’s fun; thanks to the occasional loop-de-loop and some other cute elements in the levels, such as a raccoon who sometimes jumps into ball-launching cannons with you, it’s easy to imagine Sega replacing the bowling ball with Sonic the Hedgehog and the coins with rings, then releasing a similar game of its own. It would be more compelling and interesting than doing the same thing with earlier action games such as Armando.
While Downhill Bowling isn’t the most visually impressive title we’ve seen on the iPhone, and the repetitive music is a bummer, the concept and execution here are otherwise pretty cool. We actually enjoyed playing through the levels and seeing what they offered; at a lower price, or with some additional polish, this could easily be a must-have for iPhone owners. As-is, it should serve as an inspiration to other developers to kick their outside-the-box thinking into high gear; who would have ever thought that bowling could inspire an action game like this? iLounge Rating: B+.
Though the iPhone and iPod touch have been graced with a spectacular flight simulator in the form of X-Plane 9, “fun” flying games have been comparatively few and far between on this platform. This week saw the release of two separate titles that aim not for realism but rather to let players enjoy flying under different conditions: the first, in commercial and military airplanes, and the second, in military helicopters.
Flight Stunts ($3) by Makayama Media is the airplane version, giving you the ability to fly a Boeing 747, an Airbus A319, a Hercules C130 and a Lockheed-Martin F-16. Makayama’s formula is to drop you into a vehicle in the middle of an urban environment, give you an altimeter and speedometer, and tell you to achieve certain objectives: for instance, level one has you fly a plane under the Golden Gate Bridge, past Alcatraz such that your wing tip touches a lighthouse, and then to a landing at the San Francisco Airport. Level two has you fly a different plane through a hanger at JFK Airport, around a control tower, and then onto a landing field. Though the art isn’t stunning, thanks to so-so textures and a lot of obviously flat background art in each level, the developer has represented major objects with 3-D polygons and does a decent job of creating interesting environments. There are five levels with 20 total missions, none quite as impressively presented as the developer’s App Store screen shots.
We’d like to be able to tell you about more of the levels, but unfortunately, Flight Stunts has some serious issues that prevented us from doing so. First, there were the instability problems: we experienced graphics glitches and crashes that stopped us at the beginning, and later at the end of level two, such that the “ground” level wasn’t being properly shown when we tried to make a landing. We merged into the ground rather than landing properly, then fell through it, at which point the game declared that we’d crashed. We were brought back to the preceding level to do it over again, without the ability to resume from where we’d left off.
A similar sloppiness pervades the entire title, some of which the developer tries to explain away as for the sake of fun—and we understand that—but some is obviously just incomplete development. For instance, landing your plane is as simple as getting it to a certain point on the map, coming close to the ground, and bringing your speed down below 100MPH, which is fine. But if you miss the landing, you may still be on the ground; just hit the speed up button and your plane is right back in the air, flying normally again. It never really lands, and never really takes off; similarly, a sluggish frame rate and too little in the way of special effects make you feel less like you’re really flying, and more like you’re just moving around a map. Nintendo did a more compelling job with fun plane action 19 years ago with Pilotwings, and iPhone developers would be well-served to revisit that game to see what made it so great. By comparison, this title feels like an unfinished but promising demo. iLounge Rating: D+.
By contrast, Hellfire ($5) by Handmark/Astraware feels like a finished game. Here, you take control of either a U.S. or a Russian helicopter and go on 16 missions, shooting at air, land, and sea targets, rescuing captured soldiers, and avoiding getting shot down by enemies. Despite the fact that the developer hasn’t populated its 16 levels with super-sophisticated landmarks, it has used other smart tricks such as scenery with smooth, hill-like terrain and trees to keep the stages interesting. And though you’re turned loose on largely open maps with freedom of cardinal direction movement, the game keeps your paths through them simple by limiting your controls to steering, shooting, and the most basic of helicopter elevation control: you’re either in the air, on the ground, or hovering at tree-smacking level. You don’t need to adjust your height for the hills; the helicopter typically does this automatically as you fly. Arrows guide you from point to point, and if you crash, the soldiers you’ve picked up are still alive inside your copter, rather than in need of being rescued or abandoned.
Hellfire is primarily a helicopter-based shooting game, and like Burning Tires 3D below, it has obviously benefitted from the last six months of iPhone game trial and error other developers have gone through. Steering is accelerometer-based but not awful, while shooting and changing your height are accomplished through on-screen buttons and sliders. Handmark doesn’t make you worry completely about aiming—you have missiles that lock on to targets in the general direction you’re flying in, and on the standard difficulty level, all you need to do is switch between them and avoid using them foolishly. Run out of the missiles and you can switch to your cannon, which requires only a bit more precision to hit targets. This all works, and the combination of flying, shooting, retrieving captured soldiers, and depositing them at bases or on safe ships is enough to break up the action.
From an audiovisual standpoint, Hellfire is good, not great. While the 3-D models aren’t incredibly detailed and there’s no music, the game runs at a smooth frame rate, includes enough variation in background art to keep one’s attention, and does fine in the sound effects department. Map scenes explaining the mission objectives are bland, but at least they’re there. Overall, this title is in the same ballpark with titles we played 10 or so years ago on consoles, which isn’t bad by iPhone standards, though it’s easy to name improvements—animation, art direction, depth, and audio—that would make a sequel much better. If you like helicopters and enjoy military-style missions, you’ll have fun with Hellfire for the $5 asking price; more dynamic graphics and interesting missions would have made it A-worthy. iLounge Rating: B.
As we’ve noted many times before, racing games for the iPhone and iPod touch have been less than completely thrilling thus far, due more to OS X iPhone’s lack of support for external joypads than any other omission in its hardware. Yet developers continue to push forward, testing different types of control schemes and features in an attempt to entertain people until external controllers are available; the results are games such as Burning Tires 3D Lite (Free) by Fishlabs, a demo of a presently $1 racing game called Burning Tires 3D.
The reason we’re pointing out Burning Tires 3D Lite isn’t that it is spectacular—it’s not—but rather that it strikes us as having established a baseline level of competence for the racing genre in both controls and visuals. Steering is extremely straightforward: either touch the left or right sides of the screen, or use the accelerometer and turn the iPhone. There’s no accelerator to press, no turbo button, and no great strategy to learn; you just use the simple controls to make your way through the track, beat three other vehicles, and do enough laps to finish the race. Lite includes two tracks; the full version of the game has 12.
Tracks and cars alike are just interesting enough to pass muster: they’re fully polygonal, moving with a smooth but not perfect frame rate, and Fishlabs uses 3-D canyons, bridges, mountains, and bumps in the road to keep you from feeling as if you’re just driving on bland, flat tracks. The music’s repetitive and the sound effects are predictable engine and honking noises, but yet, between the pacing of the races, little effects like lens flares as you drive, and the way that the tracks have been designed to generally keep you on a path—but hit the bottom of the screen to brake or reverse if you get jarred in the wrong direction—it all somehow works. To repeat, it doesn’t impress, but it works.
Ultimately, Burning Tires 3D Lite isn’t an amazing title, and it’s likely to have been forgotten six months from now, but we think that the free demo is worth seeing: it will help those who haven’t yet had a chance to try an OS X iPhone driving game understand the challenges facing the platform, and how developers are trying to work around them. Given the currently low $1 price tag of the full game, the title may also help iPhone gamers begin to understand both what they can will get for such low prices, and what they should expect going forward if they’re willing to pay more. We continue to keep our fingers crossed that 2009 will bring the necessary accessories to the iPhone and iPod touch to allow racing games to move significantly beyond their current performance levels and limitations. iLounge Rating: B.