The “match three” genre of games may well be stale, long in the tooth, and over-represented in the App Store, but titles are still being released every week or two, and some of them are actually worth seeing. This week, we’re looking at three such titles—ones with atypically high production values—in a special second edition of iPhone Gems.
Our top pick of the three is Dragon Portals, but any of of the titles may appeal more to your personal tastes. Read on for the details.
Because it was preceded on the iPhone by a number of clones, most notably including Gameloft’s well-developed Bubble Bash titles, we’ve referenced Taito’s Bust-A-Move ($5) quite a few times over the last year. It pioneered a genre of match-three games based on a cannon at the bottom of the screen firing colored bubbles into various grids at the top and middle of the screen, doing so with a distinctly Japanese sense of upbeat, kid-friendly cuteness for both its graphics and music. Cartoony dragon characters from Taito’s once-popular Bubble Bobble appeared on screen—the reason for the game’s original Japanese title Puzzle Bobble—and numerous matrices of bubbles were presented in sequence as increasingly challenging levels, dropping closer and closer to the bottom of the screen with every set of bubbles you launched. Every match of three or more same-colored bubbles brought you closer to finishing the level; every failed match added to the clutter on-screen and made failure that much more likely.
Bust-A-Move was originally released in 1994, and though the iPhone and iPod touch version isn’t an exact port of the arcade game, it’s basically the same save for updated graphics and music. Everything’s been redrawn for a new story mode, which sees Bub the dragon proceeding through “Worlds” with linear map screens and multiple stages to complete, and though the music is very similar to the original game’s—and replays stage after stage for thirty stages in a row—it’s been cleaned up and added to, as well. At least in screen shot appearance, the game looks sharp and nicely tailored to the iPhone and iPod touch display.
Animation, however, is less than spectacular. The bubbles occasionally glimmer a little with internal bubbles of their own, but there are few frames of animation, and the motion of the cannon at the bottom of the screen is less than completely fluid, even on the iPhone 3GS. Moreover, whereas titles such as Bubble Bash may be clones of Taito’s theme, they’ve evolved the concept considerably over what’s in this version, with more power ups to break up the action, more versatile play mechanics for cannon placement, and in some cases, far more bubbles on the screen at a given time. They also tend to be less expensive. Though it has received improvements of its own, Bust-A-Move doesn’t have the feel of a game that was developed from the ground up for this platform, or really given that last coat of polish that would make it special, a la Space Invaders Infinity Gene. It also lacks for a colorblind-friendly mode, an issue primarily because of the similarity of the blue and purple bubbles.
What Taito does offer as an advantage is a Bluetooth-enabled versus mode that works with iPhones and second-generation iPod touches, plus lots of stages—over 150, plus challenges. They’re all rendered accessible by a forgiving feature that gives you a targeting line if you fail to beat the level on your first try, and as they continue, more colors, more bubbles, and a handful of different blocks do appear. Thus, Bust-A-Move is a generally well above competent title, if priced a little too high relative to its peers, and features enough content to please fans of the genre; it’s not the first title we’d recommend on pricing or depth, however. iLounge Rating: B.
As easy as it may be to create match-three titles from prior formulas, the challenge of doing something really new is significant. Azkend, a prior title from MythPeople, managed to do this with a beautiful hexagonal tile-based matching theme; now the company has returned with Dragon Portals ($5), a similarly beautiful game that aggressively leverages iPhone OS special effects and charming Asian music to transform what could otherwise be a fine game into something a bit more special.
Dragon Portals places several horizontal lines of circular tiles on the screen, with dragons’ heads on the right and background scenery floating behind everything; your goal is to make as many matches of three or more tiles as possible before the flying dragons hit the ground, a timed challenge that’s obliquely indicated by little height markers that pass by on the right of the screen. To make matches, you swipe downwards on a tile on any one line, pulling it from its current position into one of two places: towards two or more waiting, identically colored tiles, or away from three or more waiting, identically colored tiles. Your swipe must make a match in either the current line or the line below, or it won’t work, and if you’re good, you’ll be able to make more than one match in sequence. Doing so will activate a number of different unlockable powerups that can be used to eliminate multiple tiles at once, add new tiles to the board in your chosen positions, and so on. There are 70 levels spread across four backgrounds.
The gameplay in Dragon Portals doesn’t feel completely perfect: it’s challenging, works to keep you interested from stage to stage, and varies based on the number of colors, lines, and power-ups you’re given, but something about it feels just a little too simple; the crashing of the flying dragons into the ground similarly is a neat way to indicate that time is up, but is too difficult to prepare for in advance because the height markers aren’t easy to focus on while you’re rushing to make matches. MythPeople uses a cool musical technique—silence at the start, then fast music to indicate that you’re coming closer to the end of the clock—along with nice sound effects; more continuous music that builds in pace might help provide better sonic clues and environment as to your height.
MythPeople makes the game’s omissions somewhat easy to forgive. The in-game special effects are gorgeous, beginning with some charming glimmers when tiles come together, and continuing with the release of power ups and an end-of-stage flurry of activity as you try to make bonus matches after meeting your goal. What music is there is beautiful, too. All that’s unpolished is pre- and post-stage artwork, which is threadbare by comparison with the highly beautiful Azkend. Dragon Portals is so new, however, that MythPeople has time to improve it if it desires to do so; our hope is that it will give this game the few added tweaks it needs to become a true classic. iLounge Rating: B+.
We weren’t totally blown away with PopCap’s original Zuma, nor the highly similar Puzzloop, nor StoneLoops of Jurassica; now there is another game in the same vein called Luxor ($5/$3) by MumboJumbo. All of these games operate in the same general way: a line of colored balls emerges from a place off-screen, then comes rolling towards an endpoint found at the end of a path. If the balls get to that endpoint, you lose; if you eliminate them all first, you move on to the next stage.
Zuma’s formula was taken from Puzzloop, placing a cannon at the center of a spiraling path to shoot balls into the line, which doubled over itself at some points; StoneLoops and Luxor instead share a different approach, which places a cannon at the bottom of the screen on a horizontal plane, and lets you move only left and right to fire balls into the line, which can double, triple, and even quadruple over itself at times. The chief value Luxor adds to the genre is in its presentation, which is Egyptian-themed, and in its dispensing of jewels, ankh coins, and other precious-looking bonus items as you eliminate segments of the line; these are in addition to power-ups that slow down the line, speed up your shots, and do more damage than normal when you’re making matches—all similar to items found in prior games.
To be fair, the value Luxor adds through the aforementioned tweaks is actually somewhat significant: this theme, the items that need to be grabbed by moving your cannon quickly towards them as they fall, and the 88 levels actually work together well enough here to merit a general recommendation. The music is rich and orchestral, the special effects are simple but nice, and the artwork—while not mindblowing given the very similar stuff found in StoneLoops and Zuma—is a lot more compelling than Puzzloop. To the extent that there are a lot of similar titles out there for the iPhone at this point, Luxor will need to maintain a pretty aggressive price to stand out, but it’s a genuinely good game and more interesting than we’d have expected given how many times we’ve seen the same general theme played out on the iPhone and iPod platforms. iLounge Rating: B.